“When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.” These are the words of the founding father of Kenya, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, words that have been echoed in Kenyan literature and form a running theme in The River Between.
The River Between was written by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who, unbeknownst to most, won the sixth Pak Kyong-ni Literature Award last year. This made Thiong’o the first African to win Korea’s first international book prize. He is also tipped to win the Nobel Prize for Literature this year.
The interior of Kikuyuland is dominated by two ridges, Makuyu and Kameno, which are separated by the River Honia, the source of life. Honia in Kikuyu means “to heal”. While the river divided the two ridges physically, it simultaneously united them as the common source of water from which their animals drank from as well as being the place where circumcision ceremonies were held.
With the coming of the colonialists and their institutions, such as Christianity and education represented by the Siriana Mission and Government Post respectively, the people of the ridges became divided. In Makuyu lived those who had embraced Christianity and the white settlers, and in the process rejected their indigenous cultural practices and rituals, such as female circumcision. This group was led by a man named Joshua who had built a church in Makuyu and was the pastor. In sharp contrast, Kameno remained wholly unchanged, hence becoming the stronghold of the “traditionalists”. This group was represented by Chege and his family. These two viewpoints were coming into increasing conflict and causing deeper divisions within the tribe.
Before Chege passes away, he summons his only son, Waiyaki, and tells him about the famous prophecy that says that a hero from his bloodline will rise from the ridges and lead the Kikuyu people to liberation. Chege decides to send Waiyaki to the mission school at Siriana so that he can learn the ways of the white man and know how to fight back, but with a stark warning not to be “contaminated by the white man’s vices”.
While Waiyaki is at Siriana, things take a turn for the worse when Muthoni, Joshua’s younger daughter, rebels against her father and goes to Kameno to get circumcised. After the ceremony is over, Muthoni is taken to her aunt’s house in Kameno to heal but instead the wound keeps growing bigger until she dies. This was a turning point in the story because after this event, a bitter Joshua goes to the mission and convinces the head of the mission to enforce his authority. The head decides to dismiss all the children whose parents still practice circumcision. It was at this point that both sides knew it would be impossible to coexist.
Waiyaki eventually catapults to leadership within the community but there is a huge problem. He falls in love with Nyambura, who happens to be Joshua’s only remaining daughter due to the untimely demise of Muthoni. This proves to be Waiyaki’s biggest issue because on one side, Nyambura is not circumcised and thus considered impure and unfit for marriage by the traditionalists while the Christians, especially Joshua, despise Waiyaki as he is a leader among the traditionalists. Eventually, something has to give.
While reading the book, I could not help but get immersed in it. Ngugi paints vivid pictures in his prose. The author describes each character brilliantly with my favorite depiction being that of Waiyaki, described as having such beautiful eyes that “he made grown women embarrassed when he looked into their eyes” when he was just a teenager. The author also develops his characters well. We see the change in Waiyaki, the main protagonist, as he grows up. Initially, when Chege was alive and taught Waiyaki the way of the people, Waiyaki was convinced that leading his people meant getting their freedom back. However, as he attends the mission school, he starts to believe that maybe the best way to save the people is to educate them.
Even though the book is purely fiction, it is based on historical truth. When the missionaries came to Kenya, one of their key missions was to abolish female circumcision, a fight which they ultimately lost. The book depicts the struggles within the tribe that ensued afterwards between the so-called “traditionalists” and Christian converts who ended up being collaborators.
My favorite part of the book would have to be the ending. It was the perfect way to cap it all off. With the ending, the author allows the reader to let their mind wander, reminiscing the various parts in the book that led to the rather climatic end of the story. The ending is truly a culmination of everything that had been happening in the book, and will probably frustrate and excite in equal measure.
This book is highly recommended to everyone as a gateway to understand Kenyan and African culture through literature. The River Between is a brilliant read with a storyline that will leave you oddly satisfied while at the same time with so many questions in mind.