Book Review: The River Between by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o


Often compared with Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart, The River Between is a defining piece of POCO lit. Written in 1961 in the wake of the Mau Mau uprising and the context of recent and bitter memories, The River Between represents colonialism as an economic grab of resources, with education, language and Christianity being subordinate to that aim. As missionaries settle in the land and establish Christian ideals, the rifts between two Kikuyu communities, one Christian and one traditional, is explored through the theme of clitoridectomy.
Ngugi describes the act of female circumsion as ‘an important ritual to the tribe’ that kept ‘people together, bound the tribe’, it was ‘the core of the social structure’. However, by removing it, the colonisers could ‘end the custom and the spiritual basis of the tribes cohesion and integration would be no more’. I.e. cultural interference is a means of cultural imperialism. I think this book is not only a fascinating insight into the divide and rule mentality but also offers currency in the ongoing debate of FGM, gender roles and the tensions between individual and group rights. In the book (as in life) circumcised women were not allowed to attend church which excluded them from the ‘perks’ of missionary schools etc. Incidentally when Kenyatta came to power he stated that no woman could marry unless she was circumcised. In the book Ngugi gives little voice to this difficult female position, instead clitoridectomy becomes a tool central to traditional Kikuyu nationalism. What interests me is the subtext in this battle of patriarchs, of women’s rights (or the lack thereof!) It raises interesting complexities when read in light of today’s current campaign against FGM and I would love to read a reactionary feminist piece to this from the diaspora, a kind of Wide Sargasso Sea type take on what is still an engaging and thought provoking book.


  1. Wow… I haven’t read ‘The River Between’ yet, but just wow. I understand FGM was ‘an important ritual to the tribe’, but come on! Its terribly harmful to females. *sigh*. There is so much to be said on this topic… I don’t know how this will sound, but things like this make me glad the British brought Christianity to Africa and we let go of the gods we worshiped and the rituals. I don’t agree with the methods by which the British dominated the African countries they colonized, but I’m glad they made us forgo some practices. I wish the ban of FGM was enforced in countries like Kenya and those harmful rituals or coming-of-age procedures were banned too. ‘Things Fall Apart’ and works by Ngugi and other pioneer African writers make you think!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the great comment Darkowaa, they do indeed make you think although I’m sure that’s not the thought Ngugi hoped to inspire!! 🙂 I see where you are coming from, but I wonder if such practices would have died out or at least down without foreign intervention for example Britain didn’t give women the right to vote, but they needed time and modernity to see the error of their ways, not an invasion! In some ways Britain’s intervention entrenched the ritual further into being part of ones cultural identity as it became a symbol of nationalism and defiance. Personally, I dont agree with Ngugi’s attitude to this specific ritual, but his basic wider point of the colonisers not caring and just breaking down cultures in order to rule and make money is an astute one!

    Liked by 1 person

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