Nyokabi calls her son, Njoroge, and asks him if he would like to go to school. Overjoyed, Njoroge can’t believe his ears and fears that she might rescind her offer. “O, Mother!” he gasps, assuring her that he would love to go. “You won’t bring shame to me by one day refusing to attend school?” she asks, and he insists that he would never do such a thing. “O, Mother, you are an angel of God, you are, you are,” he thinks. “And here I am with nothing but a piece of calico on my body and soon I shall have a shirt and shorts for the first time.”
In the opening scene of Weep Not, Child, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o establishes the extent to which Njoroge believes in the importance of education. By showcasing the young boy’s excitement at the prospect of going to school, he emphasizes the fact that Njoroge sees his education as a rare opportunity, one that he associates with progress, change, and advancement, as he focuses on how his schooling will take him out of his old clothes and into new ones.
When Njoroge’s half-brother Kamau comes home that evening, Njoroge tells him the good news and asks if their “elder mother,” Njeri, has told him that he too can go to school. “No, brother,” Kamau replies. “You know I am being trained as a carpenter. I cannot drop the apprenticeship. But I am glad you’re going to school.” When Njoroge says that he wishes Kamau could accompany him, his older brother says, “Don’t you worry about me. Everything will be all right. Get education, I’ll get carpentry. Then we shall, in the future, be able to have a new and better home for the whole family.”
Although Njoroge and Kamau are focused on pursuing different paths, it’s worth noting that they both want to create a better life for their family. As such, Ngũgĩ underlines the boys’ desire to uplift their loved ones—an endeavor they believe will require not only an education, but also a practical ability to work and earn money. In turn, readers see that the environment in which these boys exist is quite demanding, as one must unite with his or her family members in order to succeed as a group.
Njoroge accepts that Kamau will not be coming with him to school. He then postulates that Jacobo—the most successful black man in town—is as rich as the white Mr. Howlands because he “got education.” After he says this, Njoroge and Kamau wonder aloud why Mr. Howlands left England, which they see as “the home of learning.” “I don’t know,” Kamau says. “You cannot understand a white man.”
When Njoroge suggests that Jacobo is rich because he is educated, he expresses his belief that academic success leads to personal advancement and progress. On another note, Kamau’s belief that he and his brother will never be able to “understand a white man” demonstrates the divide between black Kenyans and white settlers, ultimately establishing the rift that exists between these two populations—a rift that factors heavily into the plot of the novel.
Ngũgĩ explains that there’s a road that runs “right across the land.” This road is so long it seems to have “no end,” and no one know of its “origin.” “Only if you followed it it would take you to the big city and leave you there while it went beyond to the unknown, perhaps joining the sea,” Ngũgĩ writes. “Who made the road? Rumour had it that it came with the white men and some said that it was built by the Italian prisoners during the big war that was fought far away from here.” Considering the first and second world wars, Ngũgĩ poses a rhetorical question, saying, “Why should the white men have fought? Aaa! You could never tell what these people would do. In spite of the fact that they were all white, they killed one another with poison, fire, and big bombs that destroyed the land.”
Ngũgĩ’s attention to geography is important to note, as it calls attention to the significant role the land itself plays in Weep Not, Child. By contemplating the history of this large road, the author invites readers to consider the ways in which the first and second world wars have shaped Kenya’s landscape. Unfortunately, though, the colonial influence on Kenya remains inscrutable and mysterious to most of the population, since people like Njoroge and Kamau feel as if they “cannot understand” why white people are fighting against one another and why, for that matter, this fighting has driven them to come to Kenya and change the preexisting culture.
Ngũgĩ suggests that, instead of trying to understand why Europeans fight amongst themselves, it’s better to simply “be content with knowing the land you lived in, and the people who lived near you.” If this isn’t enough, he says, there are plenty of stories to hear in the village of Kipanga, which is reachable from Njoroge’s village of Mahua by following “the big road,” walking through the “ridges” and “valleys” and “small plains” that break up all of Kikuyuland, dissecting it into separate sections. The place where white settlers live, Ngũgĩ explains, is easily recognizable because of its lush greens. “You could tell the land of the Black People because it was red, rough, and sickly,” he notes.
Focusing on the physical demarcations in the land, Ngũgĩ calls readers’ attention once more to the division between Kenyans and the white settlers, who have taken dominion over the most verdant—and no doubt agriculturally profitable—areas. By zeroing in on the “red, rough, and sickly” hue of the “land of the Black People,” he holds up a physical manifestation of the ways in which the white settlers have oppressed people like Njoroge and his family.
In the town of Kipanga, people visit the markets, shopping either at Kenyan or Indian stands. Although the majority of Kenyans distrust the Indians, they do most of their shopping with them because they believe they’ll get better prices from them than from their own people. “Some people said that black people should stick together and take trade only to their black brethren,” Ngũgĩ writes. “And one day an old poor woman said, ‘Let Africans stick together and charge very low prices. We are all black. If this be not so, then why grudge a poor woman the chance to buy from someone, be he white or red, who charges less money for his things?” Some young men spend all of their time in the African shops, gaining an ominous reputation as people who are likely to become robbers or murderers.
When this unidentified woman says that all Africans should “stick together and charge low prices,” it’s easy to believe in the positivity of her message. However, there is a veiled sense of division in what she says, since she is essentially threatening her fellow Kenyans by saying she will shop elsewhere if they don’t charge extremely low prices. As such, she urges vendors to sell without turning healthy profits. If they won’t do this, she says, then they shouldn’t critique her for shopping elsewhere. Of course, this seems reasonable, but it illustrates the extent to which newcomers in Kenya have sown division between Africans by encouraging competition that ultimately hurts the marketplace and, thus, the Kenyans who make their living by selling goods.
One particularly popular place in Kipanga is the barber’s shop, where men go to tell and hear stories. Mostly, they talk about the two world wars, swapping tales of violence and destruction. One day, the barber talks about World War II, and when someone asks if it was similar to World War I, he says, “That was a baby’s war. It was only fought here. Those Africans who went to that one were only porters. But this one… […] this one, we carried guns and we shot white men.” This astounds his listeners, but he pushes on, saying, “Y-e-e-e-s. They are not the gods we had thought them to be. We even slept with their women.” Shocked, the barber’s customers ask him what it was like to sleep with white women, and he says, “Not different. Not different.”
This conversation at the barber shop provides insight into the ways in which Kenyans conceive of the white settlers. When the barber says white people are not “the gods” that he and his fellow Kenyans used to think they were, he suggests that many Africans have conceived of these foreigners as powerful and untouchable. To sleep with a white woman, then, is to transcend the boundaries between the two races. This, it seems, is why the barber’s customers are shocked: he has managed to prove that white people are no “different” than black people.
Having listened to the barber, Ngotho—Njoroge’s father—goes home and thinks about his own wartime experiences, though he was only in the World War I. “As a boy he had been conscripted and made to carry things for the fighting white men,” Ngũgĩ writes. “He also had to clear dark bush and make roads. Then, he and the others were not allowed to use guns. But in the barber’s war! Ah, that was something. His own two sons had also gone to this one. Only one had returned. And the one who had returned never talked much about the actual war, except to say that it had been a terrible waste of life.” When gets home, his wives Nyokabi and Njeri tease him for staying too long in Kipanga, but he ignores them by asking if Njoroge likes the idea of going to school. “He looked happy,” Nyokabi says.
In this scene, Ngũgĩ outlines the ways in which war has affected people like Ngotho, who was taken away from his home in order to serve for a foreign cause. And although Ngotho himself didn’t have to face violence, it’s clear that the next generation—which fought in World War II—was not so lucky, as evidenced by the fact that one of Ngotho’s sons never “returned.” By hinting at the significant impact of the wars, Ngũgĩ effectively communicates to readers that Kenyans have been wrongfully used as pawns in conflicts that would otherwise have nothing to do with them, and he suggests that this kind of violence is nothing but a “terrible waste of life.”