Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 26, 2018

The River Between (1965), by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Well, this is a book that took me right out of my comfort zone… I like to think that I am respectful of other cultures, but not when they conflict with my own deeply held liberal-democratic values about human rights.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is an author often suggested as a potential winner of the Nobel Prize, and this book, The River Between is listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  

At one level, this is a simple love story set in the mid-colonial period, an African Romeo and Juliet in which two young people from opposing Gikuyu villages fall in love and attempt to transcend the ancient rift between their communities, with tragic results.  On a more complex level, the novel engages with Kenya’s precolonial and colonial history.  It depicts the slow but steady infiltration by the British; the alienation of local people from their land; the negative effects of Christian mission on local power structures, rituals and relationships; and the deep disunity between different African factions that preceded the anticolonial struggle of the 1950s.  (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Ed. Perter Boxall, ABC Books, 2006 Edition, p.574)

Well, yes, it does all that in just 152 pages, and it does so in deceptively simple language and an ordinary chronological structure.  But what made me read it with a sense of seething rage was the way circumcision, and in particular, female circumcision a.k.a. FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), is used to symbolise the purity of the tribe and is therefore a ritual worth protecting against change.

Joshua is a Christianised firebrand preacher who has decreed that his daughters will not be circumcised because it is a pagan ritual.  Muthoni, the elder of the two, decides that she wants to be a real woman, knowing all the ways of the hills and ridges, so she defies her father and takes part in the annual initiation ceremonies.  So does Waiyaki, a young man who tentatively believes his father’s prophecy that he will be a leader of his people.  Thiong’o describes at length the agony of the male circumcision, without a word about the agony of the female experience, nor the denial of her sexuality, nor the risks associated with not only the lack of basic surgical hygiene but also the risk of death or permanent disabling injury in childbirth.  Opposition to circumcision is parcelled up with all the other wrongs that the Christianising colonising interlopers bring with them: dispossession, racism, taxes and political interference, as if the missionaries could even have known about female circumcision if not for witnessing its terrible consequences in their hospitals.  Thiong’o addresses the male expectation that their wives be circumcised only obliquely, by depicting his villagers’ assertion that no man would want to trade his cows for an uncircumcised wife, and he makes Muthoni complicit in her own mutilation by investing the procedure with secret female knowledge while never mentioning that female circumcision is merely a brutal technique for ensuring fidelity because intercourse is consequently so painful.   Muthoni dies, and the villagers ascribe her death to the malevolent influence of the new religion.  There is no mention of the infection which is obvious to any contemporary reader, only its symptoms.

Muthoni’s sister Nyambura admires Waiyaki because he was the only one to help Muthoni even though she reached the mission hospital too late.  Nyambura and Waiyaki fall in love, but the political forces that are tearing the village apart exacerbate the Romeo and Juliet scenario and it all ends badly.

When Waiyaki reflects on his uncertainties, he struggles to reconcile his desire to help his people through education without alienating them from their traditions.

…how could he be a saviour when he himself had already lost that contact with the past?

Muthoni had tried.  Hers was a search for salvation for herself.  She had the courage to attempt a reconciliation of the many forces that wanted to control her. She had realised her need, the need to have a wholesome and beautiful life that enriched you and made you grow.  His father, too, had tried to reconcile the two ways, not in himself, but through his son.  Waiyaki was a product of that attempt.  Yes, in the quietness of the hill, Waiyaki had realised many things.  Circumcision of women was not important as a physical operation.  It was what it did inside a person.  It could not be stopped overnight.  Patience, and above all, education, were needed.  If the white man’s religion made you abandon a custom and then did no give you something else of equal value, you became lost.  An attempt at resolution of the conflict would only kill you, as it did Muthoni. (p.142)

Female circumcision is described here as fulfilling a need to have a wholesome and beautiful life that enriched you and made you grow.  Women trying to end this barbaric practice in societies where it continues, must gnash their teeth when they read that, and that it cannot be stopped overnight.  ‘Be patient’ is the subtext, ‘and don’t try to change things until we, the male decision-makers, find some other way of controlling your bodies and ensuring that you conform to our ideas about female worthiness.’

I have Petals of Blood on the TBR.  I think I’ll leave it a while before I read it…

Desert FlowerYears ago when I read Desert Flower by Dirie Waris, the Somalian emblem of the UN campaign against FGM, I wrote in my journal that ‘the argument about FGM aiding the stability of society is as archaic as chastity belts, and if the stability of society relies on the mutilation of women then it deserves to change’.  That was back in 2008 and I have no reason to change my opinion now, even if a potential Nobel prize winner chooses to romanticise it.

Update 21/5/18 I am pleased to see that news reports about an impending prosecution in Australia show that we do not tolerate FGM here.

Update 29/4/19 For a different slant on this book, see the review for the #1965Club at Typings.

Author: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Title: The River Between
Publisher: Pearson 2008 (reprint of Heinemann African Writers Series, 1965)
ISBN: 978043590548
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $22.98

Available from Fishpond: The River Between (Heinemann African Writers Series)



  1. I read this book before going to India although I did not review it. The introduction to the Penguin edition I read addresses the circumcision issue and the discomfort it raises. It is symbolically important and I would say that the discomfort it raises in the reader (and the conflict between the sisters) is more powerful.

    It is not an argument reflected in Ngugi’s later novels which are highly supportive of women. I believe it reflects the characters not the author. Having had the honour of meeting him twice last month, and hearing him speak, I have no hesitation in saying that you know you are in the presence of one of the greatest living writers and human rights champions of our time.


    • I thought of you, Joe, as I wrote this, because I know how much you admire this author. I was also mindful that he wrote in 1965 and that it would be odd if his views hadn’t changed in all sorts of ways. But still, the book is what it is (and my edition doesn’t have an introduction) and this was my response to it. It hasn’t put me off, I hasten to say, only made me want some time in between reading anything else that comes later…
      Because of course we are all against colonialism!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lisa, your observations are apt. I guess the author wants something other than physical genital cutting, something spiritual & authentically African. If so, he should write a new Foreword and reprint the book. Did you like Americanah, by C. N. Adichie? I actually read it, myself.


    • Hello Anton, thanks for taking the time to comment. No, I haven’t read Americanah yet, though I’ve had it on the TBR since it came out.
      But I do think we need to think clearly about authentic aspects of cultures, wherever they’re from. Very often they are misogynistic and harmful, and when they are, they should be jettisoned without hesitation, and without accusations that a culture is being hijacked by a colonising or an alien religious power.


      • Favorite bad examples: Foot-binding in China. Skull shaping. Neck stretching with permanent neck rings. Amazing ear stretching. Many others.
        But Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is one of the worst. No excuse for it. Not even required by Islam — to say that it was “religious” is false, as shown by many Islamic countries where it is unknown. It seems to be pre-Islamic across a narrow band of sub-Saharan countries. Check out literature on the subject (fiction & non-fiction): we can make a list!


      • Here’s a funny one, re: Missionaries and culture domination.
        Early in the 20th Century, Christian (Dutch) administrators told Balinese women to cover up their breasts, wear a top. In the 1970s and maybe even into the 1980s, on country roads, you could see grandmothers walking wearing only a loose vest.
        MEANWHILE, a new wave of Westerners were arriving & going topless at hotel swimming pools and maybe some beaches. What were Balinese women supposed to think is the Western “norm” …?


        • Gosh, Anton I would hate to think that the way Australian tourists behave at Kuta is considered to be the Western norm. They are a national embarrassment, with or without their tops on…


  3. I’m afraid I couldn’t read this – literally couldn’t. Even the concept of female worthiness having to be measured by males makes my blood boil. But standing back, to reprint a book with these attitudes with no comment seems foolish to say the least. And I agree about harmful processes having to go, whichever culture they come from.


  4. Well said Lisa. All I can say as a guy is that it was 1965, but I agree that should have been addressed with a new introduction – not least by the author himself if his views have indeed changed.

    Interested to see what you say when you get to Amerikanah. My notes say I found it just another plain vanilla US novel.


    • Well, I gather from what Joe says that new editions do have an intro, but, well, the edition I had, didn’t. I think since it’s published by Pearson is probably a school edition…
      I think I’ve heard that about Amerikanah, but I guess I’ll have to read it for myself at some stage.


  5. hello,Lisa
    now ,Iam working on my thesis at sulemani university of Iraq about the river between novel, I think it is about the image of Africa and post colonial impact on its society,culture and rational rites.


    • Hello Aram, I agree with you, it is about those things, but it is offends me that by defending traditional rites, it is defending FGM (female genital mutilation) and making it seem like a desirable procedure instead of a cruel barbarism.


      • you are absolutely right ,but it is about African culture. they accept all ugliness of it. I agree with you it is against humanity values.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I guess what bothers me is that Thiong’o had an opportunity to speak out against it, or at least not support it, but he chose not to… and this book was probably influential when it was first written.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. […] to prevent FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) in  Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s The River Between, (see my unease about how this was portrayed) a vazaha (a white British Christian missionary) called Blake intervenes to save Fara, and the […]


  7. […] a bit startled to find that there were aspects of that novel which irked my feminist sensibilities (see my review).  I was dubious about Ngũgĩ presenting the right to undertake FGM (female genital mutilation) […]


  8. […] The River Between, by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o #BookReview Kenya […]


  9. […] I interpreted this as him implying that it was a ritual worth protecting against change.  (See my review).  I revisited my dismay in my review of his Petals of Blood, writing […]


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