Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s The River Between: A Review

By Katlego Mereko

The River Between is a novel by Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o and was published in 1965 as part of the African Writers Series which included other influential African authors. 

It is of a story set in Kenya at the dawn of colonisation and centres around two neighbouring villages, Kameno and Makuyu each propped up by their respective ridge. The two ridges face each other as if in a standoff with each other. This imagery symbolises the rivalry that grows throughout the story between the two villages. 

Down the valley, the ridges are separated by Honia, the river of life. This river separates the villages as much as it unites them, as the river is the source of their most basic of life’s demands. 

The major theme of the novel is of the conflict, confusion & calamity brought about by the Christianising mission of colonisation. The new religion set about invading not only the filial, communal and social lives of the indigenous people but also their entire being. 

Of the two villages, Makuyu espouses the growing influence of Christianity while Kameno is the last, if a dying symbol of the ways of the indigenous people, the ways of the tribe, of the hills. Kameno is led by Prophet-chief, Chege, and the main protagonist, his son, Waiyaki. The latter represents the last fighting chance of the tribe against the European settlers and their ways – he is their messiah.
On the other hand, Makuyu is headed by Joshua, a Christian convert and a leading figure in anti-tribal sentiments in his village. His daughter Muthoni would later cause him great embarrassment by denouncing Christianity with her actions. 

The chronology of the story also sees the rise of a young man with an alluring vision of Pan Africanism; however, the young man’s followers stop short of envisioning his progressive imagination. 

Other themes touch on the more enduring features of human life such as inter-tribal angst, intergenerational suspicion, freedom, love, betrayal & justice. 

The story is also loosely based on the lives and figures of actual historical figures in Kenyan history, including Waiyaki wa Hinga, Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru, Jomo Kenyatta, Harry Thuku and Mugo wa Kibiru. 

The novel beautifully stages the fundamental division born in and sown by Christianity in indigenous life. It highlights the importance of identity and its close ties to the material and the spiritual - that is, to land, history and experience.


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