The River Between

by

Ngugi wa Thiong’o

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The River Between Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Ngugi wa Thiong’o's The River Between. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o was born in British-controlled Kenya under the Christian name James Ngugi. His family are members of the Gikuyu (or Agikuyu; or Kikuyu) people, Kenya’s largest ethnic tribe. Ngũgĩ’s early life was dominated by ethnic Kenya’s struggle against British colonialism. His family was integral to the Mau Mau freedom movement, which struggled to release Kenya from British control. As a result, British soldiers tortured his mother and murdered his deaf brother. A writer all his life, Ngũgĩ played a primary role in the development of English-language African literature. At 24 years old, he premiered a play that he authored for the African Writers Conference. At 26, he published his debut novel, Weep Not Child, which was the first English-language novel produced by an East African author. One year later, he published The River Between, in 1965. During this period, Ngũgĩ finished his Bachelor of Arts at Makerere University in Uganda and moved to England to earn his master’s degree at Leeds. However, his studies were waylaid as he put all his energy into writing and publishing his seminal work, A Grain of Wheat, in 1967. At this time, Ngũgĩ’s work and life became decidedly more political. He renounced the Christian religion as well as his Christian name, James, in favor of the Gikuyu name Wa Thiong’o. He left his graduate studies in England and returned to Kenya, where he worked as a university professor in Nairobi. Due to his political writing and Marxist views, the independent Kenyan government imprisoned him in 1977. After releasing him from prison, the government exiled Ngũgĩ and his family from Kenya. He spent the next decades writing novels and essays and teaching at various elite universities in Europe and America. Ngũgĩ briefly revisited East Africa in 2004, but he never moved back to his homeland.
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Historical Context of The River Between

The Gikuyu tribe dominated much of Kenya, maintaining an agrarian lifestyle and protecting their borders from all who threatened them (most notably Arabic slave traders), until the arrival of the British colonialists in the late 19th century. Around 1888, the first Gikuyu came into contact with British colonialists, who initially tried to conquer them through military might, causing a series of harsh conflicts in the lowlands. In many areas, Christian missionaries were sent first to evangelize to the Gikuyu and gain the trust of the local people through their peaceful, even generous ways. However, missionaries were always followed by soldiers and settlers, who together pushed the Gikuyu people off their fertile ancestral lands or else took ownership, forcing the Gikuyu to work and pay tribute to the white settlers. Faced with numerous military uprisings, the British enlisted Masai warriors, the Gikuyu’s tribal enemies, to help them slaughter Gikuyu resistors and their families. The Gikuyu’s efforts to fight the British through military force were ultimately unsuccessful, and by 1920 they switched to political forms of resistance. The British ruled Kenya and the Gikuyu people until 1963, when they won their political freedom and became a new republic under the leadership of the Gikuyu politician Jomo Kenyatta.

Other Books Related to The River Between

The River Between is Ngũgĩ’s second major novel, building on the Gikuyu people’s loss of their ancestral lands to the British that he explored in his debut novel, Weep Not, Child. The River Between’s exploration of the tension between Christianity and Gikuyu tribal customs continues in Ngũgĩ’s subsequent and most famous work, A Grain of Wheat, which describes the final days of Kenya’s fight for independence through the Christian narrative structure of Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot. His later novel, Devil on the Cross, explores the corrupting influence of international culture and money on the Gikuyu way of life, expounding on The River Between’s thematic tension between tradition and progress. As one of the first English-language African authors, Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o played a primary role in making African literature and African voices available to Western audiences. His work and role in this development correlates closely with Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, whose novel Things Fall Apart details the arrival of the British in Nigeria in the 1800s and the massive disruption that inflicted on the Nigerians’ tribal lifestyle. Achebe’s novel is widely considered to be one of the greatest pieces of African literature ever written.
Key Facts about The River Between
  • Full Title: The River Between
  • When Written: 1963
  • Where Written: Kampala, Uganda
  • When Published: 1965
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Fictional Novel
  • Setting: Kenya during the early decades of British colonialism
  • Climax: Waiyaki chooses to remain true to Nyambura at the cost of being denounced by the tribe.
  • Antagonist: Kabonyi
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for The River Between

Late Publication. Although The River Between is Ngũgĩ’s second published novel, he reportedly wrote it first, before he wrote Weep Not, Child.