Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s child still weeps, 50 years later
What you need to know:
- 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.
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.
For Kenyan youths today, education is not a vestibule to a better future. It only alienates them from selves and society. They are still mired in poverty even after acquiring PhDs because the few jobs the economy generates are reserved for those with godfathers in high places. What you know doesn’t matter; more important is whom you know.
Weep Not, Child was written at a juncture in African literature when writers, probably inspired by Camara Laye’s The African Child, tended to idealise the African kid as an epitome of absolute African rural innocence.
Since the publication of Nuruddin Farah’s Maps (1986), African writers show us the many evils African children are capable of. Meja Mwangi’s Kill Me Quick (1973) is also a precursor to this portrayal of the African child.
The apogee of such portrayals is found in the narratives about child soldiers in works such as the Nigerians Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation and Chris Abani’s Song for Night, in which we see children committing heartless atrocities, even as adults sometimes victimise them.
The South African Kabelo Sello Duiker’s 13-year-old Azure in Thirteen Cents (a composite reconfiguration of Toni Morrison’s Pecola in The Bluest Eye and Azaro in Okri’s The Famished Road) works as a gay prostitute in Cape Town, charging his clients 13 cents.
Unlike our dear Njoroge, who is so naïve throughout Weep Not, Child that he seems to see Hitler as a hero just because the vile fellow fought the British in “the big war” and thinks suicide will be a solution to his problems, Duiker’s Azure knows everything about violence, pimps and hunger.
Now that I have mentioned Azure, I remember that a question came up the other day as to whether Kenya has literary theorists. Personally, I don’t do theory. But there’s nothing I like more than reading a complex theoretical argument in bed, especially the Freudian type (phallic symbols, petty oedipal jealousies, erotic hermeneutics).
Queer theory also turns me on. Is there, then, a way we can subject Weep Not, Child to a queer reading? Like most of the African works published in the 1960s, Weep Not, Child constructs the nation in purely heterosexual terms.
The novels of the period accept homosexuality only in slips of the tongue, as did Achebe’s No Longer at Ease (1960) when one of its enigmatic characters, Joseph Okeke, remarks: “In future, when we are all civilised, anybody may marry anybody.”
In Weep Not, Child, Kenya is not as civilised as is intimated to be a possibility in Ngugi’s Wizard of the Crow (2006). The 1964 novel uses the word “queer” two times, but not in the way Ngugi deploys “nguiko njogomu” (queer sex) in Murogi wa Kagogo (Wizard of the Crow).
In spite of the failure of Njoroge’s heterosexual promises, he does not seem to have a queer future. However, queerness is here, there, and other places. It is even where it is not.
Ngugi borrows the title of Weep Not, Child from a poem by the American gay writer Walt Whitman. The queer excesses in Ngugi’s novel can be teased out through a comparative reading of gay-oriented East African novels, such as Abdurazak Gurnah’s By the Sea, a work that also invokes Whitman and directly addresses the theme of gay identity. In his academic commentaries, Gurnah has offered subtle critiques of Ngugi.
On a different note, because I’m an modest person — almost as modest as David Maillu — I probably have not told you this yet: I recently published with the Oxford University Press an annotated bibliography on Ngugi, which covers all his works, including our dear Weep Not, Child.
Although Weep Not, Child has not been subjected to contemporary theory, it garnered a fair amount of critical attention in the 1970s, with critics focusing on Ngugi’s treatment of the theme of education in the novel.
Written for Nigerian schools, P.F. Edorhe’s 1970 analysis of the novel is one of the several student’s guidebooks on Ngugi. It deals with Ngugi’s themes and techniques in a conventional reading of the work. The Nigerian Sola Soile examines the use of myth in the novel in a 1974 reading of Weep Not, Child published in the Ife African Studies.
Most monographs on Ngugi provide a reading of Weep Not, Child, the most theoretically astute of which is Simon Gikandi’s analysis of Ngugi’s oeuvre that Cambridge University Press brought out in 2000. In the book, Gikandi discusses Njoroge’s education as a colonial subject, contrasting the novel with Ngugi’s later works.
Similarly, books on Ngugi — David Cook and Michael Okenimkpe (1983/1997), Abdul JanMohamed (1983) and Douglas Killam (1980) — include a chapter each devoted to Weep Not, Child.
Since the 1980s, interest has been focused on Ngugi’s more overtly ideological novels. But there have been a few essays revisiting Weep Not, Child in the last several years. For instance, Brendon Nicholls (2005) analyses gender concerns in the novel, examining issues such as female genital mutilations. For his part, Tirop Peter Simatei (2005) reads violence as presented in the novel.
Overall, Weep Not, Child has been denied the much deserved critical attention among Kenya’s current crop of scholars. Ngugi’s modernist stylistics in this novel would be interesting to study.
Its translations would be another point of departure. Done in 1971, the translation of Weep Not, Child into Kiswahili as Usilie Mpenzi Wangu goes against the grain of the current theories of translation — most associated with the scholar and translator Lawrence Venuti — by assimilating the original into Kiswahili aesthetics and making the translator almost completely invisible.
The novel also offers a fertile ground for the examination of the representation of masculinity and sexuality in a nascent national literature, especially because of its use of motifs of failed romance and castration. The ball is in our court.