Module Eleven, Activity Three

African Novels

The passage below is from a novel titled Weep Not Child by Kenyan author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The passage describes the relationship between Ngotho and Mr. Howlands. Ngotho is a Kenyan who works on the farm of Mr. Howlands, an English settler who has come to Kenya to farm. Click here to see where Kenya is located on a map of Africa. You might want to review Modules Six, Nine, and Ten for more information on the geography, economy and political history of Kenya.

Read the passage carefully. You may have to read it more than once to understand it. If you find words you don’t understand, consult the glossary by clicking on highlighted words. Answer the questions at the end of the passage and put your answers in your Activity Journal.

From Weep Not Child

Ngotho left early for work. He did not go through the fields as was his usual custom. Ngotho loved the rainy seasons when everything was green and the crops in flower, and the morning dew hung on the leaves. But the track where he had disturbed the plants and made the water run off made him feel as if, through his own fault, he had lost something. There was one time when he had felt a desire to touch the dewdrops or open one and see what it held inside. He had trembled like a child but, after he had touched the drops and they had quickly lost shape melting into wetness, he felt ashamed and moved on. At times he was thankful to Murungu for no apparent reason as he went through these cultivated fields all alone while the whole country had a stillness. Almost like the stillness of death.

This morning he walked along the road – the big tarmac road that was long and broad and had no beginning and no end except that it went into the city. Motor cars passed him. Men and women going to work, some in the settled area and some in the shoe factory, chattered along ….

He came to the Indian shops. Years ago, he had worked here. That was long before the Second War. He had worked for an Indian who had always owed him a month’s pay. This was deliberate. It was meant to be a compelling device to keep Ngotho in the Indian’s employment permanently. For if he left, he would lose a month’s pay. In the end, he had to lose it. That was the time he went to work for Mr. Howlands – as a shamba boy. But at first he did everything from working in the tea plantations to cleaning the big house and carrying firewood. He passed through the African shops, near the barber’s shop, and went on, on to the same place where he had now been for years, even before the second Big War took his two sons away to kill one and change the other.

Mr. Howlands was up. He never slept much. Not like Memsahib who sometimes remained in bed until ten o’clock. She had not much else to do. There was something in Howlands, almost a flicker of mystery, that Ngotho could never fathom.

“Good morning, Ngotho.”
“Good monring, Bwana.”
“Had a good night?”
Ndio Bwana.”

Ngotho was the only man Mr. Howlands greeted in this fashion – a fashion that never varied. He spoke in the usual abstract manner as if his mind was preoccupied with something big. It was at any rate something that took all his attention. His mind was always directed towards the shamba. His life and soul were in the shamba. Everything else with him counted only in so far as it was related to the shamba. Even his wife mattered only in so far as she made it possible for him to work in it more efficiently without a worry about home. For he left the management of home to her and knew nothing about what happened there. If he employed someone in the house, it was only because his wife has asked for an extra “boy.” And if she later beat the “boy” and wanted him sacked, well, what did it matter? It was not just that the boys had black skins. The question of wanting to know more about his servants just never crossed his mind.

The only man he had resisted the efforts of his wife to have sacked was Ngotho. Not that Mr. Howlands stopped to analyze his feelings towards him. He just loved to see Ngotho working in the farm; the way the old man touched the soil, almost fondling, and the way he tended the young tea plants as if they were his own …. Ngotho was too much a part of the farm to be separated from it. Something else. He could manage the farm laborers as no other person could. Ngotho had come to him at a time when his money position was bad. But with the coming of Ngotho, things and his fortune improved. Mr. Howlands was tall, heavily built, with an oval-shaped face that ended in a double chin and a big stomach. In physical appearance at least, he was a typical Kenya settler. He was a product of the First World War. After years of security at home, he had been suddenly called to arms and he had gone to the war with the fire of youth that imagines war a glory. But after four years of blood and terrible destruction, like many other young men he was utterly disillusioned by the “peace.” He had to escape. East Africa was a good place. Here was a big trace of wild country to conquer.

For a long time England remained a country far away. He did not want to go back because of what he remembered. But he found that he wanted a wife. He could not go about with the natives as some had done. He went back “home,” a stranger, and picked the first woman he could get. Suzannah was a good girl – neither beautiful nor ugly. She too was bored with a life in England. But she had never known what she wanted to do. Africa sounded quite a nice place so she had willingly followed this man who would give her a change. But she had not known that Africa meant hardship and complete break with Europe. She again became bored. Mr. Howlands was oblivious of her boredom. He believed her when she had told him, out in England, that she could face the life in the bush.

But she soon had a woman’s consolation. She had her first child, a son. She turned her attention to the child and the servants at home. She could now afford to stay there all the day long playing with the child and talking to him. She found sweet pleasure in scolding and beating the servants. The boy, Peter, was followed by a girl. For a time, the three – mother, daughter, and son – made home, the father only appearing in the evening. It was lucky that their home was near Nairobi. The children could go to school there. Her pride was in watching them grow together loving each other. They in their way loved her. But Peter soon took to his father. Mr. Howlands grew to like his son and the two walked through the fields together. Not that Mr. Howlands was demonstrative. But the thought that he would have someone to whom he could leave the shamba gave him a glow in his heart. Each day he became more and more of a family man and, as years went by, seemed even reconciled to that England from which he had run away. He sent both children back for studies. Then European civilization caught up with him again. His son had to go to war.

bushongo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bushongo design of palm cloth strips applied onto plain palm cloth backing, Congo, Kinshasa.

Mr. Howlands lost all faith – even the few shreds that had begun to return. He would again have destroyed himself, but again his god, land, came to the rescue. He turned all his efforts and energy into it. He seemed to worship the soil. At times he went on for days with nothing but a few cups of tea. His one pleasure was in contemplating and panning the land to which he had now given all his life. Suzannah was left alone. She beat and sacked servant after servant. But God was kind to her. She had another boy, Stephen. He was now an only son. The daughter had turned missionary after Peter’s death in war.They went from place to place, a white man and a black man. Now and then they would stop here and there, examine a luxuriant green tea plant, or pull out a weed. Both men admired this shamba. For Ngotho felt responsible for whatever happened to this land. He owed it to the dead, the living, and the unborn of his line to keep guard over this shamba. Mr. Howlands always felt a certain amount of victory whenever he walked through it all. He alone was responsible for taming this unoccupied wildness. They came to a raised piece of ground and stopped. The land sloped gently to rise again into the next ridge and the next. Beyond Ngotho could see the African Reserve.

You like all this?” Mr. Howlands asked absentmindedly. He was absorbed in admiring the land before him.

“It is the best land in all the country,” Ngotho said emphatically. He meant it. Mr. Howlands sighed. He was wondering if Stephen would ever manage it after him.

“I don’t know who will manage it after me …”

Ngotho’s heart jumped. He too was thinking of his children. Would the prophecy be fulfilled soon?

Kwa nini Bwana. Are you going back to-?”

“No,” Mr. Howlands said, unnecessarily loudly.

“… Your home, home ….”

“My home is here!”

Ngotho was puzzled. Would these people never go? But has not the old Gikuyu seer said that they would eventually return the way they had come? And Mr. Howlands was thinking, Would Stephen really do? He was not like the other one. He felt the hurt and the pain and the loss.

“The war took him away.”

Ngotho had never known where the other son had gone to. Now he understood. He wanted to tell of his own son: he longed to say, “You took him away from me.” But he kept quiet. Only he thought Mr. Howlands should not complain. It had been his war.

Questions

  1. This passage is taken from a longer novel. What is a novel? How is it different from an oral folktale? Or a poem?
  2. What does Ngotho see on his way to work at Mr. Howlands farm?
  3. What type of work does Ngotho do for Mr. Howlands?
  4. Why did Mr. Howlands leave England and come to Kenya?
  5. What happened to Mr. Howlands first son, Peter?
  6. Does Ngotho want Mr. Howlands to return to England? Why? What in the story tells you this?
  7. What do you think Ngotho thinks about Mr. Howlands? Does he like him? Respect him? Hate him? What examples in the story show you this?
  8. Why did Mrs. Howlands agree to come to Kenya?
  9. In your opinion, do you think Mr. Howlands will return the land to Ngotho? Why or why not?

Go on to Activity Four or select from the list of module activities.