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Review of The River Between

Updated on March 28, 2020
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Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Ngugi wa Thiong'o | Source

In the face of increasing social pressure and modernizing influences, the people of the Makuyu and Kameno ridges in Kenya come into conflict with outsiders and each other as they try to figure out how to live in the face of changing times while holding onto their traditions.

The plot primarily concerns the two villages on their ridges with one trying to hold fast to the traditional ways that include ritual circumcision for men and women, and the other which increasingly embraces Christian teachings. Working to preserve the best of both is Waiyaki, the son of a long line of prophets, who was educated by white missionaries but wants to use their education to improve the villages without forcibly converting people or making them abandoned their traditional practices. Slowly, he is undermined by inflexibility among both sides and his own internal tensions to do right by his people while also pursuing his personal relationships.

False Binaries

The plot is thin, and many times the characters seem to be more symbolic than believable individuals, especially in the first two-thirds of the novel. Muthoni is capable of doing double duty as a symbol and character as she tries, within herself, to bridge the social gap. She openly questions why she cannot be of the tribe and a Christian (26). Because her experiences ultimately cause her to fall ill and die. However the ultimate ending for similar hopes in the book is foreshadowed.

This theme of division colors every aspect of the book, but is often most interesting when examined as the internal aspect of a character. Chege has messianic hopes for his son, Waiyaki (38). The desire to serve his people and advance them is in tension with Waiyaki’s personal desires and fear of moving from servant of the tribe to a slave of the tribe (81). Similarly, Nyamburna fears her Christian father, Joshua, and wants to follow his devout example, but she is torn internally by personal desires to know herself and have a relationship with Waiyaki (88). It is not until late in the novel, however, that Waiyaki thinks seriously about what Muthoni’s fatal experience have meant to him and how they have colored his life:

Muthoni had the courage to attempt a reconciliation of the many forces that wanted to control her. She had realized the need, the need to have a wholesome and beautiful life that enriched you and made you grow. [Chege], too, had tried reconcile the two ways, not in himself, but through his son (142).

Not until the last third of the novel does anyone consider the price of these social divisions in human terms. Until this point the problems have been largely considered in abstraction, and it almost certainly seems too late to work against the increasingly entrenched interested of both sides. Unwillingness for compromise or even engage in dialogue dooms both side and is symbolized in Muthoni, who dies in the course of trying to be in both worlds, so to speak (58-60). Because they will not compromise it ensures tension will remain among the ridges and divide them.

Locator map of Kenya.
Locator map of Kenya. | Source

Kenya at a Crossroad

For a stretch, the middle way seems to be education. For Waiyaki and his followers, it is knowledge as represented by Christian missionaries they want, not necessarily the “white man” himself (68). Waiyaki works to make it his legacy and a means of saving what is best in the villages, but his heroics are ultimately ruined by human passions. Too often Waiyaki and Muthoni and Joshua seem like symbols and not enough like realized characters. Therefore when antagonistic characters are presented they seem so much more real because their concerns are small and relatable rather than nebulous ideals. Kabonyi’s envy makes sense and helps him seem human (92). The same is true for Kamau who desires Nyamburna’s affection and witnesses the relationship between her and Waiyaki, causing his following actions to be motivated by relatable human desires rather than abstract principles like “community” or “education” (107-8). Even though their actions ultimately cause harm to the protagonists and their society, the behavior of Kabonyo and Kamau seems to much more understandable because the audience can more likely comprehend the thoughts and actions of a jealous peer or jilted lover rather than the macroscopic concerns of characters like Joshua or Waiyaki.

The end is vague but menacing, leaving the reader without a clear sense of what will happen to the characters, though anyone can research what has happened in Kenya. Such research, however, doesn't do much to satisfy whatever investment the readers have put in the characters facing these plights.

African Literary Exploration

Ngugi waits too long to give readers reasons to care about the characters before promptly abandoning them to his arbitrary ending point, and there seems to be no central plot but rather a central theme about the dangers of divisions in people and communities that are left to widen rather than be crossed. His other works move in similar ground but are much better written and focused. One could argue The River Between may make a good introduction to African Literature, but it lacks the power of works like Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. Among Ngugi's own works, a reader will gain more and witness better literary craftsmanship by examining A Grain of Wheat or Petals of Blood.


Thiong’o, Ngugi wa. The River Between. Gaborone, Botswana: Heinemann, 1965.

© 2014 Seth Tomko


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