Christian missionaries attempt to outlaw the female circumcision ritual and in the process create a terrible rift between the two Kikuyu communities on either side of the river.
As has been the case for many of his fellow African writers, Kenya-born Ngugi Wa Thiongo has been at various times imprisoned, persecuted, and exiled for his writing and political activism. The River Between was Ngugi's first written, but not his first published, novel (Weep Not Child was published in 1964). It powerfully tells the story of the inevitable conflicts faced by African society as it attempts to reconcile its traditional beliefs with the imperatives of colonialism.
The novel is set in the 1930s and 1940s in rural Kenya and focuses on the conflict between Christian and traditional beliefs. The story is set among the Gikuyu people living on two adjoining ridges, Kameno and Makuyu, which are divided by a river. The people of Kameno follow a land-based religion; the people of Makuyu are led by the Christian convert Joshua. The young and charismatic Waiyaki is sent from Kameno to the mission school to learn the ways of the colonialists so as to resist their claims to the Kameno lands. The conflict centers around the initiation rites of the Gikuyu people. Muthoni, daughter of the cleric Joshua, defies her father's wishes and participates in the ritual. She dies when her wounds fail to heal, and the rift between the two factions becomes irreparable. Politically, the Kiamia, a militant anti-government, anti-Christian movement, continues to agitate successfully. When Waiyaki falls in love with Nyambura, Muthoni's sister and Joshua's daughter, the stage is set for a tragic confrontation.
The River Between is a powerful and gripping retelling of the passing of the African traditional life.