The River Between Summary
by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

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The River Between Summary

The River Between is a novel by Ngugi wa Thiong'o in which Waiyaki tries to educate his people without destroying their traditions. He was born in Kenya to the Kikuyu people, but was educated by Christian missionaries.

  • Waiyaki's father wants him to become a leader of the Kikuyu people based on a prophecy.

  • Christian missionaries arrive, which sews division among the Kikuyu. Waiyaki attends the Mission school, but maintains his people's traditions.

  • Waiyaki falls in love with the daughter of a Christian convert and is put on trial for betraying his people's traditions. His dream of bringing education to the Kikuyu dies.

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In the 1960s, Ngugi wa Thiong'o produced a large volume of material, including stories, novels, plays, and a newspaper column. His first major play, The Black Hermit, was performed in 1962, which introduced Ngugi into the literary scene in East Africa. He published The River Between in 1965 following his novel Weep Not, Child, which was then followed by the critical success of A Grain of Wheat. This early trilogy set a firm foundation for his writing.

Ngugi’s The River Between focuses on the lost heritage of Eastern Africans through the characters of Waiyaki and his tribe. Ngugi was the first English-educated African writer to develop fiction portraying the Kikuyu view of the colonial war, the Mau Mau Emergency or Rebellion, which was a violent uprising by the Kikuyu people against British control. This event put the region in a state of emergency from 1952 to 1960.

The novel focuses on the conflict between Christian missionaries and the indigenous tribes. It also explores the long-lasting effects of colonialism and the consequences of struggling for independence.

In this work and others, Ngugi attempts to correct Western literature’s image of Africa, by offsetting the perspective of writers such as Joseph Conrad in his Heart of Darkness. Ngugi’s work occupies the category of contemporary African fiction that began with Amos Tutuola’s Palm Wine Drunkard and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

Ngugi’s initial works were written in English, not the language of his own people. In the 1960s, he wove the stories and folk traditions of his culture and restated historical legends for a country that was less than a decade old. His later work is written in Gikuyu, the language of his tribe, as he seeks a more authentic literature and voice. His work represents the tenuous balance of cultures, languages, and nations that continues to be present in news headlines into the twenty-first century.

Extended Summary

The River Between opens with a description of two ridges and a valley in East Africa. One is Kameno, and the other is called Makuyu. The river, valley, slopes, and trees exist gracefully. The ridges have been sleeping lions for ages. Now they are the site of the struggle for leadership, life, and death in the region. According to legend, a man named Murungu rose from Makuyu and claimed the fertile land for the Gikuyu country. He gave the land to Gikuyu and Mumbi, a man and a woman. From these ancestors came Chege and also Waiyaki. A sacred and spiritual superiority exists here and the people pay homage to it.

The valleys and ridges now lay behind as the next scene emerges. Two boys burst from the bush. Kamau and Kinuthia are fighting with sticks and wrestling. Kinuthia is insulting Kamau’s father, Kabonyi, who is from Makuyu. Kabonyi has converted to Christianity and is considered a traitor for becoming a part of Siriana, the location of a Christian mission.  In their struggle, Kinuthia trips and falls. Kamau stands over Kinuthia with Kinuthia’s hands pinned behind his back. Kinuthia is bleeding and at a disadvantage. A third boy enters the scene, Waiyaki, the only son of Chege, to stop the fight. Waiyaki is well-built and athletic with a scar above his left eye from an encounter with a goat. Through his gaze, Kamau obeys Waikyaki and removes himself from Kinuthia.

Waiyaki’s father, Chege, is well known in Kameno. Many...

(The entire section is 1,946 words.)