The River Between is the first novel written and the second novel published by Ngugi wa Thiong'o. He wrote the book in 1965 when he was a student of English at Makerere University, an affiliate of the University of London in Kampala, Uganda. While at first he admired the English literary canon and immersed himself in the Christian faith, a number of incidents shook his beliefs and inspired him to explore the complex relationship between colonizer and colonized:
Firstly, during the Mau Mau Uprising between 1952 and 1960 the British (who provided his education and converted him to Christianity) imprisoned his brother and tortured his mother during a state of emergency.
Secondly, during the African Writers Conference in 1962, he learned that there was a lack of East African literature as opposed to the wealth of western and southern African literature.
Finally, Hugh Dinwiddy, a British faculty member at Makerere, said in one of his lectures that "It’s time we had some African novelists. We can’t go on with Elspeth Huxley." About three weeks later, Ngugi came knocking at the professor's door late at night and presented his manuscript of The River Between. This sense of urgency is also present in the novel, as Waiyaki tries to establish a large number of schools as quickly as possible.
The River Between was published in a time when the British tried to eradicate female circumcision. It is the first of a series of books written in English, where Ngugi explores the effects of colonialism on African society. The results are complex, which is why the book is not painting a black-and-white picture of the situation. In fact, since there were tensions within the country before the British arrived, colonialism may even be seen as a necessary evil, which forces Kenyans to define their own goals and unite to discuss their own ideas of how to progress.
A central issue in the novel is female circumcision, which the Western world calls "genital mutilation," a term with extremely negative connotations. However, some traditional Africans consider it a necessary procedure to initiate their girls into womanhood, as pointed out by the first Kenyan leader Jomo Kenyatta: "The real argument lies not in the defence of the surgical operation or its details, but in the understanding of a very important fact in the tribal psychology of the Gikuyu—namely, that this operation is still regarded as the very essence of an institution which has enormous educational, social, moral and religious implications, quite apart from the operation itself. For the present it is impossible for a member of the tribe to imagine an initiation without clitoridectomy. Therefore the abolition of the surgical element of this custom means to the Gikuyu the abolition of the whole institution." Thus, the central point in The River Between is that the idea of abolishing circumcision must not be imposed on people by an external force, but rather discussed within the tribes, strengthening the autonomy of the people while at the same time allowing traditions to be questioned without punishment.