In Summary
  • In fact, Weep Not, Child is richer in oral literary techniques and a multiplicity of voices that blend and clash than any of Ngugi’s other writing
  • Set in the 1950s, Weep Not, Child tells the story of a tumultuous period as Kenya struggles for independence against the British

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the first novel in English by an indigenous Kenyan: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not, Child (1964).

Indeed, the African Literature Association’s 40th conference, to be held in Johannesburg next month, has a panel on this beautifully written but academically neglected little novel. Readers of Ngugi’s work tend to focus on his later novels, his plays, and his theories of language, forgetting that Weep Not, Child forms the germ of what Ngugi was to produce later on in his career.

In an introduction published in the Penguin edition of the novel (2012), Ben Okri, the celebrated Nigerian writer and author of the Booker Prize-winning The Famished Road, perceptively observes that Weep Not, Child is a foundational text upon which Ngugi’s other projects are based.

“In a sense, all the future Ngugis are embryonic in this novel — the seeds of his radicalism, his communism, his campaign for African languages,” writes Okri.

Of course, Okri makes a couple of mistakes about the novel and its author in his short essay, but he is right that Weep Not, Child is “one of the signal novels to emerge from an artist listening to both the well of tradition and the troubled oracles of his time.”

The novel uses indigenous storytelling techniques (proverbs, song interludes, and local expressions) even as it experiments with modernist devices, such as the playful mixture of genres, a stream-of-consciousness narration, and an open-ended plot.

Ngugi was to argue later in Decolonising the Mind that he achieved polyphony in his novels when he started writing in Gikuyu. But you would be buying yourself some grief if you were to believe a thing Ngugi says in evaluation of his own books. Nobody has misread Ngugi’s books more grossly than Ngugi himself.

In fact, Weep Not, Child is richer in oral literary techniques and a multiplicity of voices that blend and clash than any of Ngugi’s other writing. It weeps, it laughs, it begs, and it cajoles. It’s a little naughty holy book — African literature at its best.

By contrast, Ngugi’s other books tend towards an authorial monologue, in which the author is ramming his theories of society down our throat. And sometimes Marx is too bearded to swallow easily.

As Okri further observes, in Weep Not, Child: “Ngugi’s art is at its purest.” One may add that, in this novel, Ngugi is not out to preach at us, as his forte in works since Petals of Blood (1977).

Okri opines that “if Ngugi had published nothing other than Weep Not, Child, he would have earned a distinctive place in the African literary canon.”

Weep Not, Child is my favourite among Ngugi’s works, but I’m not very sure about Okri’s claim. Unlike Ferdinand Oyono, Chinua Achebe, Amos Tutuola, and Mongo Beti, who hit the literary ground running with their debut books, Ngugi’s career took some time to bloom.

It is after his A Grain of Wheat (1967) that he consolidated his career as a serious writer. Weep Not, Child is not controversial, and artists thrive on controversy. In Petals of Blood and Devil on the Cross, Ngugi seems to offer undue interest in sex in a way we would expect in works by David Maillu, the father of Kenyan pornography.

However, quasi-porn didn’t take Ngugi as far as it took Maillu. It is Ngugi’s confrontations with the government, his detention without trial, and his years of exile in the US that most strongly helped canonise him as an African literary powerhouse. Ngugi’s controversial but rationally unsustainable pronouncements in Decolonising the Mind (1986) capped it all.

INDEPENDENCE STRUGGLE

Set in the 1950s, Weep Not, Child tells the story of a tumultuous period as Kenya struggles for independence against the British.

It is also a love story between the protagonist, Njoroge, and Mwihaki, the daughter of Jacobo, a collaborator with colonialists.

Is love possible between people who come from such different ideological backgrounds? The love between Njoroge and Mwihaki is as pure as between Romeo and Juliet. It proves resilient over the course of story, triumphing over what the narrator calls “petty prejudices, hatreds and class differences.”

But the relationship is doomed to fail at the end. Njoroge, like his father Ngotho, is castrated. As the story ends, he is on the verge of suicide.

Njoroge’s hopes are curtailed like the aspirations of many young people in Ngugi’s later novels. In a corrupt world, Ngugi’s later characters are unable to achieve their potential in life and are condemned to State-sponsored structural violence.

Njoroge fails to commit suicide. That is the only redeeming thing about his hopeless future. The later Ngugi raises his doomed characters from their gloom by showing the triumph of socialism vis-à-vis the capitalist greed working against their success. But the happy endings of his later novels are not entirely convincing.

Weep Not, Child explores the theme of education. For Njoroge, education, “as for many boys of his generation, held the key to the future.” Education can be for its own sake, not a ticket to a lucrative job that offers opportunities to receive bribes and line your personal pockets.

But in the upheaval of the 1950s, Njoroge does not go very far with his schooling. However, he is probably better off than most of us.

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