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"Weep Not, Child"

A notable amount of literary works produced in Africa today follow the postcolonial literary mode. This mode of writing highlights the affects of the imperialistic colonization of the pre-World War I period. Postcolonial literature aims to give a voice to the colonized peoples while promoting their language and cultural ideals and rejecting the previously enforced ideals of Western civilization. Weep Not, Child by James Ngugi explores such postcolonial themes in its examination of life during the Mau Mau Revolution. Weep Not, Child essentially stands as the tale of a young boy of Kikuyu tribal heritage growing up in the squatter lifestyle imposed by British rule. Njoroge’s family is by no means wealthy. They live on the land of Jacobo, a shrewd and opportunistic African made rich by his dealings with white settlers, namely Mr.Howlands, the most predominate and powerful land owner in all of Kipanga. What Njoroge’s family does possess, however, is to the tribal mentality even sweeter than economic power—respect. Ngotho, Njoroge’s father, commands respect from the community for his ability to hold his family together. Ngotho takes much pride in the land, and tends Mr.Howlands crops to his utmost ability not out of loyal service, but because he believes in prophesies that the land will someday return to the Kikuyu people. Ngotho tries to fulfill this prophesy by respecting the land and also by giving his son an education so that Njoroge may someday lead the oppressed Kikuyu to victory against British rule. Njoroge thus grows up very differently from his brothers Kamau and Boro. Kamau works as an apprentice to a carpenter and feels firsthand the lowered expectations and menial labor that he must accept for his life. Boro, the eldest living son, is haunted by his experiences of forced service in World War II and witnessing the death of his elder brother to white men. Njoroge, though young, feels the full burden of his family’s future on his shoulders and is grateful for an education. He devotes himself to an idealistic outlook and Christian faith which follows him throughout his childhood and into adolescence. Njoroge perseveres through family tragedies and pressures due to his relationship with his dear friend and classmate Mwihaki, the daughter of Jacobo, who helps him adapt to school. When Ngotho attempts to attack Jacobo in a heated workers strike, Njoroge’s family is forced to move and Ngotho loses his job. Njoroge’s education is thereafter funded by his brothers who have lost all respect for their father. While Njoroge attends high school he has a strange encounter with Mr. Howlands’ son Stephen and together they discuss the absurdities of inequality. Soon after Njoroge’s dreams are smashed when the vengeful Jacobo places blame of Mau Mau connections on Ngotho and Mr.Howlands has Njoroge removed from school for questioning. Both father and son are brutally beaten before release and Ngotho is left barely alive. Njoroge’s brothers assassinate both Mr.Howlands and Jacobo and Njoroge is left as the sole provider to his two mothers. Doomed to failure, he has lost all hope of returning to school, has lost faith in God, and when he finally pledges his love to Mwihaki, she is too afraid to marry him. At this the idealistic protagonist of Weep Not, Child, can take no more, and fails an attempt at suicide at the novel’s closure. The main contention of Ngugi against colonialism emerges clearly from this narrative. Here, we witness a boy full of hope for a bright new future, full of love for his family, joy at the prospect of an education, yet still anchored with a strong sense of cultural identity to support him through his endeavors. Ngugi seems to apply a sociological experiment on the protagonist when one by one taking away all that sustains his strength. Naturally the first enabling quality stripped away stands as the most irrevocably destroyed—tribal identity. Njoroge finds his life full of conflict. He stands with one foot in western modernism and the other in a world awed by the mythologies of olden times. He must accept Christian faith as a prerequisite to a European education, yet yearns to know the ancient stories of his origin. One instance where this notion prevails is when Njoroge stands before his class, a class aimed at learning western culture and language, and is asked by his teacher to tell a story. Njoroge knows many stories passed down by his mothers, but becomes frozen; in fact, devastated that he does not remember a single one. Ngugi here makes the first of several statements about Africans choosing between two social modes and failing when trying to live in both. Going to school with more westernized children teaches Njoroge to feel for the first time shame of his social position. He avoids walking past Mwihaki and hides so that she does not see his worn calico smock. Before attending school the boy knew nothing of wearing shorts and shirts, and so, had no concept of shame. Colonialism imparted desirable new technologies to the Kikuyu people, yet in the same hand brought a sense of inferiority never before felt by the culture. According to Simon Gikandi of the University of Michigan, the Kikuyu people where not prone to individualism. They, as a culture, saw life as conducted according to the ‘basic rhythm of nature’; [in Gikandi’s view], the African encounter with colonial modernity was a catastrophic event (Gikandi). Another manner in which Ngugi deteriorates his protagonist occurs after Ngotho’s attack on Jacobo at the worker’s strike. To understand the weight of this event it is first imperative to examine the circumstances of generational divides between the youth brought up under colonial rule and the elders of tribal heritage. Ngugi aims to reveal the duality of the oppressing force. Many white settlers were colonizing to avoid conflicts of war in Great Britain. A certain level of irony presents itself due to the terms of Howlands sojourn in Kenya. He aims to escape the memories of warfare and brutality imposed upon him by his mother country, yet settles in Kenya to brutalize with identical violence. His only drive in life of acquiring and cultivating the “wild and chartered” lands of Africa helps balance his shell-shocked mind, yet Ngugi shows in Howlands avarice that inevitably effects of war will trickle down even years after a war’s end. Indeed, the concept of a “trickle down” effect with war aftermath presents itself boldly in a generational sense. Boro, Ngotho’s eldest living son, spurs conflict in the land of Kipanga due to his rash behavior and bitter hatred of white oppression. His experiences in the heat of battlefields and the trauma of witnessing his brother’s death cloud any rationality the might have aimed at uniting the Kikuyu towards a goal. When looking at histology through the scope of time it is clear that the alternatives to the Mau Mau violence where available. The British relations with India and the works of Gandhi are proof of this concept (Byford). Ngotho does not understand his son, even fears him because of his experiences in World War II, and acts rashly in a worker’s strike to win his son’s approval. The patriarchal tribe of Ngotho’s youth has truly been destroyed due to the economic, social, and political pressures applied by colonization. When all the dust settles, inevitably, Njoroge bears the responsibility of holding together the family. As children lose respect for parents due to their ineffective rejection of colonization, the colonization turns the normal family structure of the Kikuyu backwards and allows the rash youth to dictate the conditions of the cultures’s future. Indeed, it is said that the only way for the Kikuyu to survive would be to follow tribal traditions (Gikandi). Ngugi strips away Njoroge’s respect for the solidarity of his family, and even teaches the boys to feel ashamed of his social status. Despite this Njoroge still thrieves because he sees the hope of a better future. He believes with all his heart that with an education, anything becomes possible no matter what the state of the world. Njoroge stands as an example of what happens to the idealistic that cannot accept reality. Ngugi encourages the reader to admire Njoroge for his fortitude and optimism, yet makes the audience bear witness to the hero’s downfall. By choosing to portray his protagonist as such, Ngugi forces a realization that though all factors in a personalty seem naturally to lead to a culmination of well-deserved success, the outside factors, such as an oppressive political climate will render failure in even the most strong of characters. The world Ngugi creates is one in which the naïve and true or heart are trampled by the fiscally savvy. Through this he makes a bitter statement of the bleak opportunies available to Africans when weighed down under the heavy curtain of colonial oppression. Ngugi reveals his views with biting wit and pragmatism, and stands as quite an effective writer because of this willingness to reveal a complete deterioration of the protagonist. Ngugi couples this act of realism with a few key moments of poignant symbolism to craft the masterpiece of Weep Not, Child. One instance of this occurs in a description of the children born of African mothers and Italian prisoners of World War I: “They were ugly and grew and some grew up to have small wounds all over their body and especially around their mouth so that flies followed them all the time and at all places. Some people said it was punishment…[for sleeping] with white men who ruled them and treated them badly” (Ngugi 24). Ngugi here imparts a grotesque image to symbolize the manifested evils of colonization. Interestingly, he ties this instance of interbreeding with the African tribal mythology prevalent throughout the novel. The people view this as a curse, or punishment, from their ancient Gods for allowing the oppression to occur. Another symbol of white oppression exists in Njoroge’s description of the road built by the Italian war prisoners that runs through Kenya. Njoroge describes it as so long that you see no end or beginning to it, much in the manner that Njoroge cannot recall the beginning of colonization nor imagine an end to it. Also he describes puddles of water on the road, which makes you thirsty until you realize they were only illusions and not real water. Njoroge understands this phenomenon keenly when he states at the novels ends, “My tomorrow was just an illusion” (Ngugi 175). Disillusionment and disappointment prevails in this novel and a young boy’s journey into manhood. Sadly, Njoroge is forced to accept that there is no hope for his generation. Sweet promises of prosperity from the hands of modernization collide with the Mau Mau’s passionate battle cries. Idealistic like Njoroge who say, “weep not” are buried in the rift between these powers because they cannot choose a side. Ngugi points the oppressive power of colonialism to erase, alter, divide and destroy an entire race of people.

Works Cited Byford, Grenville. The Wrong War. Foreign Affairs. Jul/Aug 2002. Vol. 81. Issue 4, p.34. Ebscohost. Tarrant County College Lib., April 25, 2005. Gikandi, Simon. Cultural Transition and the African Self: A Post-Colonial Case. The International Journal of Postcolonial Studies. Nov. 2001. Vol. 3, Issue 3, p.355, Ebscohost. Tarrant County College Lib., April 25, 2005. Ngugi, James. Weep Not, Child. Collier Books. New York. 1964. Simatei, Tirop. Colonial Violence, Postcolonial Violations: Violence, Landscape, and Memory in Kenyan Fiction. Indiana University Press. 2001.