The River Between tells of two rival villages that struggle to unite rather than remain opposed. Chief among Makuyu and Kameno’s disagreements are how to respond to the white missionaries’ Christianity. The village of Kameno rejects Christianity and insists on “tribal purity,” fiercely defending traditional customs and identity. Meanwhile, the village of Makuyu embraces Christianity and spurns tribal tradition. However, two of the novel’s characters—a young man named Waiyaki and a young woman named Muthoni—oppose such notions of “purity” and struggle to combine Christianity and their tribal customs. Waiyaki and Muthoni’s struggle to reconcile Christianity with their tribal identity speaks to how difficult it can be for a person to honor different aspects of their cultural and religious identity simultaneously. However, the very fact that Waiyaki and Muthoni put in the effort to do just that suggests that the two forces can—and should—integrate and co-exist, rather than one eradicating the other.
Waiyaki and Muthoni find themselves caught between the competing influence of Christianity and the weight of their ancestral customs, demonstrating the identity conflict that arises from the intersection of two differing ideological views. Many in Waiyaki’s village, Kameno, regard Christianity as the evil ideology of the white colonialists. They desire that he reject it outright in order to fully embrace their tribal traditions. At the same time, Muthoni’s father, Joshua, a Gikuyu Christian pastor and influential figure in the neighboring village of Makuyu, demands that she completely forsake her tribal identity and submit herself entirely to the white people’s religion. For both Waiyaki and Muthoni, their respective communities expect them to adhere to only one ideology and form their identity from that, rejecting the other entirely. However, although Waiyaki cherishes his tribal identity, he also finds himself drawn to Christianity and finds Christ’s suffering and crucifixion to be incredibly moving. At the same time, although Muthoni likes Christianity’s teachings of love and humility, she feels that the Christian identity is not enough for her on its own. She wants to be circumcised according to tribal custom like all the other Gikuyu women, so that she can feel like a “real woman” in the way of her ancestors—even though Joshua views such tribal practice as an unforgivable sin against God. Because of their discordant views, both Waiyaki and Muthoni feel a deep conflict of identity, sensing that neither Christianity nor tribal identity should be utterly rejected. Their struggle to balance the two forces demonstrates the difficulty for any person as they try to choose between competing ideologies or influences.
Although strict adherents to Christianity and devotees to tribal custom each believe the other is evil, both groups oppress others and commit their own evils, indicating that neither ideology is morally superior to the other. As a Christian pastor, Joshua believes he is doing God’s work and representing the moral life, yet he treats his family cruelly. He often beats his wife, Miriamu, because she is circumcised, which infuriates him, even though she was circumcised before they married, and she obviously can’t do anything to change it. Additionally, although Muthoni wants to be circumcised and participate in the cultural customs of their people, Joshua completely forbids her from doing so, oppressing her by limiting her personal agency. Likewise, Waiyaki’s rival, Kamau, and his father, Kabonyi, convince the people in Kameno that they must utterly oppose all elements of white culture and maintain the “purity” of the tribe. Although the tribespeople appreciate that Waiyaki works to give their children Western-style education, Kamau and Kabonyi use their own influence to convince the people that Waiyaki’s use of white people’s education threatens their tribal identity. Furthermore, when Waiyaki wants to marry Muthoni’s sister, Nyambura, the others forbid it, since Nyambura is Joshua’s daughter and is uncircumcised, which the tribe sees as a rejection of tribal customs. Waiyaki and Muthoni both feel oppressed by pressure to align solely with one ideological identity or the other, which notably comes from both groups. This suggests that neither European Christianity or African tribal identity is morally superior to the other, but can both be oppressive and restrictive in their own ways.
Both Muthoni and Waiyaki choose to integrate Christianity into their tribal customs, suggesting that reconciling the two influences is better than abandoning one for the sake of the other. Muthoni decides to defy Joshua and become circumcised in order to participate in the ancestral customs of their people even though she maintains her Christian faith. Although her father disowns her, Muthoni says that, after being circumcised, she feels “complete,” like a “real woman, knowing all the ways of the hills and ridges.” That is, Muthoni embraces both her identity as a Christian and her identity as a tribal Gikuyu woman—“marrying the rituals of the tribe with Christ”—suggesting that integration of the two is better than committing oneself wholly to one ideology and rejecting the other. Similarly, Waiyaki holds fast to his Christian faith even while participating in the tribal rituals and working to defend the Gikuyu from the white colonialists. He reflects that Christianity is “not essentially bad” but must be rooted in tribal customs like circumcision. Where Joshua adheres so much to Christianity that he rejects all tribal customs, Waiyaki believes that such strictness leaves the Gikuyu people unrooted and disconnected from their past. Rather, Christianity’s “eternal […] truth had to be reconciled to the traditions of the people.” Both Muthoni and Waiyaki make peace with the competing influences in their lives by integrating them. This ultimately suggests that, although Christianity may seem antithetical to one’s ancestral traditions, it does not need be. Rather, the religion should be adapted and integrated into one’s traditional beliefs, where it will benefit the people while still preserving that cultural identity.
Although Waiyaki and Muthoni both reconcile the competing forces in their lives, this decision ultimately leads to rejection by their peers who demand ideological “purity,” suggesting that integration may come at a heavy cost.
Christianity, Tribal Customs, and Identity ThemeTracker
Christianity, Tribal Customs, and Identity Quotes in The River Between
[Waiyaki’s] eyes were large and rather liquid; sad and contemplative. But whenever he looked at someone, they seemed to burn bright. A light came from them, a light that appeared to pierce your body, seeing something beyond you, into your heart. Not a man knew what language the eyes spoke. Only, if the boy gazed at you, you had to obey.
“Arise. Heed the prophecy. Go to the Mission place. Learn all the wisdom and the secrets of the white man. But do not follow his vices. Be true to your people and the ancient rites.”
“Father and Mother are circumcised. Are they not Christians? Circumcision did not prevent them from being Christians. I too have embraced the white man’s faith. However, I know it is beautiful, oh so beautiful to be initiated into womanhood. You learn the ways of the tribe. Yes, the white man’s God does not quite satisfy me. I want, I need something more.”
Joshua was such a staunch man of God and such a firm believer in the Old Testament, that he would never refrain from punishing a sin, even if this meant beating his wife. He did not mind as long as he was executing God’s justice.
[Miriamu’s] faith and belief in God were coupled with her fear of Joshua. But that was religion and it was the way things were ordered. However, one could tell by her eyes that this was a religion learned and accepted; inside, the true Gikuyu woman was sleeping.
The knife produced a thin sharp pain as it cut through the flesh. The surgeon had done his work. Blood trickled freely on to the ground, sinking into the soil. Henceforth a religious bond linked Waiyaki to the earth, as if his blood was an offering.
“Take Siriana Mission for example, the men of God came peacefully. They were given a place. No see what has happened. They have invited their brothers to come and take all the land. Our country is invaded. This Government Post behind Makuyu is a plague in our midst.”
Circumcision was an important ritual to the tribe. It kept people together, bound the tribe. It was at the core of the social structure, and a something that gave meaning to a man’s life. End the custom and the spiritual basis of the tribe’s cohesion and integration would be no more.
Nyambura was not circumcised. But this was not a crime. Something passed between them as two human beings, untainted with religion, social conventions, or any tradition.
As the spiritual head of the hills, [Joshua] enforced the Church’s morality with new energy. All the tribe’s customs were bad. That was final. There could never be a compromise.
Day by day [Nyambura] became weary of Joshua’s brand of religion. Was she too becoming a rebel? No. She would not do what her sister had done. She knew […] that she had to have a God who would give her a fullness of life, a God who would still her restless soul; so she clung to Christ because He had died on the Tree, love for all the people blazing out from His sad eyes.
Many teachers came from all over the ridge to see him, and many elders and children came to him with various problems. But in spite of all this Waiyaki was losing that contact with people that can only come through taking part together in a ritual. He was becoming too obsessed with the schools and the widening rift and divisions.
“You must not [marry Nyambura]. Fear the voice of the Kiama. It is the voice of the people. When the breath of that people turns against you, it is the greatest curse you can ever get.”
No! It could never be a religion of love. Never, never. The religion of love was in the heart. The other was Joshua’s own religion, which ran counter to her spirit and violated love. If the faith of Joshua and Livingstone came to separate, why, it was not good. […] She wanted the other. The other that held together, the other that united.
For Waiyaki knew that not all the ways of the white man were bad. Even his religion was not essentially bad. Some good, some truth, shone through it. But the religion, the faith, needed washing, cleaning away all the dirt, leaving only the eternal. And that eternal was that the truth had to be reconciled to the traditions of the people.