The River Between


Ngugi wa Thiong’o

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Unity and Division Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Colonialism Theme Icon
Christianity, Tribal Customs, and Identity Theme Icon
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Unity and Division Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The River Between, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Unity and Division Theme Icon

Waiyaki feels convinced that the petty divisions and feuds between Kameno and Makuyu must end, since neither village is strong or large enough to resist the white colonialists on their own. Although educating children is critically important, Waiyaki also feels the that two villages must unite and face their common enemy together to strive for their “political freedom.” Waiyaki’s quest to unite Makuyu and Kameno against the white people suggests that a people under threat can only survive and defend themselves if they overcome their personal feuds, though this is a very difficult thing to accomplish.

Faced with the growing threat of colonialism, Waiyaki believes the two villages must resolve their differences and unite to fight for their own freedom, demonstrating the need for unity against a common enemy. Makuyu and Kameno sit atop two hills divided by a river, which symbolizes their division. Although they are closely linked, the villages are divided by long-standing rivalries, the most recent of which stems from Makuyu embracing the white people’s Christianity while Kameno rejects it in favor of tribal beliefs. At times, the animosity grows so intense that Kabonyi, an elder from Kameno, talks of taking his followers and setting fire to the Gikuyu Christians’ houses in Makuyu, indicating that the villages are beset by dangerous levels of infighting and resentment. Although Kabonyi believes the tribes can simply fight the white people with their shields and spears, Waiyaki has studied alongside white missionaries and knows that the Gikuyu will never prevail if they are divided. Rather, Waiyaki believes that Makuyu and Kameno must resolve their differences and unite—by focusing on their children’s education—so that, with the force of both villages, they can organize and fight for their “political freedom” and protect themselves from white encroachment. As a respected teacher and leader among the hills, Waiyaki counsels his followers that “a house divided against itself [cannot] stand,” implying that the Gikuyu will never stop the colonialists so long as they continue fighting amongst themselves.

Although Waiyaki knows he must use his influence in the villages to encourage unity, fear delays him before he is undermined by rivals seeking their own power, demonstrating the difficulty of uniting two groups, even against a common enemy. At the peak of his influence among the villages, Waiyaki has the opportunity to call for unity but fails to, distracted by his own feeling of importance and fear of challenging such long-standing resentment between groups, which may threaten his position of influence. This suggests that a leader can only make such a call by overcoming their fear and ego and accepting the risks. When Waiyaki does summon the courage to call for unity at the end of the novel, the Gikuyu people initially listen to him. However, his rivals, Kabonyi and Kamau—who are jealous of Waiyaki’s influence—manage to turn the entire meeting against Waiyaki by charging him of desiring to marry an uncircumcised woman, Nyambura, which violates an oath of tribal purity that Waiyaki once took. Although the tribespeople just heard Waiyaki’s call for unity, Kabonyi convinces the people that Waiyaki is a traitor to the tribe for wanting to marry an uncircumcised woman, which is a mark of white Christianity. The brief possibility of unity between Makuyu and Kameno quickly crumbles. Kabonyi and Kamau effectively undermine Waiyaki’s influence amongst the tribe and destroy his call for unity, all because they are jealous of his leadership, indicating that personal petty rivalries can thwart a people’s ability to unify themselves against a greater enemy.

Waiyaki’s defeat ends any hope of unity between the villages, and the novel’s ending implies that Makuyu and Kameno are ultimately left powerless before the white people because of their own divisions. After Kabonyi accuses Waiyaki of being a traitor for loving Nyambura, the tribe turns against Waiyaki and takes him away to face some unknown punishment. They completely ignore his call for unity, and everyone returns to their respective villages. The story ends with Waiyaki’s fate left unknown. However, the narrative notes that the ridges and the Gikuyu people, which were “awakening” to fight the white colonialists, return to silence, “hidden in darkness.” This implies that the tribe “sleeps” as it had before, allowing the colonialists to continue stealing land, reaping taxes, and installing their own government in the ridges, unchallenged. The novel’s tragic ending reinforces the need for unity amongst a people fighting against a common enemy. Waiyaki’s failure to establish unity, both due to his own fear and the pretty rivalries of others, allows the colonialists to succeed in their efforts, suggesting that the alternative to unity is ultimately defeat, the loss of a people’s agency, independence, and culture.

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Unity and Division ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Unity and Division appears in each chapter of The River Between. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Unity and Division Quotes in The River Between

Below you will find the important quotes in The River Between related to the theme of Unity and Division.
Chapter 3 Quotes

[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.

Related Characters: Waiyaki, Kabonyi, Joshua
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Waiyaki, Chege
Related Symbols: Makuyu, Kameno
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Joshua, Miriamu, Kabonyi
Related Symbols: Circumcision
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 13 Quotes

“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.”

Related Characters: Kinuthia (speaker), Waiyaki, Kamau
Related Symbols: Makuyu
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 15 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Waiyaki, Nyambura
Related Symbols: Circumcision, The Honia River
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 17 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Joshua, Muthoni
Related Symbols: Circumcision
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 20 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Waiyaki, Joshua, Nyambura
Related Symbols: Kameno
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 22 Quotes

“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.”

Related Characters: Waiyaki’s Mother (speaker), Waiyaki, Nyambura
Related Symbols: Circumcision
Page Number: 119-120
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 24 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Nyambura, Waiyaki, Joshua, Reverend Livingstone
Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 25 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Waiyaki
Page Number: 137
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 26 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Waiyaki
Related Symbols: Makuyu, Kameno, The Honia River
Page Number: 148
Explanation and Analysis: