The River Between is a novel written by Ngugi wa Thiong'o focusing on the impact of European settlement on Kenya from before up to the earliest parts the Mau Mau Uprising. The story focuses on three sides: the Christian missionaries and African Christians, the latter led by the passionate Joshua, a Kenyan Christian convert; the Kiama, a council determined to drive the white man out of Kenya, led by former convert Kabonyi; and Waiyaki, the son of the Gikuyu tribe's spiritual leader Chege, who is determined to educate the people of the tribe—and in the future, all of Kenya—in order to bring unity to his fellow Africans—and who may also be the prophesied 'black messiah' who will save the Africans, all of which dwell on the ridges of Kameno and Makuyu.
Tensions between the Gikuyu tribesmen and the missionaries/converts rise when the Joshua's youngest daughter, Muthoni, decides to run away from home in order to be circumcised and accepted into the tribe, in an attempt to meld her Christian upbringing with tribal life. When she dies (possibly from infection), each side is more than willing to blame the other: Joshua, the missionaries, and converts feel that this is a sign that all things African are barbaric and must be eradicated, especially female circumcision, while Chege and the other tribesmen believe that Muthoni's death was caused by the Gikuyu god, Murugu, as punishment towards Joshua for converting to Christianity and also serving as a sign that no good will come from the Europeans or their religion.
Caught in the middle of this conflict is Waiyaki, who carries the burden of possibly being the 'black messiah' and who struggles over whether or not there is any way to unify his tribe's traditions with the ways of white man, and thus unify all Africans, converted and traditional. His growing popularity and reputation as 'The Teacher', a title he earns by setting up schools throughout the village, as well as the ire of Kabonyi and his son, Kamau, due to this popularity, does not help the situation, especially since both are powerful members within the Kiama and use this power to attack Waiyaki. All of this occurs as Waiyaki slowly falls for Nyambura, Joshua's eldest daughter...
Provides Examples Of:
- A Day in the Limelight: Kinuthia gets a whole chapter describing his joy at being friends with someone as influential as Waiyaki and expressing his concern about the dangers Waiyaki faces due to his fame; Kamau gets little snippets here or there, in which his jealousy over Waiyaki is revealed.
- All Girls Want Bad Boys: Nyambura in regards to Waiyaki; mostly a subversion because Waiyaki isn't a 'bad boy', but is simply working for the tribe, which is the main—if not only—reason Joshua is so opposed to her pursuing him.
- Always Save the Girl: Waiyaki tries to do this and unify the people of the tribe. It winds up failing spectacularly, mostly thanks to the Kiama turning the people against Waiyaki.
- Arc Words: 'The oath!' 'Remember the oath!', which reflects the time during the Mau Mau Uprising when members of the Land and People Party, the Africans opposing colonialism, had to take oaths of loyalty to their people, which was very Serious Business.
- Bittersweet Ending / Downer Ending: Depending on whether you believe Waiyaki and Nyambura will survive the trial before the Kiama. Combined with Hope Spot.
- Break His Heart to Save Him: Nyambura is forced to do this to Waiyaki, because she knows that, since she is Joshua's daughter, not only will being with him cause Joshua to disown her, it would also put Waiyaki at risk because he's supposed to protect the traditions and desires of the tribe.
- Cassandra Truth: Early in the novel, Chege tells Waiyaki that the family's ancestor had tried to warn the people that the 'people with clothes like butterflies' (the Europeans) would come and take over, but no one listened, and said ancestor wound up dying miserably as an exile. A similar situation occurs with Chege, in that the people of the tribe refuse to heed his warning about the missions until Muthoni, Joshua's younger daughter, dies.
- Converting for Love: Nyambura.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: It's pretty clear that Waiyaki is supposed to represent Jesus and that Kinuthia's inability to warn Waiyaki that the Kiama has Nyambura in thier possession and are planning on using her as a tool to turn the people against him symbolizes Peter's denial of Jesus.
- Foreshadowing: Early in the novel, Chege states that all prophets are doomed to tragedy; Waiyaki's Green-Eyed Epiphany coincides with this trope, as it also hints that Kamau may have feelings for Nyambura; Waiyaki at one point says that he pictures Nyambura being on an 'altar of sacrifice' and even has a nightmare where she's torn apart by the townspeople.
- Last Girl Wins: Waiyaki falls in love with Nyambura instead of her younger sister, Muthoni.
- Green-Eyed Epiphany: Ironically from Waiyaki, which occurs when he gets upset over Kamau commenting on how beautiful Nyambura is.
- Green-Eyed Monster: Kabonyi, who is jealous of Waiyaki's popularity and influence over the people of the tribe, and his son, Kamau, who is upset that Nyambura loves Waiyaki instead of him.
- Grey-and-Gray Morality: Depending on how interpret the motives behind the characters' actions.
- Holding Hands: A sign of Waiyaki's and Nyambura's Relationship Upgrade.
- Hope Spot: Oh so much.
- If I Can't Have You...: Kamau in regards to Nyambura, but he winds up attacking Waiyaki instead of her.
- Last Minute Hookup / Relationship Upgrade: Between Waiyaki and Nyambura. It doesn't end well.
- Love Triangle: Waiyaki, Kamau, and Nyambura; however, Nyambura is totally unaware of Kamau's feelings and only has eyes for Waiyaki.
- Magical Realism: The pre-initiation dance between Waiyaki and Muthoni is described as almost supernatural in nature.
- Murder the Hypotenuse: Implied to be done indirectly by by making Waiyaki look like a traitor to the tribe, who then put him on trial. It backfires when Nyambura is put on trial with him.
- Poor Communication Kills: Leading to many unfortunate events.
- Prophecies Are Always Right: Both played straight and subverted, in that, yes, the 'people with clothes like butterflies' do arrive, but Waiyaki, the supposed 'messiah', is taken away to be tried by the Kiama before he can convince the people to unify against the Europeans.
- The Rival: Kamau and Kabonyi to Waiyaki, because of the latter's increasing popularity. Kamau takes it a bit further when it is revealed that he has feelings for Nyambura. Of course, Waiyaki doesn't catch on until the middle to latter chapters of the novel.
- She Is All Grown Up / She Cleans Up Nicely: Nyambura later on in the novel.
- Star-Crossed Lovers
- Your Worst Nightmare: Waiyaki's dream.