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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: The River Between

This novel was the first one Ngugi wrote, though not the first one published. Its theme is clearly that of the distinction between the traditional, African religion and Christianity and, related to that, the issue of female circumcision. The setting involves two ridges. One was Kameno, the other was Makuyu. The two ridges are divided by a valley – the valley of life, through which flows the river, the River Honia, of the title. The Kameno people follow the traditional, African religion, while the Makuyu people are Christian. The story concerns Waiyaki, who is brought up in the traditional religion of the Kameno. He is the son of Chege, a seer, who sends his son to the missionary school of the Makuyu, to learn their wisdom and secrets, believing that his son will be the leader who, it has been prophesied, will lead his people out from oppression. Chege, however, instructs his son not to follow the vices of the white man and to be true to his people and their ancient rites.

Waiyaki becomes a good student and, under the influence of Muthoni, the daughter of the Christian cleric, Joshua, is interested in marrying the two traditions. However, when both he and Muthoni attend the traditional circumcision rites and Muthoni gets an infection and dies, the enmity between the two groups erupts. When he falls in love with Muthoni’s sister, Waiyaki increasingly takes on a leadership role, primarily represented through education (white men’s education, of course). Waiyaki’s simplistic support of the white man’s way (now firmly rejected by Ngugi) is too easy a way out and though the novel is somewhat simplistic in its approach, it is still an interesting introduction to Ngugi.

Publishing history

First published 1965 by Heinemann