Ngugi’s famous narrative about two riddles, Makuyu and Kameno which are separated by a valley and river Honia, the source of life.
On Kamenu lived the members of Gikuyu who believed strongly in traditional practices while on Makuyu lived the members who had converted to Christianity and embraced the ways of the white settlers.
And these two viewpoints were coming into increasing conflict.
The main character in the book is a young man, Waiyaki, who makes women embarrassed when he looks into their eyes, although he is barely a teenager.
Waiyaki is raised traditionally but educated in white schools, charismatic and a natural leader among his people, and a man who believes that only in unity can their society survive and retain its own identity in the colonial world.
Waiyaki is told by his father, while still quite young, of a messiah that will understand both the tribal tradition of the Gikuyu and the ways of the white man.
After being educated at a missionary school Waiyaki returns to the tribe to be an educator and finds himself in the middle of tradition and Christianity.
His position is made more difficult by the more vocal wing of the tribe wanting action, and Waiyaki’s love for Nyambura, the daughter of Joshua, the local firebrand preacher.
“All his life Waiyaki had waited for this day, for this very opportunity to reveal his courage like a man” (page. 45). He was to be circumcised to be initiated to be a man and gain respect from everyone in his village.
Circumcision was a tribal practice through which a boy became man as a form of initiation which was opposed by Christianity brought and preached in the schools which were run by the colonial British administration in Kenya.
To monotheistic followers it was an abhorrent practice; they were strongly against the female circumcision or female genital mutilation depending on how non-tribal, traditional followers viewed it. Joshua’s daughter, Muthoni, was an ambitious girl.
She wanted to be a woman through circumcision and this endeared her to Waiyaki, but he died due to the wounds of the operation.
A father’s curse was rumored however to be the cause of her death. Muthoni’s sister, Nyambura strongly felt the pain of loosing her sister and as fate would have it ended up falling in love with Waiyaki to her preacher father’s chagrin.
In a way, The River Between is a reflection of the hatred and bitterness between different Kenyan communities, then a clash of Christianity verses traditionalism, and now between cultures of different tribes.
Ngugi depicts Kenya in the colonial era in the eyes of a native and succeeds in cleverly but accurately portraying cultural conflict as a result of colonialism on African society.