The River Between Themes

The main themes in The River Between include individual versus community, betrayal, and division and unity.

  • Individual versus community: Waiyaki’s journey embodies the tension between individual and community as he tries to remain true to his community while seeking truths from beyond it.
  • Betrayal: Each character in the novel faces a betrayal or the possibility of a betrayal.
  • Division and unity: The novel is centered on divisions of community, of opinion, and of faith.


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Last Updated August 18, 2022.

Individual versus Community

Can an individual assert his or her own beliefs within a community and continue to be accepted as part of that community? The River Between poses this question with each of the central characters. Waiyaki walks between two worlds and finds value in both, even if he adheres to his tribe’s traditions. As he remains faithful to his community, he also seeks answers from the white community, as his father instructed him. He protects others from oppression. As a boy, he disrupts the fight between Kinuthia and Kamua to free Kinuthia from the unfair fight. As an adult, he recognizes the bravery and singular sense of purpose in both Muthoni and Joshua. This sense of community and individual goals affects not only the two separate communities of Makuyu and Kameno but also to the level of the family. How can Muthoni explain her sense of identity tied both to the tribe and Christianity so that her family can understand? She knows this is not an explanation that her father will understand, and she continues with her goals anyway. How can Nyambura express her love for Waiyaki and continue to show her obedience to her father, family, and Christianity? These internal questions of the individual and the family challenge the characters in the novel.


Each character at every turn in the novel faces a betrayal or the hint of one. Joshua is betrayed by his daughter, Muthoni, in the most public way. He places his fear of betrayal on his only other daughter, Nyambura. Chege fears that his only son may not have the fortitude to hold onto the Giyuku traditions, and yet Chege sends him to the mission in Siriana anyway. Kabonyi fuels his vengeance with the idea that Waiyaki betrays the tribe and its oaths. Kamua gently coaxes Waiyaki to meet with the elders as he knows that his father, Kabonyi, is plotting for Waiyaki’s destruction. The two communities fear the betrayal of their members to Christianity or the ways of white men. Waiyaki’s mother fears for her son when she questions if he will be marrying Nyambura, which is an insult to the tribe. Kinuthia sees betrayal and danger at every turn for Waiyaki. Kinuthia’s efforts to protect Waiyaki from the ultimate betrayal fail him.

Division and Unity

Following Muthoni’s death, the split between the two communities becomes irrevocable. Waiyaki interprets the division immediately. He knows that Livingstone will promote a strictness that will turn away those who have taken to the new ways. Some will entirely abandon the customs advocated by Joshua. Kabonyi does that very thing by returning to the tribe; however, not all of his motives are clear. Kabonyi, the great friend of Joshua, breaks away and many others follow. Joshua gathers the remaining community. Waiyaki feels the unrest in these loyalties. The elders also gather together after Muthoni’s death and have a new found understanding that the new ways contaminated the hills. The roaring thunder in the sky makes that manifest. The Government Post is being built on the ridge next to Makuyu, which only fuels the resentment and sets up expectations for payments of taxes, which is outside their understanding of ownership of the land. These events prompt questions about how cultures combine the old and the new. How do they incorporate new ideas while showing respect for the former ways? How does one hold onto a sense of identity amid the struggles and division? The most strident people in the two communities are vying for every person and every soul they can hold onto. Near the end of the novel, Waiyaki...

(This entire section contains 1241 words.)

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forms an idea for unity that up to this point had not been envisioned. His appreciation for Christianity does not interfere with following his own traditions and ideals. He embodies the co-existence of both worlds, as does Nyambura but idea of unification does not survive.

Colors, Darkness, and Light

Ngugi portrays the events of the novel with lightness and darkness to suggest tone and mood. He also includes the threat of colors. When Chege describes Mugo was Kibiro, an ancestral leader, he tells a story of Mugo. Before Mugo grew up in Kameno. He told people of a vision that included butterflies of many colors flying all over the land. These colorful butterflies disrupted the peace and orderly life of the people. Mugo’s warning was that a people will come to the land with clothes like butterflies. Mugos’ warning is for his people to beware of these colorful people, the white men of the present. Waiyaki often finds wisdom in the darkness and light, usually during times of great trouble. Before the meeting with the elders which concludes the novel, he has a vision for himself in the sacred grove in that it is not “lit for him” as he struggles in the darkness. His visions start to move out from the land itself to other places and possibilities beyond the hills. He imagines a place with Nyambura that holds more opportunities away from the hills. When Waiyaki sees Nyambura near her favorite spot near the river, he watches her pray. He describes her posture and is fascinated by a kind of holy light. Following Muthoni’s circumcision and death, Reverend Livingstone believes that Christ would be fighting the Prince of Darkness through him.

The River, Honia

As indicated in the title, Ngugi uses the river as a dividing line between two communities. To understand the inner-workings of this region, readers must look no further than the body of water that divides them. On either side of the river are the old and the new, the tribal and the Christian belief systems, and the strident efforts of both black and white people. The river provides the balm in preparation for circumcision as its cooling waters prepare the body for the rite. For Nyambura and Muthoni, the river is a part of their daily routine and a source of life. Nyambura returns to the river after Muthoni’s death to find comfort in the water. Waiyaki also visits the river to find solace from the tensions of the two villages.

Transformation and Rainfall

Rainfall plays an important role in transformation in the community. The region depends on rain to fill its river and provide a source of water for crops. Many of the tribe’s rituals and celebrations are based on this unpredictable dependence on rain as it can transform the community from the edge of famine to the riches of a harvest and survival. Also rain plays a role as Waiyaki opens his school. He is at a crossroads in his life. Rain drips through the corrugate-iron roof forming puddles and pools of water. For Waiyaki, the rotting grass thatch of the school building is no deterrent to rain. The lucky students had something with which to cover their heads. His mind returns to the idea of rain as a blessing as he continues to watch the rain. It is a blessing and saves his people from the famine that they have been fearing. Then again, he becomes angry with the rain as it carries away the soil, making the land poor. These vicissitudes with rainfall mirror Waiyaki’s own internal struggle to move forward and build for the future and also maintain a sense of identity and connection with the past. The transformation goes back and forth like the seasons.

Themes and Meanings

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From the novel’s onset, when mythic unity gives way to the division of the Kikuyu on opposing ridges, the theme of a people’s right to authority over their own land and lives seems apparent. How the Kikuyu are to achieve that authority, however, is not so easily grasped. The central issues of education and religion under colonial domination pervade the novel, but the irreversibility of historical change, Ngugi suggests, does not permit one to linger in a sentimental vision of the way things were once done. Waiyaki’s role as headmaster and founder of the independent schools is evidence of the historical strength of the Kikuyu capacity to change, a capacity that bears witness to the Kikuyu dominance of modern Kenya. With respect to religion, Ngugi here seems to suggest that some degree of synthesis is possible between a politically informed Christianity and traditional values of kinship and prophecy (a view that he was later to modify considerably).

Certainly, the European institutions of education, religion, and government undermine Kikuyu autonomy, but the very subjugation of the Kikuyu that forms the historical background of the novel also raises the issue of adequate and appropriate leadership and resistance to European hegemony in Kenya and, by extension, in all colonial Africa. Waiyaki’s final realization, though it comes too late for him to make use of it, that education alone—specifically, a European education—cannot establish tribal unity and that political action is necessary for preserving cultural identity in the midst of change suggests that the oppressed in a colonial situation must act in order to regain self-respect, even as the culture changes under colonial domination. Chege’s instruction and Waiyaki’s enactment of it, paradoxically, do not go far enough. Chege’s failure to see that his son will be changed by his strategy of resistance is Waiyaki’s failure to realize that one must act out of a consciousness that itself is inevitably changing.


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