Customer Reviews: The River Between (African Writers Series)
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on October 6, 2004
With every work of Ngugi's that I read, the more impressed I am. I first came across his "Petals of Blood" by chance in a used bookstore years ago, and ever since I've kept an eye open for other books of his. I admit that I've only read his novels, though; reading plays (as opposed to seeing them performed) for the most part doesn't move me nearly as much.

In "The River Between", Ngugi once again arrives at a viewpoint of tolerance while denouncing corruption in society; he manages to do so without demonizing the people on either side of any particular issue. He recognizes the strengths and weaknesses, the convictions and the doubts with which most human beings are imbued. He doesn't automatically blame all of his country's or his continent's problems on the "White Man", but rather he recognizes that the corruption and venality that continue to plague his society are things which are rooted in the universal human condition, not imports from Europe or the USA. He manages here to deal with a highly charged issue, as provocative and controversial now as it was at the time he wrote this book, namely "female circumcision" or "female genital mutilation", depending on your point of view. Almost uniquely, it seems, among Kenyan intellectuals he questions the absolute necessity of the practice to the maintenance of traditional social structure and values; but he does so while neither fervently condemning nor acclaiming it. As I've come to expect from Ngugi, he finds a road between extreme and fanatical stands - or a "river between", if you prefer; the protagonist attempts to make up his own mind rather than unquestioningly accepting received teaching about the absolute rightness or wrongness of either traditional practices or revolutionary knowledge. He recognizes that not all traditional practices are necessarily "better" or more "pure" than new ways of thinking, but that neither can they be eliminated by fiat without disastrous consequences for society, that education and time are necessary for peoples' thinking to evolve and for other values to be allowed to take the place of some of those that have been cherished since time immemorial. I confess that I was a little leery when I began reading this book; I feared that Ngugi would follow the line of so many other African writers in fervent support of female circumcision or FMG. That was the staunch rock of faith upon which I foundered when reading other books such as Jomo Kenyatta's "Facing Mount Kenya" and Camara Laye's "The African Child". I was suitably heartened to find that Ngugi once again finds his own mind, something I've come to see as the hallmark of his writing. But his protagonist doesn't arrive at the journey's destination by easy paths - I'm reminded of a line by the great singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez, that "la angustia es el precio de ser uno mismo" ("anguish is the price of being oneself").
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on September 21, 2005
The River Between is a subtle tale that manages to comprehensively deal with a variety of themes including the challenge of leadership, the values of traditional heritage, the destructive nature of rejection of culture and finally, the multi faceted dimensions of the human personality.

As an African woman in the Diaspora, the writing of African writers from the Continent is a very important and an integral means of connecting with a heritage that I am routinely forced to ignore and misunderstand. This novel, amongst many other African novels, is an important tool in the re-education of the mind, forcing you to understand the dynamics of the many diverse African cultures as well as introducing you to the unique mode of storytelling that African writers illustrate so well, and Ngugi is a particularly accomplished story teller.

A River Between, although set amongst the Gikuyu, has lessons for all African people everywhere fighting for self-determination, survival and most importantly, global unity amongst African people. The way in which Ngugi deals with the issue of Female Circumsion is one that I have to respect. He does not simply demonise the practice but puts the practice into the context of tradition and heritage. Indeed, he highlights the perils of literally `white' washing African cultures through the character of Joshua who ultimately loses both his children.

One of the most memorable quotes for me occurs in Chapter 25 when Waiyaki thinks to himself about Joshua, the `white' man's horse:

"He had clothed himself with a religion decorates and smeared with everything white. He renounced his past and cut himself away from those life-giving traditions of the tribe. And because he had nothing to rest upon, something rich and firm on which to stand and grow, eh had to cling with his hands to whatever the missionaries taught him..."

Overall, River Between is a beautifully written story that illustrates the complimentary nature of duality or seemingly apparent opposites. It is subtle and yet bold; inspirational but also cautionary. Everything is intricately interwoven and you realise that all elements of life is steadfastly connected with each other, you can not successfully separate love from social responsibility, or heritage and legacy from the present and future.
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on December 6, 2001
I re-read the river between for literature and I was just touched like I was at the very first time. The quality anthropology aspects that Mr wa Thiong'o builts in his books (like many other African writers too) makes the reader come into the setting and be part of it. The book managed to win my sympathy for the 'oppresed' Kikukyu and reminded me of the many evils done to the colonised people all over the world. Christianity seems not able to escape blame in the whole operation because of its readiness to inflict suffering to the people so that they could join the religion.
Today the book is still relevant, though the position of the whites has been taken by the ruling class and the rich.
The book is worth reading in any case.
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on March 3, 2016
A re-edition of one of Ngugi's early works, A River Between explores the roots of many current Kenyan and African issues set in a past, quasi-legendary time. As in his novel, Matigari, the prose is clear and direct and some may call the characterization simple. Behind the simplicity is a well-thought out and provocative tale involving the conflict between tradition, so-called modernization, and the role education plays in said conflict.
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on October 25, 2013
"The River Between" is a novel written by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o based on the separation of two neighboring villages of Kenya that are torn apart by their differences of faith. It depicts and analyzes the conflict between missionaries seeking to spread their Christian faith and the indigenous African tribes. It also explores the consequences of living under colonialism and describes the African fight for independence from colonial powers. As Ngugi Wa Thiong'o grew up in this time and first hand witness it happened he used this book to get his story out. The Main character, Waiyaki, I believe Thiong'o used him to actually portray himself in a way and the situation he witness growing up. One thing that stood out to me was Ngugi Wa Thiong'o's writing style. He was very descriptive in his diction use and that caused me to become visually inclined in the book. He also used many analogies or symbolisms that correlated between certain conflicts that made you think about different situations in perspective throughout the novel. This novel I believed got Thiong'o's story out and it makes the reader aware of Africa's past and even current struggles.

*Read this book for Dr. Rhonda M. Gonzales' HIS/AAS3603 class at the University of Texas At San Antonio*
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on August 25, 2013
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.
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on May 25, 2015
I am American but work in Livingstone Zambia and am there several times a year. I have a frame of reference for the topic, the culture, the torn feelings between tradition and progress, white ways and Africans. . But I have NEVER heard or read anything so profoundly put. Ngugi Wa Thiong'O is amazing in his writing. He really shows ALL of us, how important understanding a culture is before we go in and try to make change, to respect another while helping their hopes become a reality.

I bought this book to give to the library in Zambia but I cannot part with it. I am sure I will reread it many times and for sure will read his other books.+
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on December 30, 2014
It's a beautifully written book about indigenous people of Kenya and the changes they went through after the arrival of Europeans with new ideas and religion. The author beautifully describes the dilemma of holding on to the traditions and customs but at the same time wanting to learn ways of white men.
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on November 4, 2015
I was first recommended this author and this novel by three well-read Tanzanian friends, bought it immediately, but then set it aside. Recently a new friend from Nairobi said she considers Ngugi Wa Thiong'o the most authentic writer of Africa and this is in fact her second choice novel among his works. (She praises 'A Grain of Wheat' first). But I finally read it, and I'm glad I did.
This is not a Disney version of African culture, even as its plot would seem to follow a familiar narrative arc toward an inevitable hopefullly-happy ending. It's a much more thoughtful book than that, with complex characters and layers of social and political complexity that demand nuance and care. It's a slim novel, but much is delivered in these short chapters.
If setting can be studied as character or more simply as "revealing character," as in an objective correlative use of setting, this novel is an excellent example. The symbolism of the river itself and the isolated mountain ridges and their villages carry powerful meaning, but they never feel forced as symbol. From my own perspective, I had simply never considered the other side of the questions involving the importance of tradition in general and of ritual circumcision (male and female) more specifically. This novel was an invitation to consider these things more fully. I closed the book in the end with more questions than answers, which I consider valuable. I'd read Chinua Achebe's 'Things Fall Apart' a year or so ago, and was pleased to see he introduced this edition of 'The River Between.' His perspective added another important dimension my experience of this work. It is very much about Africa when Christianity and the white man first arrive, and there's no mistaking the importance of this time and setting, but the story is universal and timeless, and any one of those "mood" boxes above would apply. Hopeful, Dark, Nostalgic, Light-hearted, Suspenseful, and most definitely: Thoughtful.
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on October 24, 2013
Kenya has a story to tell. Over and over again, we are being reminded that Africa does have a history, after all. In fact, it becomes more and more apparent with the rise of each great African storyteller that this vast and unique continent has much to contribute to our idea of human history.

Ngugi wrote this particular masterpiece in 1965, yet many of us are just now discovering it. In my case, I have had the pleasure of reading it in my HIS 3603 class at UTSA, taught by Dr. Rhonda Gonzales. "The River Between" provides an opportunity for Ngugi to tell a great story, of course, but I also believe that he has used the novel's main protagonist, Waiyaki, as a character that actually represents the author, himself.

Waiyaki is a man with a particular calling, and a clear gift for leadership, and he embraces both. He is a truth-seeker, and he recognizes the huge changes that truth can bring. As a fierce battle begins between Western "progress" (and particularly Christianity) and traditional, tribal customs, it is clear almost immediately that Waiyaki will be faced with nearly impossible choices. No matter what he does, his decisions will draw immediate and even violent opposition from those who either cannot or will not understand.

The novel is rich in symbolism and allegory, yet, in the end, it would seem that perhaps that greatest literary device used in "The River Between" is that Ngugi has found a character in Waiyaki that actually represents Ngugi's own bitter struggles and tough choices.

Leadership demands courageous decisions, and both the author and his main character both seem to have grasped that truth completely.
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