In Weep Not, Child, Ngũgĩ considers how a person’s sense of honor informs the way he or she behaves. Most notably, Ngotho spends a great deal of energy thinking about whether or not he’s upholding his familial duties as the head of his household. However, because he’s unsure how to respond to the various challenges that present themselves—including whether or not to rise up against colonialists—he finds himself feeling guilty for failing to actively protect his family. Indeed, the notions he takes to heart about what it means to be a patriarch ultimately lead to his death, as he tries to make up for his failure to stand up to the people who have terrorized his sons. By showcasing the ways in which guilt can steer a person to his or her own demise, then, Ngũgĩ implies that shame isn’t necessarily something that should always motivate a person to redeem him- or herself. In keeping with this, he presents Njoroge as someone who also feels guilt and shame, but who learns to accept—or at least live with—these shortcomings. Of course, this attitude doesn’t help Njoroge regain his sense of pride or honor, but rather enables him to keep on living. In this manner, Ngũgĩ hints at the fact that it’s often necessary to recognize guilt and shame as unavoidable realities, however difficult this is to accept.
When Ngotho first takes a stand against white settlers in Weep Not, Child, he does so because Boro has made him feel ashamed for failing to take action. During an evening of storytelling, Ngotho tells his family and friends about how the British stole their land by forcing him and his fellow Kenyans away from home during World War I. When they returned, he explains, people like Mr. Howlands had forced their families off the land. And though Ngotho believes in a Kikuyu prophecy that Kenyans will soon regain their land, Boro remains unconvinced and expresses his disappointment in the fact that his father has heretofore done nothing to win back what belongs to him. “To hell with the prophecy,” Boro erupts. “How can you continue working for a man who has taken your land? How can you go on serving him?” By saying this, Boro shames his father, stripping the man of his authority and making him feel like a weak leader. This is why Ngotho proceeds by beating Jacobo for siding with the white men. Unfortunately, though, this attempt to establish his honor is hotheaded and ill-advised, ultimately inciting a slew of violence between his and Jacobo’s people that harms his family more than it protects them.
Unsurprisingly, Ngotho later regrets his impulsive decision to defend his honor. “Perhaps he had blundered in going on strike. For he had now lost every contact with his ancestral land,” Ngũgĩ writes, suggesting that Ngotho’s fragile ego has led him into an even worse situation. However, even though Ngotho regrets what he has done, he still believes he was left with no choice, since continuing to do nothing would have made him appear weak. “But what could he have done? He had to go on strike,” Ngũgĩ notes. “He had not wanted to be accused by a son anymore, because when a man was accused by the eyes of a son who had been to war and had witnessed the death of a brother, he felt guilty.” In this moment, Ngũgĩ highlights Ngotho’s discomfort with the idea that his son might “accuse” him of inaction. In turn, readers see that Ngotho cares first and foremost about defending his honor—a vanity that leads him into precarious situations.
Ngotho isn’t the only character in Weep Not, Child to whom honor is important. Like his father, Njoroge fears letting down his loved ones. As he witnesses the degradation of his father’s sense of pride, he himself works hard to ensure that his education will bestow honor onto him and his family. “He knew that something had happened to Ngotho,” Ngũgĩ writes, “who no longer looked anybody straight in the face; not even his wives. Njoroge was sure that if a child hit Ngotho, he would probably submit.” Witnessing his father’s apparent shame, Njoroge commits himself to education; “Through all this, Njoroge was still sustained by his love for and belief in education and his own role when the time came. And the difficulties of home seemed to have sharpened this appetite. Only education could make something out of this wreckage.” Going on, Ngũgĩ explains that Njoroge sometimes sees himself as “a possible savior of the whole God’s country.” In this way, readers intuit that Njoroge has idealized the idea of his own success, reveling in his pride.
It is perhaps because Njoroge is so proud of his image as a “savior” that he is later so guilty when he finds himself incapable of continuing his education. After finally testing into a prestigious school, he is pulled out of the classroom for good by colonists who think he knows something about Jacobo’s death. Considering that Boro killed Jacobo because of the bad blood between their families—a dispute instigated by Ngotho in an attempt to prove his honor—it’s easy to see that no good has come from this family’s obsession with pride. If Boro hadn’t shamed his father for failing to stand up to the white man (and if Ngotho hadn’t been motivated to act by this guilt), then no conflict would have arisen with Jacobo, and Njoroge would have been able to continue his studies and “[made] something out of this wreckage.”
Unfortunately, the men in Njoroge’s family let macho notions of pride and honor guide their actions, and this keeps Njoroge from completing his studies. As a result, he feels guilty for failing to meet his goal—so guilty that he resolves to hang himself, though Nyokabi finds him before he goes through with it. And though he walks home with her and Njeri, he feels no relief at having decided to stay alive. “[Njoroge] felt only guilt, the guilt of a man who had avoided his responsibility for which he had prepared himself since childhood,” Ngũgĩ writes, emphasizing that Njoroge sees the interruption of his education as a personal failure. Nonetheless, he decides to live. Just before reaching home, he asks himself why he didn’t kill himself. “I am a coward,” he answers before “[running] home and open[ing] the door for his two mothers.” This is an important line, as Ngũgĩ suggests that Njoroge has decided to focus not on his shame, but on what he still has in life: his mothers. In doing so, he essentially accepts his own shortcomings, refusing to let stubborn notions of pride and honor lead him—like his father and brother—to death. As such, Ngũgĩ frames guilt and shame as inherent parts of life that people must learn to withstand without behaving rashly.
Pride and Honor vs. Guilt and Shame ThemeTracker
Pride and Honor vs. Guilt and Shame Quotes in Weep Not, Child
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.
Suddenly he realised that he did not want to meet her while he had on that piece of calico which, when blown by the wind, left the lower part of his body without covering. For a time he was irresolute and hated himself for feeling as he did about the clothes he had on. Before he had started school, in fact even while he made that covenant with his mother, he would never have thought that he would ever be ashamed of the calico, the only dress he had ever known since birth.
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.
“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?”
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.
Was he a man any longer, he who had watched his wife and son taken away because of breaking the curfew without a word of protest? Was this cowardice? It was cowardice, cowardice of the worst sort. He stood up and rushed to the door like a madman. It was too late. He came back to his seat, a defeated man, a man who cursed himself for being a man with a lost manhood. He now knew that even that waiting had been a form of cowardice, putting off of action.
Through all this, Njoroge was still sustained by his love for and belief in education and his own role when the time came. And the difficulties of home seemed to have sharpened this appetite. Only education could make something out of this wreckage. He became more faithful to his studies. He would one day use all his learning to fight the white man, for he would continue the work that his father had started. When these moments caught him, he actually saw himself as a possible saviour of the whole God’s country. Just let him get learning.
“Mwihaki, you are the one dear thing left to me. I feel bound to you and I know that I can fully depend on you. I have no hope left but for you, for now I know that my tomorrow was an illusion.”
But as they came near home and what had happened to him came to mind, the voice again came and spoke, accusing him:
You are a coward. You have always been a coward. Why didn’t you do it?
And loudly he said, “Why didn't I do it?”
The voice said: Because you are a coward.
“Yes,” he whispered to himself, “I am a coward.”
And he ran home and opened the door for his two mothers.