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Friday, January 3, 2020


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Kenya Notes


By Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Summary of the Novel

Weep Not, Child was written by Ngugi wa Thiong'o while studying at at Leeds University in England in 1962. Weep Not, Child was the second novel Ngugi wrote, although it was published before his first, The River Between. It follows the tragic story of Njoroge, a young boy who seeks an education during the 1952-1960 Emergency in Kenya. This tumultuous time period saw the emergence of Kenyan revolutionary groups against the British colonists.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Weep Not Child centers around the interactions between British colonists in Kenya and the native people. This book takes place during the Mau Mau Uprising, an eight-year struggle in British-controlled colonial Kenya. During this 1950s uprising, the British killed somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 African rebels. The success of the British Empire can be attributed to their “divide and rule” practice, a political tactic first utilized by the ancient Greeks. This practice makes it difficult or impossible for smaller groups of people to band together and revolt—and that is exactly what happened during the Mau Mau Uprising. Ngugi’s works, including Weep Not Child, are piercingly critical of British rule.

This book begins with Njoroge, whose mother wants him to go to be the first in their family to attend school. They live on Jacobo’s land—Jacobo being an African who deals with the white settlers in order to to make his fortune. Among those settlers is Mr. Howlands, who owns much of the land in the area. Njoroge has two brothers, Kamau and Boro. Kamau is apprenticed to a carpenter. Boro was forced to fight in World War II and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Njoroge’s father, Ngotho, farms on Mr. Howlands’ lands. He is a man who prizes the land and its care above money.

When local African workers strike for better pay, Ngotho fears losing his job if he participates. Yet, he attends a strike meeting despite both of his wives’ disapproval. At the meeting, Jacobo tries to end the strike before it can begin, prompting Ngotho to attack him. A riot begins. Two people are killed during the riot and Jacobo promises to exact revenge. Ngotho loses his job and must move his family; Njoroge’s brothers fund his education so that he can go to school.

Njoroge transfers school because of his father’s loss of employment and is separated from his friend Mwihaki, Jacobo’s daughter. She and Njoroge were once classmates and close friends, but she now attends a boarding school for girls. Njoroge is embarrassed about his father’s attack against Jacobo, and so he is grateful for the distance between Mwihaki and himself.

Meanwhile, in the Mau Mau Uprising, one of the leaders Jomo Kenyatta is about to stand trial. While many of the native Kenyans think he will be their savior from British rule, he loses at trial and faces imprisonment. On the Kenyan side, there are more protests. The British colonists take actions to further suppress and oppress them.

The uprising touches Njoroge’s family when Jacobo accuses Ngotho of leading the Mau Mau. Jacobo hopes that the whole family will be imprisoned. The situation for the Kenyans is, overall, getting worse. British forces drag people believed to be involved with the Mau Mau out of their homes and execute them.

While the situation in the country is deteriorating, Njoroge is succeeding in school. He passes a rigorous high school entrance exam, and his village, proud of his scholastic success, collects money to fund his tuition. He and Mwihaki encounter one another again and this time, Njoroge does not find their fathers’ differences to be a hurdle in their friendship.

However, Njoroge’s life is not free from the Mau Mau Uprising for long. One day, Jacobo is found murdered. Njoroge is pulled out of school by Mr. Howlands and questioned, and both he and his father Ngotho are beaten nearly to death before being released. The reader soon discovers that Njoroge’s brothers killed Jacobo, and that Boro is a Mau Mau leader. Their father dies from his injuries and Njoroge learns that his father was only protecting Kamau and Boro, despite the fact that they lost respect for him after he lost his job. When Kamau is imprisoned, Njoroge must provide for both of his mothers. He is forced to abandon both school and his faith.

Njoroge has fallen in love with Mwihaki, and professes his love to her, asking her to leave with him. She refuses because she feels compelled to remain in Kenya and with her mother now that Jacobo is dead. Njoroge attempts to hang himself. He is stopped by his mothers but descends into hopelessness and shame.

In addition to the theme of families torn apart by British rule, Njoroge’s fate shows how systemic oppression affects the individual. As a child, Njoroge has a hopeful future. His father is successful and he excels at school. Then, his family and those around him become involved—willingly or not—in the Mau Mau Uprising. The harsh actions of the British army and those who benefit from their rule tear apart Njoroge’s family and strip him of his faith in God and will to live.


The second wife of Ngotho, a plantation hand and the patriarch of the novel's main family. Nyokabi cares deeply for her children, and strives to maintain peace in the family.

Njoroge is the novel's primary protagonist, and Ngotho's youngest son. He is the first in his family to attend school, and he aspires to use his education to make Kenya a better place. Ngugi describes him as “a dreamer, a visionary who consoled himself faced by the difficulties of the moment by a look at a better day to come” (130). The challenges to his optimism in large part constitute the novel's primary arc.

Njoroge’s slightly older half-brother, and the son of Njeri. He is apprenticed as a carpenter, and thus cannot join Njoroge at school. Because he goes directly into a career, he is forced to mature more quickly than Njoroge does. As his father ages and his brothers join the Mau Mau, Kamau becomes his family's main support.

A wealthy chief and pyrethrum farmer – indeed, the first African to be allowed to grow the crop. He owns the land that Ngotho and his family live on, and he works against the Mau Mau uprising as it starts to intensify. He is also Mwihaki's father.

Mr. Howlands
A British tea farmer who moved to Kenya to escape a troubled past. He owns the land that once belonged to Ngotho's father, a source of tension between the men despite the fact that Mr. Howlands is Ngotho's employer. As time passes, he is appointed district officer, and viciously fights the rebellion.

Jacobo’s son, who at the beginning of the novel is planning to to study abroad in England.

The barber
A humorous African who works in Kipanga. He likes to tell raunchy stories about his exploits fighting in World War II.

The patriarch of Njoroge's family, and a World War I veteran. He is married to Njeri and Nyokabi, and is the father of Boro, Kori, Kamau, and Njoroge, as well as another son, Mwangi, who died in World War II. He works on Mr. Howlands's plantation, and longs for the white people to leave Kenya so he can have his family's land back.

Ngotho's brave and intelligent first wife, and the mother of Kamau.

One of Ngotho’s elder sons, who fought in World War II. He drinks frequently and seems to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. He is particularly troubled by the death of his brother Mwangi in the war. He eventually finds a sense of purpose through fighting in the Mau Mau rebellion, where he becomes the leader of a guerrilla group.

Jacobo's daughter, and one of the wealthiest girls in the village. She is close friends with Njoroge, and eventually becomes his love interest. Their shifting attitudes on the country's prospects in large part constitutes the novel's primary arc.

Jacobo's temperamental adult daughter, who teaches at the elementary school.

Jacobo's wife, described as fat and stern.

The village carpenter, who apprentices Kamau. Although he is initially characterized as stingy and mean, Nganga later shows his generosity by giving Ngotho's family a place to live after they are evicted from Jacobo's land.

One of Ngotho’s elder sons, who died while serving in World War II alongside his brother Boro. His death is a primary motivation in the resentment that fuels Boro.

Ngotho and Njeri’s adult son. He works at the Green Hotel tea shop in Kipanga.

Mugo wa Kibiro
A seer who predicted that white men would come and take people’s land, long before the British came to Kenya. However, he also predicted that they would one day leave, a prediction which gives Ngotho hope.

The Gikuyu name for the Creator.

Mr Howlands’s moody wife, who “mattered [to her husband] only in so far as she made it possible for him to work ... more efficiently without a worry about home” (30).

First introduced as a jovial teacher at Njoroge’s school, with a reputation for drinking and womanizing, Isaka later appears as a Christian revivalist after the rebellion begins.

Though he never appears directly in the novel, Jomo Kenyatta's reputation as the Gikuyu leader of the KAU makes him a hero to the village and Njoroge in particular. Kenyatta is a real historical figure who would become the first Prime Minister of Kenya after it achieved independence.

One of Boro's politically active friends from the city, who joins him in many events amongst the Gikuyu.

A boy in the village who brings the village news about the rebellion.

Dedan Kimathi
The leader of the African Freedom Army, and an important figure in the uprising. Though never directly featured in the novel, his reputation strikes fear in the hearts of the villagers and Njoroge. He is another real historical figure, and remains very controversial for his use of violence. Eventually, there developed a schism between Kimathi's Mau Mau and Jomo Kenyatta's more moderate followers in the KAU.

One of Njoroge’s friends at school.

Stephen Howlands
Mr. Howlands's youngest son (and the only one alive during the period of the novel). He is shy and thoughtful, and Mr. Howlands has doubts about whether he is suitable to inherit the plantation. He and Njoroge have an important conversation late in the novel.


In some ways, grief is the primary driving force behind the action of Weep Not, ChildBoro is driven to join the Mau Mau to assuage his grief over his brother Mwangi's death in World War II. Ngotho's resentments are fueled by grief over losing his family's land to the British. Similarly, grief drives Njoroge's spiritual evolution. Nothing can undermine his faith in God until Ngotho dies, at which point Njoroge stops praying. Similarly, Jacobo's death prevents Njoroge from being with Mwihaki, because she must care for her mother. As the characters cope with the deaths of their loved ones, their overwhelming grief slowly dissolves into a sense of duty that allows them to transcend their misery. Although Njoroge is nearly driven to suicide by Mwihaki's rejection and his father's death, it is the necessity of caring for his mothers (which he would not have to do if Ngotho were alive) that ultimately saves him.

Social class
As Ngugi notes on several occasions, race is not the only obstacle that prevents the characters from pursuing their goals in life. They are arguably even more hampered by their social class. This applies to poor characters like Kamau, who must persist with the carpentry apprenticeship he dislikes in order to support his family. However, even upper-class characters find that their upbringing prevents them from being truly free. For example, Mwihaki's affection for Njoroge is hampered by her famiy's wealth, and the expectations that come from that. Similarly, Stephen Howlands must attend boarding school in England even though he feels more at home in Kenya, and does not want to leave. Njoroge has a great hope that education will help bridge the gap of social class, but circumstances cede his education before he can test that theory.

The land
Ngotho and Mr. Howlands share a fierce dedication to the land. At the center of their relationship is the central problem of the colonial presence in Kenya, and hence to the novel's main conflicts. Each has his own deep connection to the land. Land is an important part of Gikuyu culture, an indicator of a family. Mr. Howlands seems to have embodied some of this sentiment, despite his racism. However, 'land' does not refer only to the physical space used for living and farming. By the end of the novel, it has acquired a multi-dimensional meaning. In addition to Mr. Howlands's shamba, the concept of land has come to include the people who live on it. (Indeed, Ngugi suggests that dispossessing a people of their land is not enough to separate them from it; the connection is too strong.) “When the time for Njoroge to leave [for secondary school] came near," Ngugi writes, "many people contributed money so that he could go. He was no longer the son of Ngotho but the son of the land” (115). Land, with all its profundity, is what the Africans lost to the British, and what they are fighting to regain.

One of the major questions that Weep Not, Child raises is whether love is a strong enough force to transcend suffering. The pure love between Njoroge and Mwihaki certainly proves resilient over the course of novel: “Her world and Njoroge’s world stood somewhere outside petty prejudices, hatreds and class differences," Ngugi writes (97). However, the novel's ending suggests that love may endure, but that it cannot change a person's circumstances. Although the two young people want to run away and live together in Uganda, they are ultimately bound by a stronger sense of duty to their parents and their country. Part of the story's tragedy is that individuality is helpless before greater forces beyond anyone's control.

Weep Not, Child is full of evidence that infighting between Africans was a major problem during the Mau Mau uprising. Ngugi suggests that some of it may have been justified; for instance, Jacobo is a truly villainous character, and we are meant to sympathize with Ngotho when he attacks him. However, Ngugi is very explicit about the fact that such infighting ultimately played into the hands of the British, driving wedges between Africans and making the conflict more violent than was necessary. The difference between the reputations of Jomo and Dedan Kimathi reveal how significant the ideological differences amongst Africans had become. When Njoroge and Stephen Howlands discuss the causes of prejudice, their insights offer a way for Africans to move beyond their differences and fight for the common good. The tragedy is that individual desires are often useless before larger social forces that in many ways hurt everyone.

Women's role in society
Certain aspects of Gikuyu society, like polygamy, female circumcision and wife-beating, may be foreign and even uncomfortable for modern Western readers. But despite its uncritical portrayal of these realities, Weep Not, Child is thoughtful about the role of women in a traditional society. Mwihaki's failure to continue to high school is not a reflection on women's abilities to succeed in general, but it does highlight the difficulties that bright, motivated young women face if they try to pursue an education. The narrator suggests that Mwihaki's sense of obligation to her family, and the restrictive convent atmosphere of her school, prevented her from doing as well as she might in other circumstances. Njoroge's mothers, Nyokabiand Njeri, are other examples of strong women, although they occupy more traditional roles in society than Mwihaki or Lucia do. Njeri in particular shows a strong intellect and courage when she is arrested, and Nyokabi takes great initiative in arranging for Njoroge to attend school. Together, the mothers show that women play just as important a role in improving society as men do - provided they live under a relatively tolerant patriarch like Ngotho.

Family loyalty
Njoroge turns to many different sources of comfort as conditions deteriorate in his village: school, religion, and his love for Mwihaki are some examples. Yet the only force that stands between him and suicide at the end of the book is his sense of duty to his mothers, who will be alone and destitute if he dies. Mwihaki rejects him because she, too, must care for her mother. For Ngugi, family loyalty is the ultimate bond. One of the primary challenges his characters face is deciding how to best stay loyal to their family in a time of conflict and contradictions. Boro is a particularly complex example of this question. Ngotho orders him to stop fighting with the Mau Mau, but Boro feels he must continue in order to avenge his father's death, and to fight for a better future for his younger siblings. Whether to defend one's family by immediately providing or by fighting for their progeny (in terms of rebellion or, in Njoroge's case, education) is a question posed, but not answered, by the novel.