Based on a turbulent period of Kenyan history that saw the slow upheaval of British colonial rule, Weep Not, Child examines the impact of cultural division. More specifically, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o illustrates how thoroughly British settlers were able to sow discord in Kenya as recently as the 1950s, essentially pitting Kenyans against one another in order to better conquer and rule the country. The ubiquity of this practice is made evident in Weep Not, Child by the white Mr. Howlands’s satisfaction when he sees that the Kenyans he wants to oppress are in fact “destroy[ing] themselves.” Pleased that his enemies are warring, he prospers on the land he stole from black Kenyans like Ngotho. And though people like Ngotho recognize that feuding with other Kenyans only keeps them from uniting against their collective enemy (the white settlers), the conflicts they have with one another are too pressing and immediate to ignore. Indeed, when Ngotho’s eldest son joins the Mau Mau (a group of activists fighting for Kenyan independence), his family is torn between this militant group and other Kenyan-born people who have pledged allegiance to white colonists. This is significant, considering that Ngotho’s family has until this point always been closely connected. As such, Ngũgĩ illustrates how easy it is to become disempowered by the kind of division that takes place under oppressive colonial rule, ultimately suggesting that even the most unified groups of people can fall prey to divisive tactics.
Early in Weep Not, Child, Ngũgĩ makes a point of establishing the close connection that runs throughout Ngotho’s family. Like other men of the Kikuyu people, Ngotho has two wives—Njeri and Nyokabi—with whom he has multiple sons. Despite what Western readers might assume about the potential competitive nature of this arrangement, though, Ngũgĩ goes out of his way to emphasize that Ngotho’s family members are closely connected. “The feeling of oneness was a thing that most distinguished Ngotho’s household from many other polyamorous families,” Ngũgĩ notes, suggesting that this sense of unity is “attributed to Ngotho” himself, who keeps the family together because he acts as a “stable centre.”
Having established this feeling of “oneness,” Ngũgĩ goes on to show the adverse and divisive effects of colonialization on Ngotho’s family. After World War I—when Kenyans were enlisted to serve for the British—people like Ngotho returned to their homes to find that white people had taken ownership of their land. Unfortunately, there was very little to do about this, since the Kenyan government itself was ruled by English colonists. As such, Ngotho and his fellow veterans were forced to take jobs working on farms that used to belong to them. Then, after years of toiling for low wages, they organized a workers’ strike and demanded better pay. This is what Ngotho faces in the first half of Weep Not, Child. Working for Mr. Howlands on land that used to belong to his own family, he finds himself torn between going on strike and keeping his job. “[Mr. Howlands] warned [his workers] that if any man went on strike he would instantly lose his job,” Ngũgĩ writes, illustrating the difficult decision Ngotho faces. Unfortunately, the tense indecision that arises as a result of this dilemma eventually works its way into Ngotho’s family, as he argues with Nyokabi about the pros and cons of uniting with the rest of the workers. “We shall starve,” Nyokabi points out, to which Ngotho replies, “This strike is important for the black people.” In response, Nyokabi says, “What’s black people to us when we starve?” This question gets at the heart of the dilemma Ngotho’s family faces, as it highlights the ways in which the white settlers and their monopoly of power have forced Kenyans to either turn against their community members or sacrifice their own wellbeing.
While Nyokabi urges Ngotho not to go on strike, Boro—his eldest son who joins the Mau Mau—criticizes Ngotho for failing to advocate for his fellow Kenyans. In keeping with this, Boro’s friend Kiarie comes to Ngotho’s village for a meeting and urges everyone to join the strike, saying, “Today, we, with one voice, must rise and shout: ‘The time has come. Let my People go.’” However, not everyone agrees with this mentality, which is why Jacobo—a rich black man who has sided with white settlers—stands and argues that his people should “go back to work and not listen to” people like Kiarie. Suddenly impassioned and angry, Ngotho sees Jacobo as a traitor and, as such, rises, advances, and attacks him, ultimately inciting a feud between his and Jacobo’s family that culminates not only with his own death, but also with Jacobo’s and Boro’s at the end of the novel. And as these two families antagonize one another, readers come to understand that this kind of discord only keeps Kenyans from confronting their true oppressors: the white colonists.
As the conflict between Kenyans and white colonists rages on, internal disputes only become more pronounced. Although individuals like Boro join the Mau Mau to protect their people through the practice of guerilla warfare (a form of warfare in which armed civilians organize to resist traditional military forces), they ultimately wind up terrorizing their own communities by violently coercing people to join them. Unsurprisingly, this is much to the delight of people like Mr. Howlands, who relishes the discord he observes taking place amongst the Kenyans he wants to disempower. “The machine he had set in motion was working,” Ngũgĩ writes. “The blacks were destroying blacks. They would destroy themselves to the end. What did it matter with him if the blacks in the forest destroyed a whole village? […] Let them destroy themselves. Let them fight against each other. The few who remained would be satisfied with the reservation the white man had set aside for them.” The “reservation” Ngũgĩ—and, in turn, Mr. Howlands—refers to in this moment is the unappealing opportunity to work for low wages on Howlands’s farm, an existence that might seem tolerable compared to the violent dealings of the Mau Mau. As such, it becomes clear that the white settlers are all too eager to inspire division amongst the people they’re trying to exploit, which Mr. Howlands does by encouraging Jacobo to exact revenge on Ngotho, thereby adding fuel to the fire of their already tumultuous relationship. In this way, Ngũgĩ showcases how harmful division can be to a community, especially when malicious people use it to oppress and rule an otherwise cohesive, unified culture.
Division and Conquest ThemeTracker
Division and Conquest Quotes in Weep Not, Child
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. They had even called the people to help them in killing one another. It was puzzling. You could not really understand because although they said they fought Hitler (ah! Hitler, that brave man, whom all the British feared, and he was never killed you know, just vanished like that), Hitler too was a white man. That did not take you very far. It was better to give up the attempt and be content with knowing the land you lived in, and the people who lived near you.
The first two valleys went into the Country of the Black People. The other two divided the land of the Black People from the land of the White People. This meant that there were four ridges that stood and watched one another. Two of the ridges on the opposite sides of the long sides of the plain were broad and near one another. The other two were narrow and had pointed ends. You could tell the land of Black People because it was red, rough, and sickly, while the land of the white settlers was green and was not lacerated into small strips.
Some people said that black people should stick together and take trade only to their black brethren. 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?”
Nyokabi was proud of having a son in school. It made her soul happy and lighthearted whenever she saw him bending double over a slate or recounting to her what he had seen at school. She felt elated when she ordered her son to go and do some reading or some sums. It was to her the greatest reward she would get from her motherhood if she one day found her son writing letters, doing arithmetic, and speaking English.
“Blackness is not all that makes a man,” Kamau said bitterly. “There are some people, be they black or white, who don’t want others to rise above them. They want to be the source of all knowledge and share it piecemeal to others less endowed. That is what’s wrong with all these carpenters and men who have a certain knowledge. It is the same with rich people. A rich man does not want others to get rich because he wants to be the only man with wealth.”
“All of us were taken by force. We made roads and cleared the forest to make it possible for the warring white man to move more quickly. The war ended. We were all tired. We came home worn-out but very ready for whatever the British might give us as a reward. But, more than this, we wanted to go back to the soil and court it to yield, to create, not to destroy. But Ng’o! The land was gone. My father and many others had been moved from our ancestral lands. He died lonely, a poor man waiting for the white man to go.”
When the war came to an end, Boro had come home, no longer a boy but a man with experience and ideas, only to find that for him there was to be no employment. There was no land on which he could settle, even if he had been able to do so. As he listened to this story, all these things came into his mind with a growing anger. How could these people have let the white man occupy the land without acting? And what was all this superstitious belief in a prophecy?
In a whisper that sounded like a shout, he said, “To hell with the prophecy.”
Yes, this was nothing more than a whisper. To his father, he said, “How can you continue working for a man who has taken your land? How can you go on serving him?”
He walked out, without waiting for an answer.
“Education is everything,” Ngotho said. Yet he doubted this because he knew deep inside his heart that land was everything. Education was good only because it would lead to the recovery of the lost lands.
Ngotho rarely complained. He had all his life lived under the belief that something big would happen. That was why he did not want to be away from the land that belonged to his ancestors. That was really why he had faithfully worked for Mr Howlands, tending the soil carefully and everything that was in it. His son had come and with one stroke had made him doubt that very allegiance to Mr Howlands and the soil. And with this doubt had now come an old man’s fear of his son. Boro had changed. This was all because of the war. Ngotho felt the war had dealt ill with him. It had killed one son! And the other was accusing him.
Njoroge usually stood on this hill whenever he wanted to see his mother or brother coming from a distance. If he saw any of them he ran and helped them carry whatever they had. It did not matter if it was Njeri or any of her sons. The feeling of oneness was a thing that most distinguished Ngotho’s household from many other polygamous families. Njeri and Nyokabi went to the shamba or market together. Sometimes they agreed among themselves that while one did that job the other would do this one. This was attributed to Ngotho, the centre of the home. For if you have a stable centre, then the family will hold.
“I must be a man in my own house.”
“Yes—be a man and lose a job.”
“I shall do whatever I like. I have never taken orders from a woman.”
“We shall starve . . .”
“You starve! This strike is important for the black people. We shall get bigger salaries.”
“What's black people to us when we starve?”
Jacobo, the richest man in all the land around, had been brought to pacify the people. Everyone listened to him in silence. But something unusual happened to Ngotho. For one single moment Jacobo crystallised into a concrete betrayal of the people. He became the physical personification of the long years of waiting and suffering—Jacobo was a traitor. Ngotho rose. He made his way towards the platform while everyone watched, wondering what was happening. He was now near Jacobo. The battle was now between these two—Jacobo on the side of the white people, and he on the side of the black people.
Ngotho did not speak much. He sat in his own corner and Njoroge could not tell if he was listening to what was going on. Ngotho was changing. Soon after the strike Boro quarrelled much with the old man. He accused him of having spoilt everything by his rash action in spite of Kiarie’s warning. Boro clearly had contempt for Ngotho. But he had never expressed it in words except on those two occasions. Since then, he had become more critical of Ngotho. Ngotho, as a result, had diminished in stature, often assuming a defensive secondary place whenever talking with his sons and their friends. For months he had remained in this position, often submitting unflinchingly to his son. And then Boro thought that he could make the old man submit to his will. But Ngotho made a determined resistance. He would not take the Mau Mau oath at his son’s hands or instruction. There had been a bitter quarrel and Boro had stayed for a long time without coming home.
But what could he have done? He had to go on strike. He had not wanted to be accused by a son anymore, because when a man was accused by the eyes of his son who had been to war and had witnessed the death of a brother, he felt guilty. But Ngotho had always wanted to be gentle with Boro because he knew that the son must have been sorely tried in the war. The something that had urged him to fight against Jacobo certainly had no logic. But it alienated Boro further still.
“The white man makes a law or a rule. Through that rule or law or whatever you may call it, he takes away the land and then imposes many laws on the people concerning that land and many other things, all without people agreeing first as in the old days of the tribe. Now a man rises and opposes that law which made right the taking away of land. Now that man is taken by the same people who made the laws against which that man was fighting. He is tried under those alien rules. Now tell me who is that man who can win even if the angels of God were his lawyers . . . I mean.”
Mr Howlands felt a certain gratifying pleasure. The machine he had set in motion was working. The blacks were destroying the blacks. They would destroy themselves to the end. What did it matter with him if the blacks in the forest destroyed a whole village? What indeed did it matter except for the fact that labour would diminish? Let them destroy themselves. Let them fight against each other. The few who remained would be satisfied with the reservation the white man had set aside for them. Yes, Mr Howlands was coming to enjoy his work.