The River Between tells the story of Waiyaki, a young Gikuyu man (one of the largest indigenous tribes in Kenya) who struggles to unite two neighboring villages against white colonialists. However, although colonization presents the largest threat to the Gikuyu and fuels the story’s tension, the white settlers themselves are nearly invisible in the novel. They are often spoken of but rarely seen—in part because the two villages, Makuyu and Kameno, are isolated in the hills, but also because the colonialists work slowly and quietly to accomplish their aims. In The River Between, Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o depicts a subtle, less overt style of colonialism and shows how it nonetheless oppresses the Kenyan people and threatens their way of life.
Some villagers distrust the newly arrived white people, suggesting that white colonialism poses a threat to the tribe’s independence and lifestyle. Tribal prophecy warns of the arrival of “people with clothes like butterflies,” alluding to the white people and their colorful clothing, who will threaten their way of life. This suggests that the white colonialists represent an existential, even apocalyptic threat within the tribe’s mythology. Chege, a village elder from Kameno, knows the prophecy and tries to warn the other villagers of the dangers of white colonization. His son, Waiyaki, and two of Waiyaki’s friends, Kamau and Kinuthia, discuss what the white people’s arrival means. Although Waiyaki initially does not fear them, Kamau sees them as “a plague in our midst,” suggesting that the white people will become a grave problem if left unchecked. Additionally, Kinuthia believes “the white man should […] go back to wherever he came from and leave us to till our land in peace.” Kinuthia’s wish to be left alone to work the land suggests that he fears that the white colonists will threaten their tribal agricultural existence. This indicates that the white people are not simply unwelcome foreigners but an existential threat to the tribe and their culture.
Despite the great threat of colonialism, white people and their machinations remain unseen for the majority of the story, leading many of the villagers to ignore their presence, suggesting that these colonialists adopt a more subtle method than their militant predecessors. White people never appear in Makuyu or Kameno but run all of their operations from the nearby town of Siriana, which sits below the ridges where Makuyu and Kameno are located. Because the white people operate out of sight, Makuyu and Kameno and the other villages in the hills around them feel a false sense of security and choose to ignore Chege’s warnings and calls to fight the white people from the moment they set foot in Gikuyu territory. The only named white person in the story, a missionary named Livingstone who works in Siriana, reflects on this more subtle approach to colonization. He regards himself as “one of those missionaries who thought themselves enlightened,” because he allows the Kenyan people to observe most of their tribal customs rather than forcing them to abandon them and causing “tribal warfare and civil strife” as previous missionaries had. Although Livingstone’s goal is still to grow his influence among the tribes, he recognizes that a subtle approach will create less resistance and will to fight. Livingstone’s subtlety mirrors the way that the entire colonization process unfolds in this part of Kenya. Kamau recognizes that the missionaries arrived first and gained the tribal people’s trust, easing the path of the governors and soldiers who would come later. He says, “The men of God came peacefully. They were given a place. Now see what has happened. They have invited their brothers to come and take all the land. Our country is invaded.” Kamau’s description of the white colonialists’ plot confirms that the white people take an insidious approach to colonization, infiltrating the country peacefully and quietly, establishing their dominion before the tribespeople truly understand the existential threat they represent.
Ultimately, the white colonialists still oppress the tribes and threaten their way of life, demonstrating that even this subtle form of colonialism works toward an insidious end. Although the white colonialists do not immediately assert their authority, they gradually take steps to consolidate power and develop their control over the native people. In the beginning of the story, there are only rumors that the white people will build a government outpost near Makuyu; by the end of the story, the station has been built. From the outpost, the white governors force both villages to pay taxes to the hill station, even though the station does not provide any service to those villagers whatsoever. On surrounding ridges and in Siriana, white settlers take control of tribal lands and either force the Gikuyu out or keep them there to work the land and pay tribute, like serfs, to their new masters. In every instance, the Gikuyu lose power while the white colonialists grow their own power and dominion over the people and the land. Despite their subtle, less militaristic approach, the colonialists still take land and destroy the native people’s independence and freedom, demonstrating that their goals are just as insidious as those colonialists who conquer through military might.
Colonialism Quotes in The River Between
The ridges were isolated. The people there led a life of their own, undisturbed by what happened outside or beyond. Men and women had nothing to fear. The [white people] would never come here. They would be lost in the hills and the ridges and the valleys.
The ridges slept on. Kameno and Makuyu were no longer antagonistic They had merged into one area of beautiful land, which is what, perhaps, they were meant to be.
“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.”
[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.”
Schools grew up like mushrooms. Often a school was nothing more than a shed hurriedly thatched with grass. And there they stood, symbols of people’s thirst for the white man’s secret magic and power. Few wanted to live the white man’s way, but all wanted this thing, this magic.
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.
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.
Father, if you had many cattle and sheep
I would ask for a spear and a shield,
I do not want a spear
I do not want a shield
I want the spear and shield of learning.
“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.”
The land was now silent. The two ridges lay side by side, hidden in the darkness. And Honia river went on flowing between them, down through the valley of life, its beat rising above the sark stillness, reaching into the heart of the people of Makuyu and Kameno.