Staging Liminality: Setting in Ngugi wa Thiong'o's The River Between

Benjamin Graves '98, UTRA Fellow 1997

In The River Between (1965), Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o uses a distinction in setting between two mountain ridges as an organizing conceit that dramatizes the antagonism between two competing native constituencies and their seemingly irreconcilable belief structures. Because the setting (presumably the late 1940's or early 1950's) precedes emergence of substantive attempts at decolonization, Ngugi's novel portrays not so much the conflict between "colonizer" and "colonized" but the internal conflicts and plural ambitions of native people themselves. The novel's opening situates the narrative's broader conflicts within a Kenyan landscape that has yet to experience the effects of British colonialism:

The two ridges lay side by side. One was Kameno, the other was Makuyu. Between them was a valley. It was called the valley of life. Behind Kameno and Makuyu were many more valleys and ridges, lying without any discernible plan. They were like many sleeping lions which never woke. They just slept, the big deep sleep of their Creator. A river flowed through the valley of life ... The river was called Honia, which meant cure, or bring-back-life. Honia river never dried: it seemed to possess a strong will to live. scorning droughts and weather changes. (1)

When you stood in the valley, the two ridges ceased to be sleeping lions united by their common source of life. They became antagonists. You could tell this, not by anything tangible but by the way they faced each other, like two rivals ready to come to blows in a life and death struggle for the leadership of this isolated region. (1)

The deeply rooted conflict between the Kameno and Makuyu ridges is centrally one of religious antagonism; whereas the Kameno ridge, home of the novel's protagonist Waiyaki, symbolizes a continuation of indigenous cultural traditions such as polytheism and circumcision, the inhabitants of the Makuyu ridge had already succumbed to the exigencies of Christianity and British educational systems. Waiyaki, perhaps occupying a liminal position between the two ridges, is forced to negotiate between contending loyalties and allegiances--between, on one hand, his foreseen responsibility as the prophesied "saviour" of Kameno traditions, and on the other hand, his conviction in the values of British education and his clandestine relationship with Nyambura, the beautiful daughter of the region's foremost Christian minister.

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Last Modified: 15 March 2002