The River Between by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o.

One of my favourite themes in novels is change - the idea of being on a bridge between the old and the new, the beginnings of a different way of life and reconciling tradition with innovation or modernity has always intrigued me. There are countless novels from throughout the ages on this, from Chaucer's The Man Of Law's Tale in The Canterbury Tales where Christianity is introduced to the pagan Northumberland, to the likes of Tolstoy's War and Peace and beyond to the novels of the interwar and postwar years that deal with the change in society's tone following a big event or catastrophe. The River Between by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o is one such novel. 

It was first published in 1965 and it's set in Kenya in the early part of the 20th Century and tells the story of two villages separated by a river, and by a difference in faith. It begins,
The two ridges lay side by side. One was Kameno, the other was Makuyu. Between them was a valley. It was called the valley of life. Behind Kameno and Makuyu were many more valleys and ridges, lying without any discernible plan. They were life many sleeping lions which never woke. They just slept, the big deep sleep of their Creator.
A river flowed through the valley of life. If there had been no bush and no forest trees covering the slopes, you could have seen the river when you stood on top of either Kameno or Makuyu. Now you had to come down. Even then you could not see the whole extent of the river as it gracefully, and without any apparent haste, wound its way down the valley, like a snake. The river was called Honia, which meant cure, or bring-back-to-life. Honia river never dried: it seemed to possess a strong will to live, scorning droughts and weather changes. And it went on in the ame way, never hurrying, never hesitating. People saw this and were happy.
Honia was the soul of Kameno and Makuyu. It joined them. And men, cattle, wild beasts and trees were united by this life-stream.
When you stood in the valley, the two ridges ceased to be sleeping lions united by their common source of life. They became antagonists. You could tell this, not by anything tangible but by the way they faced each other, like two rivals ready to come to blows in a life and death struggle for the leadership of this isolated region.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o.
The latest tension has come from imperialism and the introduction of Christianity to this part of Kenya from the Rev. Livingstone, a British man. One side of the river (Kameno) remains traditional in its outlook, the other side (Makuyu) embraces conversion. The bridge between the two sides is Waiyaki who seeks to bring about peace on both sides of the river.

In the early part of the book we meet Muthoni, the daughter of now Christian zealot Joshua. She wishes to be circumcised as her parents were as part of an initiation rite that will in the tribes' eyes turn her from a girl to a woman. As she points out, "Father and mother are circumsised. Are they not Christians? Circumcision did not prevent them from being Christians. I too have embraced the white man's faith. However, I know it is beautiful, oh so beautiful to be initiated into womanhood. You learn the ways of the tribe... the white man's God does not quite satisfy me. I want, I need something more..." When she decides to defy her father he disowns her, and after her death following the circumcision he refuses even to mourn her.

One person who does visit her before her death is Waiyaki who is believed by some to be a saviour who will bring greatness to the community. His education allows him to learn the ways of the white men, and when the issue of circumcision sparks fresh controversy with one side using it as an example of why it should be outlawed and the other side arguing it should be mandatory to ensure the purity of the village against the pollution of the white man's faith, Waiyaki attempts to bring peace and educate the tribe.

The River Between reminded me very much of Achebe's Things Fall About (1958) in that it's an insight into the effects of imperialism on the relationships between villages and tribes. We see an intensely patriarchal society in flux, and in Waiyaki we see a glimmer of hope of some accommodation between the people rather than the rejection of Christianity or the conforming to it (you'd have to read it to see exactly how long that "glimmer" lasts). We also see the progress of an individual against strong communities, and these power struggles makes the novel all the more fascinating. It's an excellent novel, and I'm looking forward to reading more of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's novels - next on my list is A Grain of Wheat.


  1. I'm skimming this review.....and will read it after I read this book!
    African literature selections are a low percentage of my reading.
    Loooking for some classics in this area.

    1. Same here - I've read a couple, but very very few indeed. You could check out the African Writers Series as a starting point - that's what I'm planning to do later :)

  2. I tried A Grain of Wheat, it didn't grab me (I was probably not in the right mood), and now I find myself irrationally reluctant to tackle Thiong'o at all...which was certainly not my intent when I put the book down! I really must give him a fair try.

    1. I get like that with books. For some reason I doubt I'll ever read Margaret Oliphant (or at least not in the near future) for that reason. It's silly when I analyse it!

  3. This sounds excellent. I had added it to my TBR on Goodreads after you marked/rated it, but now I'm even more interested. AH, that ever-expanding list!

    1. Indeed! Glad to see your comment got through - the matter I hope it resolved with the comment problem. Not with the template though, had to change it again (and hate this one). There's always a price to pay with a Blogger template, they all seem to have some glitch somewhere.


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