The River Between

Lecture on Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, The River Between (1964) for H235 African Literature, Murdoch University, 1976-7

Garry Gillard

Ngugi wa Thiong'o was born in 1938 in Limuru, Kenya to one of his Gikuyu peasant father's several wives. He was christened James, but in 1970 dropped his Christian name as he had come round to the view by then that the Christian church in Africa was an agent of European capitalism. Ngugi did not begin to speak English until he went to school in 1946 or 1947.1 While at Makerere University College, from which he graduated with honours in English in 1964, he wrote The River Between and another novel, Weep Not, Child, about the Mau Mau Emergency of 1952-1960; a play, The Black Hermit, for the Ugandan Independence celebrations of 1962; and other shorter pieces. He wrote A Grain of Wheat while doing graduate work at Leeds. It is concerned with "the effect of the Mau Mau war on the ordinary man and woman who were left in the villages." 2

Ngugi's first-written novel was originally called The Black Messiah. It was written during 1961 for a novel-writing competition organised by the East African Literature Bureau. In an interview in 1964 he said "The Black Messiah deals with a situation in the thirties when there was a clash between the Kikuyus and the missionaries and also between the Kikuyus and the government. The result of that is that we saw the beginnings of the political movement in Kenya and also the beginning of Kikuyu independent schools." 3 It was written during a period when Ngugi was reading for his degree; he read the work of African and West Indian writers as well as that of Europeans. One of the writers who Ngugi says influenced him was D.H. Lawrence with "his way of entering into the spirit of things." 4 Such an attitude could easily be potentially attractive to anyone whose inherited culture sees an essential unity between the spiritual and physical aspects of the world. Ngugi goes on: "You know I felt as if he was entering into the soul of the people, and not only of the people, but even of the land, of the countryside, of things like plants, of the atmosphere." 5 This same process may perhaps be seen in The River Between, in the role of spatial features such as trees, the ridges and the river.

Ngugi's use of spatial features in his longer works is prefigured by certain of his early stories. In the earliest of these "The Fig Tree", 6 the tree of the title is the scene and apparent cause of the turning-point. The central character Mukami achieves a kind of spiritual vindication and self-knowledge in the shelter of the sacred Mugumo tree. And in "The Return", 7 the River Honia plays an important role. Kamau returns from the detention camps of the Emergency period carrying a bundle which "held the bitterness and hardships of the years spent in the detention camps."8 He is dismayed to hear that his wife has in the meantime gone with another man, but begins to find reconciliation with this and other changes when the symbolic bundle is washed away by the healing river.

Both the sacred fig tree and River Honia appear again in The River Between, the former when Waiyaki is taken by his father to the site of the Mugumo tree on the occasion when he reveals to him his destiny. The tree is sacred because it was there that Gibuyu and Mumbi, the father and mother of the tribe, stood: it is appropriate therefore, that Chege should bring Waiyaki here to tell him that he is descended from the people who were the first to settle the area; and that as a result of his particular inheritance, being born of a line of prophets, he is very likely to be the foretold saviour who will come from the hills to deliver the tribe from the white man. Waiyaki remembers the occasion as he endures the pain of his circumcision (p. 53); and he revisits the place as he prepares for the final confrontation of the novel, in an attempt to understand the nature of his dedication and to renew his contact with the mythic past (pp. 161-164).

There is another sacred place in The River Between: one which is central to the work. It is the initiation grove where Waiyaki and Muthoni are both circumcised; and where Waiyaki and Nyambura meet. The connection with the soil is established at the moment of the symbolic operation: "Blood trickled freely on to the ground, sinking into the soil. Henceforth a religious bond linked Waiyaki to the earth..." (p.53). The same place is later the scene of Waiyaki's declaration of love for Nyambura. She is found here because it is here, where Muthoni was initiated, that she can feel close to her dead sister. The area is given further significance when it is associated in Waiyaki's thoughts with the precinct of the fig tree: "Waiyaki could not tell why the place reminded him so much of the sacred grove where long ago his father had taken him and revealed the ancient prophecy. This place she was in was sacred too." (p. 119) Finally, it is the "sacred ground" where Waiyaki and Nyambura make love. The confluence of all these elements of the action with this spatial feature is completed by the proximity of the river. The River Honia is, as the title suggests, the most significant of these features in the work, as it is the central element in its structure.

The structure of The River Between is particularly forceful and may be clearly perceived and interpreted. The river ambivalently both joins and divides the two ridges Makuyu and Kaneno, which are the most predominant of a series of binary oppositions. Each of the ridges claims predominance over the other because of its own favourable version of the origin myth. Each has a patriarchal figure; but whereas Chege of Kameno is a descendant of Mugo wa Kibiro the seer who warned the tribe of the coming of the white man, Joshua of Makuyu has been won over to the European religion and is its local representative. So that the ridges have now been divided as to conservation of tribal beliefs and customs as against going over to the ways of the whites.

Attempting to overcome this opposition and unite the divided people are the children of the patriarchal figures who are associated with the river in its role as a symbol of healing and unity. Muthoni, Joshua's younger daughter attempts to live in both worlds. Although not wishing to give up Christianity, she nevertheless wants to be circumcised, so as to become "a real woman, knowing all the ways of the hills and ridges (p.29), and also to become eligible for marriage. But she is disowned by Joshua and then dies as a result of infection after the operation. Her death hardens attitudes on either side; it also has the effect of altering the way in which she is seen by the reader: her role in the work takes on a deeper significance. Waiyaki's role is special from the outset as has been indicated above. He is set apart by his birth for the role of hero who must perform the rites of passage identified by Joseph Campbell, of separation, initiation and return. 8 In Waiyaki's case he is sent by Chege away from his family to the European school at Siriana where he is 'initiated' into the ways of the Europeans, the better, on his return, to help his people to be able to resist them. However, unlike Muthoni who is prepared to live out the ideal of unification, Waiyaki is unable to close the gap: he embodies the ambivalence which runs right through the book at all levels. He can see the strengths of both the opposing religions but cannot reconcile their systems; he sees the need for political unity and joins but then leaves the Kiama, the organisation for tribal unity and purity; he wants to give Western education as his gift brought back from the gods, but knows that the tribe will disintegrate without its traditions rooted in the past. Although he is "committed to reconciliation" (p.125), at the crucial moment he "forgets" to speak of it. Waiyaki's dream (pp. 137-139) gives substance to this argument. The dream begins with a vision of the Golden Age with Nyambura as the central presence. However when the people begin to tear her apart he joins them. The ambivalence at this point is extended even to the linguistic level. The narration runs: "...he was tearing her to himself...". Provided that 'to' is not a printer's error for 'too' this could read either that he was attempting to inflict as much damage as he could himself, or that he was desperately trying to hold her against himself, perhaps in a protective way. Furthermore 'Nyambura' turns into 'Muthoni'. The dream ends with Waiyaki's guilt at his failure to tell people to unite, which may seem as concealing doubts about such action.

This interpretation may be seen as containing an explanation of the book's open ending: the fact that the narrative ends before the Kiama has decided the fate of Waiyaki and Nyambura may be seen as a continuation of the work's open structure which reveals its profound ambiguity.

Completing this argument for the ideological balance of the work is another saviour figure. Kabonyi, the apostate leader of the Kiama, feels that he is "the saviour for whom the people waited." Not that Kabonyi knew exactly where he would lead the people. For he too was grappling with forces awakened in the people. How could he understand that the people did not want to move backwards, that the ridges no longer desired their isolation? How could he know that the forces that drove people to yearn for a better day tomorrow, that now gave a new awareness to the people, were like demons, sweeping the whole country, as Mugo had said, from one horizon touching the sea to the other horizon touching the water. "(p.166)" By implication, this is an authorial statement about the whole context of the action. If Kabonyi does not know that "the forces ... were ... sweeping the country", who does, but the narrator? It is clearly an authorial view at this point that none of the lines of action adopted by any of the characters is adequate to cope with, or even on the same scale as, the massive forces which are bearing on them.

Different ways of looking at the work reveal different kinds of forces. We have been looking at the social structure in its connexion with spatial features. We could also look at certain archetypal or mythical features, for example at the myth of the Golden Age or Lost Garden. This first appears in the novel in the account of the origin of the race, as supplied by the narrator at the beginning:

And Mwungu had told them:

This land I give to you, O man and woman. It is yours to rule and till, you and your posterity.

The land was fertile. It was the whole of Gikuyu country from one horizon embracing the heavens to the other hidden in the clouds.

Similar language is used in the Authorized version of the Genesis Story. 9 This image of the archetypal garden placed at the beginning of the narrative reverberates throughout. That it represents Waiyaki's ideal may perhaps be seen in the first part of his dream, referred to above (p. 137). It may also influence the way the reader perceives, through Waiyaki's vision, the two sacred groves, which tend to become one in sanctity (p.119). It is finally transmuted into a political ideal in Waiyaki's thoughts as he prepares himself for the final meeting. "Now he knew what he would preach if he ever got another chance: education for unity. Unity for political freedom. For a time this vision made his heart glow with expectation and new hope." (p.164).

The other myth which forms The River Between is obviously that of the hero, specifically the saviour or messiah. There is a good deal of explicit use of this kind of imagery, particularly in the thoughts of the principal characters. Waiyaki wonders if he is the messiah (p.163); he is called the Teacher; and Nyambura, remembering that Muthoni had had a vision of Jesus before she died, thinks that she too would see Christ, but only if Waiyaki stood near her. "She could be saved only through Waiyaki. Waiyaki then was her Saviour, her black Messiah, the promised one who would come and lead her into the light." (p. 117) Nyambura sees herself as Mary Magdalene. Furthermore Waiyaki goes up into a high place - like Jesus, Moses and the Buddha for example - to prepare himself for his coming back to the world with his inspired message. The passage from page 164 quoted above continues: "He quickened his descent, wishing to come to the people and communicate this new vision. Education, Unity, Political Freedom." There are also a number of prefigurings of the sacrifice of the hero. There is the identification of Waiyaki with Christ; and the way Waiyaki's dream ends - with the people turning away guiltily - is recalled in the ending of the book the people turning away from their Teacher's fate. Waiyaki's thoughts as he watches Nyambura praying are in this vein. "It was very strange as he watched he experienced a frightening sensation, as if she and he were together standing on an altar ready for sacrifice. Finally there is the vision of Kabonyi as the final scene is being set. It is sunset and the trees seem to be caught in the "big yellow flames emanated by the setting sun." "Kinuthia too feared and for a time he had a momentary glimpse of Waiyaki and Nyambura caught in those flames."(p.166).

One of the effects of these indications of the impending sacrifice of Waiyaki is to give the narrative an anticipatory forward movement. It poses a question in the mind of the reader, although at the same time implying its answer. The work begins to have the kind of ironic power that tragedy has.

One final approach, which won't be worked out in detail here, is to consider the deep motivations of the characters for their actions as indicated or implied in the work. Why, for example, do Waiyaki and Nyambura have such a profound sense of failure, and seem to accept their sacrificial role almost willingly? Is it relevant here that they both have a father who has set them such a high ideal of action that they feel doomed to failure? Such questions may be seen as ancillary to those discussed above, contributing another dimension to the possible meanings of this complex work.


1. Biographical details have been obtained from Zell and Silver (1972) and Duerden and Pieterse (1972).
2. Duerden and Pieterse, p. 121
3. ibid., p. 121
4. ibid.
5. ibid., p. 123
6. Later called "Mugumo" when published in Secret Lives and Other Stories, London: Heinemann, 1975, pp. 2-8.
7. Secret Lives, pp. 49-54.
8. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Uni. Press, 1968) p.30.
9. Cf. Genesis 2.15 : "And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and keep it."


Campbell, Joseph, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1968.
Duerden, Dennis & Cosmo Peterse eds 1972, African Writers Talking, Heinemann, London.
Ngugi, James, The River Between, Heinemann, London, 1975.
Ngugi, James, Secret Lives, and Other Stories, Heinemann, London, 1976.
Zell, Hans M. & Silver, Helene 1972, A Readers' Guide to African Literature, Heinemann, London.

Garry Gillard | New: 18 March, 2011 | Now: 23 November, 2015