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The River Between by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

The River Between

by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

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Although this is a book set in Africa with a clash between cultures that are specifically African, it is much more. It is a story of what happens when two opposing sides on any issue both claim moral certainty. It is a story of what happens when ideology takes precedence over both rational thought and love for one’s neighbor.

Set in Kenya at a time when white missionaries have obtained a strong foothold and tradional tribal beliefs are being seen a evil, many find themselves torn between the long cherished beliefs of ancestors and the new promises of a better life after death, but with little promise of a better life while living. The main character of Waiyaki finds himself torn between the oath he took in becoming a man in the tribe and the realization of a better life that the white man’s education can bring his people now. His struggle to bring these ideals together prove that “no good turn ever goes unpunished.”

The role of female circumcision becomes the focus of the story but it is always in the background. This is the story of what happens when the fundamentals of a society shift. It is a story of sadness, respect, fear, and love. The author has taken an issue far removed from our culture today but has dealt with in in such a way that the reader can’t help but think of some of the fundamental issues that divide our culture today and how both sides seem so sure they are right. ( )
  maryreinert | Aug 25, 2013 |
This is a very important book and a pretty good read too. If you’ve read and appreciated Things Fall Apart, this is cast in the same vein and you will appreciate this.

Written in a similar lyrical style to The Life and Times of Michael K or Cry, The Beloved Country, The River Between tells the story of gradually deepening rifts in a community as the influences of colonialism make themselves felt. Factions appear and the battles between them force each and every individual to choose.

The vehicle for our experience of this conflict is Waiyaki, a man desperate to bridge the divides but inevitably doomed. His counterpart is Joshua, a man zealous for his Christian God and now blind to his cultural traditions.

The tension between these two men is bad enough but it is heightened considerably by the love shared between Waiyaki and Joshua’s daughter. I was glad this was a short novel because I don’t think I could have bared much more. It was intensely powerful.

Novels that chart the changes that cultures in this world have gone through in a generation or two are in themselves historical documents of the highest importance. Ngugi’s novel is one of these. I was very glad to hear Wikipedia say that this is a set text in Kenyan schools. I wish it was a set text in British schools. Taught sensitively, I think this book could save future generations some heartache. I’m glad to have learned more about the interaction of faith, tradition and clashing cultures. ( )
1 vote arukiyomi | Jan 2, 2013 |
Ngugi Wa Thiong'o's short novel "The River Between" is a wonderful look at what happens when old and new traditions clash and divide a society.

Set in Kenya, it portray the Gikuyu and its leaders as they come of age in a time when missionaries were changing the landscape by converting portions the native population to Christianity. (It was great to read something that illustrated the reaction of native people to Livingstone.) Others fear tribal traditions are being lost and see the missionaries as an invasion upon their ways and beliefs. The story is told in such a balanced way that everyone who clings too tightly to one side or the other is in the wrong somehow.

I thought this was going to be a story about circumcision, based upon what I'd read about the book. While the circumcision ritual is central to the story, it is not really what the book is about.

I really enjoyed learning more about the Gikuyu and thought the overall premise that changing a tradition without giving people something equally as meaningful to them doesn't work. Really, a thought-provoking and interesting book. ( )
1 vote amerynth | Oct 7, 2012 |
Solid and urgent, this is one of those novels that seems both timeless and utterly contemporary. Toward the end, some of the more sentimental sections of the novel are somewhat overwritten, but the book as a whole is a meditation on unification, personal belief, and confidence. The characters and descriptions here bring the full work to life, in wonderful detail, and I imagine it's a rare reader who won't be moved by the story Thiong'o explores here. Absolutely recommended. ( )
  whitewavedarling | Jan 21, 2012 |
This short novel is set in colonial Kenya, in an isolated region where two rival populations each live on a ridge separated by a river that nourishes—and erodes—the land of both communities. One community is mainly Christian, led by a local man who has embraced the colonialists' religion and rejects traditional values, particularly circumcision of young men and women; the other is based on tribal traditions, led by a group of elders and influenced by a young man who is descended from a rich lineage, was educated in part by the Christian missionaries that influenced the other camp, and is highly respected by many in the community for educating its young people. This community embraces circumcision as an essential ritual, and is torn between those who embrace and support the Teacher, and a small but powerful faction led by a sworn power hungry enemy of the Teacher. The Teacher himself is torn by his duty to the community, passed down by his father, his love of the uncircumcised daughter of the preacher of the neighboring community, and his belief that the two rivals must unite to combat the increasing influence of the colonialists and gain independence from them. This was closer to a 4½ star than a 4 star read for me, and is highly recommended. ( )
  kidzdoc | Oct 28, 2011 |
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The two ridges lay side by side. One was Kameno, the other was Makuyu. between them was a valley. It was called the valley of life. Behind Kameno and Makuyu were many more valleys and ridges, lying without any discernible plan. They just slept, the big deep sleep of their Creator.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0435905481, Paperback)

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. The people are torn between those who believe in Western/Christian education and the opportunities it will offer, and those who feel that only unquestioned loyalty to past traditions will save them. The growing conflict brings tragedy to a pair of young lovers who attempted to bridge the deepening chasm.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:28:15 -0400)

"Explores life on the Makuyu and Kameno ridges of Kenya in the early days of white settlement. Faced with an alluring new religion and 'magical' customs, the Gikuyu people are torn between those who fear the unknown and those who see beyond it. Some follow Joshua and his fiery brand of Christianity. Others proudly pursue tribal independence. In the midst of this disunity stands Waiyaki, a dedicated visionary born to a line of prophets. He struggles to educate the tribe--a task he sees as the only unifying link between the two factions--but his plans for the future raise issue which will determine both his and the Gikuyu's survival"--back cover.… (more)

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