Weep Not, Child
MESSAGE FROM CHINUA ACHEBE:
Africa is a huge continent with a diversity of cultures and languages. Africa is not simple – often people want to simplify it, generalize it, stereotype its people, but Africa is very complex. The world is just starting to get to know Africa. The last five hundred years of European contact with Africa produced a body of literature that presented Africa in a very bad light, and now the time has come for Africans to tell their own stories.
The Penguin African Writers Series will bring a new energy to the publication of African literature. Penguin Books is committed to publishing both established and new voices from all over the African continent to ensure African stories reach a wider global audience.
This is really what I personally want to see – writers from all over Africa contributing to a definition of themselves, writing ourselves and our stories into history. One of the greatest things literature does is allow us to imagine; to identify with situations and people who live in completely different circumstances, in countries all over the world. Through this series, the creative exploration of those issues and experiences that are unique to the African consciousness will be given a platform, not only throughout Africa, but also to the world beyond its shores.
Storytelling is a creative component of human experience and in order to share our experiences with the world, we as Africans need to recognize the importance of our own stories. By starting the series on the solid foundations laid by the renowned Heinemann African Writers Series, I am honored to join Penguin in inviting young and upcoming writers to accept the challenge passed down by celebrated African authors of earlier decades and to continue to explore, confront, and question the realities of life in Africa through their work; challenging Africa’s people to lift her to her rightful place among the nations of the world.
WEEP NOT, CHILD
NGUGI WA THIONG’O was born in Limuru, Kenya, in 1938. One of the leading African writers and scholars at work today, he is the author of Weep Not, Child; The River Between; A Grain of Wheat; Homecoming; Petals of Blood; Devil on the Cross; Matigari; Decolonising the Mind; Moving the Centre; Writers in Politics; and Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams, among other works, which include novels, short stories, essays, a memoir, and plays. In 1977, the year he published Petals of Blood, Ngugi’s play I Will Marry When I Want (cowritten with Ngugi wa Mirii and harshly critical of the injustices of Kenyan society) was performed, and at the end of the year Ngugi was arrested. He was detained for a year without trial at a maximum-security prison in Kenya. The theater where the play was performed was razed by police 1982.
Ngugi’s numerous honors include the East African Novel Prize; UNESCO First Prize; the Lotus Prize for Literature; the Paul Robeson Award for Artistic Excellence, Political Conscience and Integrity; the Zora Neale Hurston-Paul Robeson Award for Artistic and Scholarly Achievement; the Fonlon-Nichols Prize for Artistic Excellence and Human Rights; the Distinguished Africanist Award; the Gwendolyn Brooks Center Contributors Award for significant contribution to the black literary arts; and the Nonino International Literary Prize for the Italian translation of his book Moving the Centre. Ngugi has given many distinguished lectures including the 1984 Robb Lectures at Auckland University, New Zealand, and the 1996 Clarendon Lectures in English at Oxford University. He received the Medal of the Presidency of the Italian Cabinet for “his uncompromising efforts to assert the values implicit in the multicultural approach embracing the experience and aspirations of all the world’s minorities.” He has taught in many universities including Nairobi, Northwestern, and Yale. He was named New York University’s Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Languages and was professor of Comparative Literature and Performance Studies. In 2003 Ngugi was elected as an honorary member in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Currently he is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine.
BEN OKRI won the Man Booker Prize in 1991 for his novel The Famished Road. He was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and lives in London.
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First published by Heinemann Education Publishers 1964
Published by Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd 2009
This edition with a new introduction published in Penguin Books 2012
Copyright © Ngugi wa Thiong'o, 1964
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Ngugi wa Thiong'o, 1938–
Weep not, child / Ngugi wa Thiong'o.
p. cm.—(Penguin classics)
1. Brothers—Fiction. 2. Kenya—History—Mau Mau Emergency, 1952–1960—Fiction. 3. Domestic fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Introduction by BEN OKRI
WEEP NOT, CHILD
Part 1: The Waning Light
Part 2: Darkness Falls
The literature of Africa is fed by three great rivers: the invisible, the visible, and the oral—or myth, reality, and the oral tradition. It could be said that the invisible is the chief source of African literature, which is defined by the presence of myth, and by how myth plays against social reality. This mysterious source runs at the back of Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, Camara Laye’s The African Child, and is found, of course, in all the tales and myths, the legends and songs that shape the African consciousness.
The writers who were active in the fifties and sixties had their ears tuned to two kinds of music: a vanishing world of tradition and myth, and the harsh world of colonialism. When times are good, man sings the songs of the spirit. Modern African literature did not emerge as a protest against colonialism. Rather, colonialism brought a certain inflection, a certain emphasis, to the natural progression of the literature from one mode to another. When times are bad, man sings of the bad times. But the songs of the bad times should not be taken as representative. For in the bad times, the self—its celebration, its joys, its freedom, its aesthetic—is still present.
Both the songs of the bad times and the songs of the spirit are evident in Weep Not, Child, one of the signal novels to emerge from an artist listening to both the well of tradition and the troubled oracles of his time.
Ngugi came to the writing life in an unintended, even magical way. As a young man at Makerere University, he encountered someone who was editing a magazine. Ngugi mentioned that he had written some short stories; interest was shown in them, and Ngugi, who had not in fact written anything, had to write the stories. It is a classic case of bluffing oneself into one’s destiny. Ngugi wrote a story, it was published, and so began his writing life.
It is instructive that Ngugi began with the short story, the perfect practicing ground for longer fiction. The short story, containing the matrix of the art of fiction in miniature, trains a writer in the craft of narration. It is a form that demands rigor, and its rigor and clarity and brevity show in Weep Not, Child. The novel leads with its assurance, its poise, its mastery of its intentions, its firm and quiet tone, and its unswerving purpose. It is rare that a first novel is so perfectly pitched—and Ngugi was only twenty-eight years old when he published it. Weep Not, Child shows Ngugi’s birth as a writer, his leap into literature, fully formed, like Athena from the skull of Zeus.
But Weep Not, Child was not in fact Ngugi’s first novel. It was his second, but it was published first—and yet it is emblematic of his body of work in the way we believe first novels to be. Before he wrote Weep Not, Child, Ngugi had already written many short stories and had met the challenge of writing a novel: It is called The River Between, and it gave Weep Not, Child the assurance of a rehearsed performance. Weep Not, Child was the perfect way for Ngugi to begin his career as a novelist. It combines the story of adolescence with a tale of political violence and an implied love story, and it brings together, at a stroke, the key themes in the literature of the times.
Weep Not, Child is also the novel Ngugi wrote before he became Ngugi wa Thiong'o. He wrote it as James Ngugi. It is not clear how long after its publication he changed his name, but the spirit of change was already in it. In writing Weep Not, Child, it is possible that he was writing himself into Ngugi wa Thiong'o. In fact he was James Ngugi for two novels, and only with the publication of A Grain of Wheat would he become Ngugi wa Thiong'o to the world, renewed in conviction and stature. But he was always Ngugi wa Thiong'o, and Weep Not, Child is now read under the rubric of that new nomenclature.
In Weep Not, Child, Ngugi’s art is at its purest. To my mind it is classic Ngugi, his Romeo and Juliet, his tale of young love set against the backdrop of opposing families and a world seething with violence and injustice. It is young Ngugi, closer to the mood of youth itself. The years would bring other Ngugis—the Marxist convert, the radical, the campaigner against political injustice, and the political prisoner. They would also bring a rich body of work, novels of great scale and political importance—like A Grain of Wheat, which many consider his masterpiece, or Petals of Blood, in which, inspired by his visit to Russia, he absorbs the tradition of the Russian novel, bringing to the African novel a new urgency and political fury. In his novel Wizard of the Crow, he extends his range, fusing magical realism with his signature artistic and social concerns. Ngugi also wrote many plays and significant volumes of essays, influential in their call for a new radicalism in African literature and a return to African languages as the principal mode of creative expression. And in 2010 he brought out the first volume of his autobiography, Dreams in a Time of War.
The years would also bring Ngugi exile following his release from prison. He would live for a time in London and settle in America, as professor of literature at the University of California, Irvine.
But Weep Not, Child precedes all this. In a sense, all the future Ngugis are embryonic in this novel—the seeds of his radicalism, his communism, his campaign for African languages.
Weep Not, Child is the story of a young boy, Njoroge, growing up in the time of the Mau Mau insurgency that swept Kenya in the fifties and early sixties as an underground resistance to colonial repression, and of his quest for education and his love for Mwihaki, the daughter of his family’s tormenter. It is unique in modern literature in its fusing of genres. It is a novel of education and one about the Mau Mau. It is also a novel about the crossroads of tradition and modernity, about ancient myths confronted by modern realities. Many dichotomies thread through it—fathers and sons, rich and poor, black and white, education and apprenticeship, village and township, home and abroad, exile and rootedness, innocence and experience—and give it its multilayered complexity.
The novel is disarmingly simple and direct. Barely 150 pages, it has short chapters too, and within the chapters short subsections. If you listen carefully you will hear a certain musical element to the flow of the short subsections; they function as contrasts and counterpoints, moving from scenes of quietness to ones of distress.
The brevity is also in the sentences. The writing is clear, unpretentious, but shaped with the noble cadences of traditional speech. Language has long been an issue in African literature: Should the African writer use a European language to express his reality, a reality reflecting a consciousness saturated in traditional African languages? Achebe’s solution was the use of Igbo proverbs, songs, parables, and a certain unconscious Igbo cadence in his novels. To some degree, deliberately or not, Ngugi adopted this approach and was later famously to go further, declaring that African literature should be written in African languages, the better not only to keep African languages alive but also to develop them as languages capable of expressing profound and elevated thought. Kikuyu, Igbo, Urhobo, Yoruba, Swahili, and Bantu, to name a few, await their Pushkins.
But in 1964, when he published Weep Not, Child, Ngugi had not hit upon this solution. He would later write his novels in Kikuyu and translate them himself, but he wrote Weep Not, Child in English, and in it you can hear an undercurrent of the Kikuyu language, its cadence, its directness in the formal prose—a kind of manifestation in English of the reality, the tone, the coloration of Kikuyu life, a seeping through of one language into another, giving the novel its rich African feeling.
There are many instances in Weep Not, Child of the African world seeping through by way of an alien language. “A group of men and women and children were standing in the courtyard. Some eyes were turned to his father’s hut. The others were turned towards the market place. But where was his mother? He found her inside her hut. She sat on a low stool and two women of the village sat close to her. They kept dumb. Their eyes were turned to the courtyard” (pages 59–60). If you listen you’ll hear the rhythm of the directions that the different eyes are turned toward. There is a ritual implication here. It is almost like drama, like the stylization of a still moment in tragic theater. It is also like a moment in a woodcut. Art and theater, united by the sense of ritual, a hieratic mode of being, is suggested in those apparently simple lines. It is more than the translation of a mode; it is an ancestral pentimento, a mood or worldview showing through the surface of Ngugi’s English.
Weep Not, Child is a novel about loss. It moves through many losses, beginning with the loss of land. But land here is more than just the earth or soil, for farming and harvest. It is also the compact with an ancestral deity. It is a foundation place in the long narrative of a people from the cosmos to their place on earth. The land is in fact the myth of the people—the promised contract, what anchors them on earth and in heaven. In fact the land is the body of the ancestral deity. To lose it is to lose connection wit
The power of one’s attachment to the land is expressed in the novel by the Mau Mau. While they were called terrorists by the British, who used the most appalling forms of torture to put them down, they were always perceived as freedom fighters. The extent of the repression that cost countless innocent lives became clearer only in 2011, when the London Times released official documents detailing the torture and incarceration of hundreds of innocent people, and Britain made the first move in more than fifty years that could possibly lead to some kind of compensation. It is in the light of such disclosures that the depth of Ngugi’s grasp of the situation at the time becomes apparent.
The Mau Mau element in Weep Not, Child insinuates its way into the narration with the quietness with which the love story between Njoroge and Mwihaki begins. With a kind of tragic inevitability, the Mau Mau resistance eats its way into Njoroge’s family. This freedom struggle, with its brutal reprisals against the colonial structure, is all the more forcefully felt in the novel in its contrast with the hero’s innocent and Christian piety. The innocence is the solvent in which the background violence is borne—the innocence of the tone alongside the tough directness of the writing.