Kristen has been writing for over 30 years. She graduated from UCF with a B.A. in English-Creative Writing.
Weep Not, Child as a Postcolonial Novel
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's Weep Not, Child, his first novel, was written during his time at Makerere University. He penned it under the name James Ngũgĩ. At this time, his native country Kenya was just breaking out from being under British rule, as it had been since the late 19th century. For his first 25 years, Thiong’o only knew Kenyan life in the way it was through the capacity of British influence as a subject of the Empire.
Aime Cesaire defines colonialism as “the baleful projected shadow of a form of civilization which, at a certain point in its history, finds itself obligated, for internal reasons, to extent to a world scale the competition of its antagonist economies” (From Discourse on Colonialism) It is like a life or death, large scale game of Risk; the more countries one controls, the more resources they have to take on their opponents for world domination. And resources they were, for all the colonized countries and their people were viewed under the equation “colonization=thingification” (Cesaire, From Discourse on Colonization).
Weep Not, Child follows the pursuit of Njoroge to obtain an education so that he can provide a better life for his family, and his attempts to be a good Christian. Like the author, Njoroge has known nothing but colonialism all his life. Through his main protagonist, Thiong’o shows us how the colonist employed the tools of education and religion in an attempt to control the Kenyan people through the hegemony of the British way of life.
A Synopsis of the Book
The book begins with Njoroge speaking with his birth mother, Nyokabi, about going to school. He is told that he is to start attending. He is the first in his family, and the only one of the five sons, to be able to go. This is something that he truly wants, as it is seen as a great opportunity. He vows to not let his family down. It will be a commitment that will require his lower-class family to investment money for him to be there, including needing to “buy …a shirt and a pair of shorts” (Thiong’o 3). They are so committed, that later on when his parents run into financial hard times, his brothers help pick up the cost. The family is willing to do it, as it is those who have an education have the best chance of breaking out of poverty, and potentially having a chance to gain some sort of authority and status. Njoroge and his brother point this out of the village chief, Jacobo, who is “as rich as Mr. Howlands because he got education” and his son, John, who “because he has finished his learning in Kenya, he will now go far away” (Thiong’o 4).
As we see through Njoroge’s father, Ngotho, this was not always the case. The land he works on for Mr. Howlands belonged to their family for generations before Kenya became part of the British Empire. Originally, it was through hard work of the land that the Kenyans could provide a good life for themselves. Ngotho believes in an old prophesy that the land will return to the rightful owners, so he “felt responsible for whatever happened to this land. He owed it to the dead, the living, and the unborn of this line, to keep guard” (Thiong’o 32). The difference in views between the father and son shows the effects of colonialism on the newer generation; they are willing to accept the colonizers’ customs whereas the previous ones wish to return to their native ways.
We also see through Jacobo that everything is not the rosy path it appears to be. Jacobo, through his education and devout faith in the Christian god, is not as boundless as he believes himself to be. It is a well-known fact that history is biased toward the victor. By submitting to the instruction taught by the British educators, the lessons of the victor, this created a situation where Jacobo and those like him are “the hasty manufacture of a few thousand subordinates functionaries, “boys,” artisans, office clerks, and interpreters necessary for the smooth operation” of running an empire (Cesaire, From Discourse on Colonialism). Through Jacobo, we can see that all the talk of the colonizers that they were there to help the people to make their lives better so they could progress as a country was all a lie. All the education, material wealth, social status and eternal salvation through Christ were all illusions to generate a larger workforce for imperialist Great Britain. It is because of this that his fellow “uneducated” villagers see him for what he really is, and that contributes to his downfall.
To be able to achieve any success in Britain's Kenya, one must be able to speak the language of the ruling country. Though the entire book is written in English, we come to understand that the financially poor and untrained Kenyans primarily speak in Gikuyu, their native tongue. We learn through Njoroge “It was in Standard IV that they began to learn English” (Thiong’o 47). This makes reaching Standard IV a huge achievement for him. Those that do business with the Englishmen, like Jacobo, already speak the vernacular. From numerous conversations we’ve seen him have with Mr. Howlands and because of his education, he can speak it well. Ngotho can speak it somewhat; as he works for Mr. Howlands. It is through this that the colonists are indoctrinating the people of Kenya; by teaching them the language of the colonist.
Yet, the British do not wish to learn to speak the native tongue of the country. One of Ngotho’s duties on the shamba is to “manage the farm laborers” (Thiong’o 31). When the strike happens, the white men need to bring Jacobo in to speak to the strikers. As Fanon points out, “For colonialism, this vast continent was the haunt of savages” (On National Culture). In the colonists’ minds, why would they ever want to even try to learn the dialect of a civilization they view as inferior? You could say that they see themselves improving their lives by imposing the language of the “superior British people.”
Njoroge is able to do quite well through the lower grades and makes it to high school. He is the only one in his village to do so. This is even over Mwihaki, Jacobo’s daughter, who, for all the privilege she has being of the chief’s family, only qualifies for “teaching training school” (Thiong’o 115). So proud are the villagers that they collectively come up with the money to send him. In him, they see hope of being able to make it in the world of the colonist. “He was no longer the son of Ngotho but son of the land,” (Thiong’o 116).
Christianity as a Theme
Njoroge and Mwihaki are both attempting to be good Christians. We see them talk many times about the Bible and what God’s will is for them. They attend church on a fairly regular basis, as we are shown a number of times when they are home. We also learn that church services are part of school life. We are even shown that they even go to a service that requires them to go through the woods during an extremely tense period of the Mau Mau uprising, where being stopped without the proper identification paperwork meant death, as it did for their unfortunate former teacher, Isaka. Yet Njoroge’s faith was strong, as “he trusted God to carry him through” (Thiong’o 110).
As a subject as volatile as one’s spirituality, conversion is best done by starting with the youth. One of Njoroge’s favorite books to read is The Bible. When he speaks of the story of Adam and Eve, he refers to them by the names of the first humans of his family’s religious beliefs, the “one man, (Gikuyu) and one woman (Mumbi)” (Thiong’o 24). It’s as if he is trying to find the common ground in both the religion of his people and the Christianity he has been taught is the true religion. As Cesaire observes, the British “laid down the dishonest equation Christianity=civilization, paganism=savagery” (From Discourse on Colonialism). We see that the old sacred beliefs are being merged with the new religion of Christianity; slowly but surely taking over and obliterating the original beliefs of the people through the young.
What we see is the British imposing a binary on the Kenyan people: us/them. To be expected, they have placed themselves in a superior position. In doing so, the native people of this country, these “others” are the opposite of everything they are: intelligent, civilized, moral, and sophisticated. This is what they felt gave them the right to enforce their society on them, leaving in their wake a country “drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out” while creating a situation “which turn the colonizing man into a classroom monitor, an army sergeant, a prison guard, a slave driver” to control and assimilate the colonized into their social order (Cesaire, From Discourse on Colonialism).
Loss of Faith
What does that create? It produces “millions of men torn from their gods, their land, their habits, their life-from life, from the dance, from wisdom…millions of men in whom fear has been cunningly instilled, who have been taught to have an inferiority complex, to tremble, kneel, despair, and behave like flunkeys” (Cesaire, From Discourse on Colonialism). This is, then, the desired end result; a population so depleted of everything that they use to be, and that will serve unquestioningly with no chance of revolt.
In the end, we see the failure of colonization to make the lives of the Kenyans better, but meet the goals of the Empire. We only have to look to Njoroge. After the murder of Jacobo and Mr. Howlands by his brothers, he is ripped from the school and interrogated with his father. His brothers are all in prison, with Boro to be executed. His father dies from his injuries. He is left all alone to support his two mothers. By the end of the book, he no longer has any hope of ever being able to go back to school. With the loss of the one major dream he had, he sees no way to ever be able to bring the positive change to his country he felt he was destined to. This, in turn, causes him to lose his faith in God. In the words of Fanon, “Perhaps …colonialism is not simply content to impose its rule upon the present and the future …By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it” (On National Culture). He finds himself at the point of double consciousness; not English, but not really Kenyan. It is because of this that we see what Njoroge is now, an empty shell of a person.
We even see Mwihaki in a bit of a decline of spirit, as her father was killed by a member of Njoroge’s family, and is forced, with her family, to stay at a home guard post. Though it doesn’t specifically say it in the novel, you can tell that her devotion to Christ has been quite shaken, though not completely departed like Njoroge. For all the education, faith and advantages the family had, they were still in just as dreadful a state as the rest of their fellow countrymen, rich or poor.
It is because of the education and the religious beliefs that the British colonizers pushed on the people of Kenya that control could be established. Those who were uneducated and held on to the old spiritual practices, such as Ngotho, Kamau and Boro, were the ones to stand and fight the system. In the end, they were all either eliminated or neutralized. On the other hand, Njoroge, who was a good Christian and had the benefit of an education, could either be used as an instrument for the Empire or be so demoralized he wouldn’t lift a finger against it. Though he became that later, as a tool he would have been expendable as Jacobo did. Either way, it went, the colonist had obtained the control over the proletariat that they wished to accomplish.
Cesaire, Aime. From Discourse on Colonialism. 2012. ENG3014, Webcourses @ UCF. PDF File.
Fanton, Frantz. On National Culture. 2012. ENG3014, Webcourses @ UCF. PDF File.
Thiong”o, Ngugi wa. Weep Not, Child. New York. Penguin Books. 2012. Print.
© 2017 Kristen Willms
lynne on January 30, 2019:
African writers are one people who make us learn from the past. Thanks to you all
Sanusi .m. umar on October 30, 2018:
Iam real happy the way our african writer's trying they best to know our history,culture,way of life.may allah protect them,sky point.
jana ojana from bogra on April 19, 2017:
All of you believe that without study tour a student cant get full knowledge of their country. so i want to say to them about this. that all time a student go to study tour like as sun rises places where a good situation.