The River Between is the first novel written and the second novel published by Ngugi wa Thiong'o. He wrote the book in 1965 while a student of English at Makerere University, an affiliate of the University of London in Kampala, Uganda. It was originally entitled “The Black Messiah.”
While Ngugi initially admired the English literary canon and immersed himself in the Christian faith (and indeed, there are echoes of Conrad and other Western writers in this work), a number of incidents shook his beliefs and inspired him to explore the complex relationship between colonizer and colonized. First, 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. Second, during the African Writers Conference in 1962, he learned that there was a lack of East African literature, in contrast 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.
The River Between was published in a time when the British were trying 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, and the book is not considered a black-and-white picture of the situation.
A central issue in the novel is female circumcision, which the Western world refers to as "genital mutilation," a term with negative connotations. However, some 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 defense 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.