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When Two Worlds Collide: A Review of “The River Between”

January 19, 2012

By Fiorenzo Conte

The River Between by Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o narrates the story of Kenya at the time of the early white settlement. The arrival of the white men spelled a radical change for two communities living on the opposing edges of a river. The white men were, infact, the pioneer of a new way of understanding the world and mastering it: in other words what the Gikuyu community (one of the Kenyan ethnic groups) faced was not only a new representation of the same world they used to live in but a very new world shaped by new sciences and new power relations whereby the land was expropriated and a monetary tribute was levied. The choice which confronted the indigenous communities was one of acceptance of the new world or rejection and loyalty to the purity of the tribe. One village embraced white men and Christian world by rejecting the old, the other village pursued to preservation of the independence of the tribe: in this way the river that once united the people on its shore became the river between, the river which divided.

The River Between is a powerful exploration of the dilemma which tore apart the Gikuyu communities in Kenya when the colonial power settled in. The whole story revolves around a fundamental episode: the choice a girl, whose family had converted to Christianity, to undergo circumcision, a ritual considered by the tribe as necessary to enter womanhood and therefore become marriable. Following complication in the surgery she dies and her death is interpreted in a diverging way: for some it was the sign that the arrival of the new religion had upset the spirits, for the others it meant that the old customs were the devils and had to be eliminated. Each interpretation flowed out of the world to which one belonged to. Her death symbolized the death of the possibility of an existence which went beyond division: an existence which embraced both worlds without renouncing to any.

The fictional tale created by Wa Thiong’o is rooted in a real episode which occurred in the early time of colonialism: the attempt of the Christian missionary to ban what they considered the barbaric practice of female circumcision. This practice however was foundational for the Gikuyu community and therefore spurred the contempt of many Gikuyu who thought of the new religion as not reconcilable with theirs. The split the followed between the loyalist to the new colonial authority and the Gikuyu loyal to their tribe was at the root of independence war which in fact was a civil war: Gikuyu loyalist on one side and Gikuyu tribalist one the other. The impossibility of an existence which straddled upon the two colliding worlds was sanctioned in the death of the girl: the inevitable consequence was conflict.

One merit of this novel is to put the finger on a theme which cannot by any means be relegated to the colonial time. It is a matter which is, in fact, part and parcel of our contemporary world: the dilemma brought about by the collision of two worlds and the struggle to reconcile them. Think about immigration in the western countries: the debate is often framed as the clash of two cultures. Migrants are asked to give up their customs, their languages, their food, their names because it could water down the purity of the other world: if you want to fit in, we say, you must just look like us. As one of Chimamanda Adichie’s character poignantly puts it :

“Look at the people who shop here; they are the ones who immigrate and continue to act as if they are back in their countries.” He gestured, dismissively, toward a woman and her two children, who were speaking Spanish. “They will never move forward unless they adapt to America. They will always be doomed to supermarkets like this”.[1]

The power and importance of the message in The River Between is that when adaptation becomes synonymous with rejection of the other possible world, when the possibility of embracing both worlds without renouncing to any is labeled as impossible the inevitable outcome is collision and conflict. A fundamental cautionary message for our societies.


[1] The story whose title is “The Arrangers of Marriage” is taken from the book “The Thing Around Your Neck”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. alouimhmed permalink
    March 24, 2014 10:17 pm

    i want the family conflict in the river between by ngugi

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