The River Between, Paperback
4.5 out of 5 (10 ratings)


Christian missionaries attempt to outlaw the female circumcision ritual and in the process create a terrible rift between the two Kikuyu communities on either side of the river.




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Waiyaki, the main character of <i>The River Between</i>, is born just as white missionaries bring change to rural Kenya. The son of a famous seer, he is prophesied to be his people's savior but privately he is torn between his respect for the tribe and his love for the white man's education. With simple prose, Ngugi captures the sweetness of every day village life but we never lose the feeling of great forces building in the background. At times I worried the book was headed toward a didactic message of peaceful compromise, but the powerful, haunting ending is anything but simple. Although the book is short and not stylistically challenging, it took me a long time to read. Waiyaki is depicted as a Christ figure and the many Christian allusions gave me a lot to consider about both the book itself and African literature as a whole. The African perspective on controversial topics like female circumcision was equally thought-provoking. I recommend this book highly for its unique flavor and resonant characters but you should probably save it till you're in the mood for a book that requires thinking.

Review by

As a young boy Waiyaki is told by his father of a messiah that will understand both the tribal tradition of the Gikuyu and the ways of the white man. After being educated at a missionary school Waiyaki returns to the tribe to be an educator and finds himself in the middle of tradition and Christianity. His position is made more difficult by the more vocal wing of the tribe wanting action, and Waiyaki's love for Nyambura, the daughter of Joshua, the local firebrand preacher.It would be easy to pick this book, read a page of the simplistic prose and think this was aimed at a younger audience, but there is a lot going on in the novel: perhaps too much. At the heart is Waiyaki's conflict with where he stands in the tribe; is he the messiah who will drive out the white man (interesting for a novel dealing partly with colonialism there are no white characters, the novel deals with the divisions within the indigenous people) and his love for Nyambura. Waiyuki's battle cry is not one to arms however, it is one to books - he preaches 'education' (the tribe refer to him as The Teacher) but finds his teachings do not bond people together - there are elders of the tribe wanting him to demand direct action; Joshua worries that education is dangerous. Waiyuki is trapped: both traditions and Christianity offer something more solid than his books, and he cannot reconcile the two together. Ngugi offers no easy answers, there will be no Hollywood ending; instead the tribal oath that Waiyuki is accused of betraying points towards the Mau Mau Uprising. The failure of the cry for education could Africa's epitaph for the last 50 years.The novel is not without flaws however - Joshua and the treatment of Christianity at times comes across almost as cliched as Footloose; some of the symbolism is very heavy-handed; and, at times, there is a feeling that Ngugi has bitten off more than he chew - that ideas are raised but not fully developed.Worth reading. ***

Review by

This is the story of a valley in Kenya, the ridge of Kameno on one side and the Makuyu ridge on the other. On Kamenu lived the members of Gikuyu who believed strongly in traditional practices; on Makuyu lived the members who had converted to Christianity and embraced the ways of the white settlers. And these two viewpoints were coming into increasing conflict.Between the ridges lay the river Honia, the source of life. More figuratively, between the ridges was the young man Waiyaki, raised traditionally but educated in white schools, charismatic and a natural leader among his people, and a man who believes that only in unity can their society survive and retain its own identity in the colonial world.I found this a story of overwhelming sadness for, as seems to happen so often, Waiyaki finds that there are no neutrals, that "anyone not my friend is my enemy." The forces of envy, jealousy and corruption on one side, the forces of religious bigotry on the other, all conspire to leave him no place where he can place his feet.Perhaps the most surprising thing about this story was the moderate position Thiong'o took toward this tension in his country. I think it must be hard not to take a side—are the problems of tribal society the fault of white incursion? Or, are they the result a mindset that rejects education and growth in favor of rigid adherence to tradition? Yet, he chooses neither, having Waiyaki voice concerns about both.On one hand, the early events of the story lead Waiyaki and the reader to question traditional practices such as female circumcision: a young girl whom we are encouraged to like dies as a result of infection. Yet, Thiong'o stops short of using common, harsher epithets such as female genital mutilation, and Waiyaki ends up neither asserting its necessity to a traditional society nor condemning it.Similarly, white influence is viewed with moderation. The patriarchal attitude of the European invaders is seen as damaging: <i>"If the white man's religion made you abandon a custom and then did not give you something of equal value, you became lost. An attempt at resolution of the conflict would only kill you..."</i> Yet, the benefits of education and science are written clearly through the story.In fact, as Waiyaki makes his own way alone through his divided community, he recognizes that rejection of all change would lead to cultural death, yet that change cannot be forced or hurried, that <i>"Patience and, above all, education, were needed."</i>Highly recommended.

Review by

I have only this to say: The River Between is the best non-fantasy fiction novel I ever laid my hands on thus far (2010). An enthralling read and a beautiful depiction of Africa, the local native culture of the setting and the tragedy of culture clash.

Review by

This short novel is set in colonial Kenya, in an isolated region where two rival populations each live on a ridge separated by a river that nourishes—and erodes—the land of both communities. One community is mainly Christian, led by a local man who has embraced the colonialists' religion and rejects traditional values, particularly circumcision of young men and women; the other is based on tribal traditions, led by a group of elders and influenced by a young man who is descended from a rich lineage, was educated in part by the Christian missionaries that influenced the other camp, and is highly respected by many in the community for educating its young people. This community embraces circumcision as an essential ritual, and is torn between those who embrace and support the Teacher, and a small but powerful faction led by a sworn power hungry enemy of the Teacher. The Teacher himself is torn by his duty to the community, passed down by his father, his love of the uncircumcised daughter of the preacher of the neighboring community, and his belief that the two rivals must unite to combat the increasing influence of the colonialists and gain independence from them. This was closer to a 4½ star than a 4 star read for me, and is highly recommended.

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