First published in 1965, The River Between is a candid portrayal of colonialism’s impact on East Africa.
The book is set in rural Kenya, in the land of the Kikuyu community. The river referred to in the title, is the Honia river that separates the two ridges of Kameno and Makuyu. It flows through the valley of life, which brings the two ridges together.
In Kameno lives a well known elder, Chege, father to the main character, Waiyaki. Many in the village think that Chege has some kind of magic and that he talks to Murungu (God) but he keeps his thoughts to himself. Chege does not understand what all this Christian teaching is about. God had a son, he also had one. All this does not make sense to him.
Though worried that his son might convert to Christianity, Chege decides to send Waiyaki to a Christian school to acquire the knowledge of the white man but not his ways.
“Had not Mugo wa Kibiro the great Gikuyu seer, in whose line Chege and his son run, talked about the coming of the white man? Mugo told the people that …. ‘‘You could not cut butterflies with a panga …you could not spear them until you learnt their ways of movement, trap and fight back…”(Page 20)
On the other side of the river, we meet Joshua a well known Christian convert in Makuyu. He takes all tribal rituals to be evil. He leads long services. His two daughters Nyambura and Muthoni are not circumcised, because Joshua objects to this evil practice. Against Joshua’s wishes, one of the daughters, Muthoni agrees to get circumcised. Unfortunately, she never recovers from her wounds, and dies.
Chege and Joshua symbolize the divide between the two ridges of Kameno and Makuyu, with the former sticking to the traditional ways, and the latter converting to Christianity and taking on the ways of the white colonialists.
It falls to Waiyaki to act as a bridge between the two different worlds. At school, he studies to become a teacher, and after he graduates, his main mission is to promote education. Seeing education as a tool to heal the rift between the people of Kameno and Makuyu, he works to build many schools in the two ridges. For a while, it appears that Waiyaki is indeed succeeding.
However, when he falls in love with Joshua’s daughter Nyambura, his neutrality is compromised in the eyes of his people. His two rivals, Kabonyi who hates him because of his success and Kamau who hates him because of his love towards Nyambura, plot to bring him down. Ultimately, Waiyaki is forced to choose between allegiance to his tribe and his love for the uncircumcised Nyambura.
The book is a sad commentary on the conflict that tore villages and families in Africa during the colonial era as old traditions clashed with Christianity.