The story begins in the Gikuyu village of Mahua, in Kenya.
Nyokabi is a beautiful woman, though she has been aged prematurely by a life of poverty and hardship. She offers her son, Njoroge, a chance to go to school – something the family has never been able to afford for his older siblings. He is delighted, even after she warns him that he will not be able to afford lunch there, and that he must attend every day. He rushes to tell his half-brother Kamau the good news.
Kamau, who is working as an apprentice carpenter, is happy to learn Njoroge's news. Although they are nearly the same age, Kamau cannot attend school because of his apprenticeship. The boys discuss their bright futures. Both hope that their training will make them as rich as either Jacobo, a wealthy and educated local villager, or Mr. Howlands, an English man who had lived among the community for a long time. Though both figures are the subject of local controversy - Mr. Howlands for his race and significant land ownership, and Jacobo for the compromises he makes to please Mr. Howlands - they are both admired because of their wealth. As we learn later, Njoroge and his family also live on land rented from Jacobo.
The narrator then speaks about the local community and landscape. He describes the black, paved road that passes through Mahua, heading far into the distance. It was built by Italian prisoners during World War II, and offers an alternative to the less-defined paths through the forest that natives would otherwise take when traversing the area.
The narrator then muses on the insularity of village life, and how difficult it is to understand white people. He tells of what the locals do for entertainment. When the men of Mahua get bored, they travel to the nearby town of Kipanga, where they shop and loiter. Kipanga is bigger and more diverse than Mahua – it has a large population of Indian traders, who maintain a fraught relationship with the native Gikuyu. One of the most popular figures in town is the barber, who tells stories about his time fighting in the war; in particular, he likes to tell about sleeping with white prostitutes in Jerusalem.
The narrator shifts back to the current day, on which the barber is speaking about the prostitutes. When he finishes his story, Ngotho - husband to Nyokabi, and father to Njoroge and Kamau - sets off for home. We learn that Nyokabi is Ngotho's second wife; his first is named Njeri. A man's first wife is favored in Gikuyu custom, but despite some occasional problems over jealousy, Ngotho’s wives and children get along well. As he walks home, he reflects on his own experiences serving in World War I, and those of his sons, Boro and Mwangi, who fought in World War II. When he arrives home, Ngotho learns that Njoroge will soon start school, and he feels proud that his son will be educated like the daughter of Jacobo.
On Monday, Njoroge’s friend (and Jacobo's daughter) Mwihaki walks with him to his first day of school. Njoroge has admired her ever since he saw her being bullied by herd-boys many years before. She has been attending school for a while.
When they arrive, the other boys shock Njoroge with their shouting and lewd jokes. They make fun of him, calling him a Njuka, or newcomer. They try to force him carry their bags, but Mwihaki saves him by claiming that Njoroge is her Njuka, and so only she can order him around.
Time passes. At first, Njoroge has a hard time adjusting to school life. He likes his teacher, but becomes afraid of her after she beats another student. Because he always returns straight home after school for fear of angering his mother, he does not make many friends. One day, Mwihaki walks home with him and they dawdle, chatting and throwing stones. When her son does not return immediately, Nyokabi sets out in search of him, and is upset to find him playing with a girl from a higher social class.
One day after school, Njoroge begs his mother to tell him stories. Earlier that day, his teacher had asked him to tell the class a story, but he, in his nervousness, forgot all the stories he knows. Nyokabi agrees to honor his request after she finishes her chores.
Njoroge heads out to play, after taking off his school clothes. He passes Jacobo’s large house, and recalls an instance in which Jacobo’s wife, Juliana, hosted a party for all the children of parents who worked for the family. At the party, Njoroge giggled during Grace, and Juliana lectured the children about manners.
Njoroge sees Mwihaki walking in his direction, and he hides, ashamed that she might see him wearing only his old calico loincloth. He instead meets up with Kamau, who complains that his employer, the carpenter Nganga, does not let him do enough hands-on work at his apprenticeship. Instead, Nganga only assigns Kamau menial tasks. Njoroge sympathizes with his brother’s complaints, and invites him over for storytelling at Nyokabi’s hut that evening.
That night, something unusual happens: Ngotho tells stories, instead of Nyokabi. He is known as an excellent storyteller. First, Ngotho recounts the traditional Gikuyu creation story, in which the Creator, Murungu, placed a man and a woman under his sacred tree. Next, he tells about how white men came to Kenya, forced him and others to fight in World War I, and then stole their land. (Ngotho's land now belongs to the wealthy Englishman Mr. Howlands.) According to Ngotho, a seer named Mugo wa Kibiro had prophesied all of this tragedy before the British even set foot in Kenya. She had also promised that the white men would eventually leave, a promise that gives many like Ngotho hope for the future.
The story enrages Boro, Ngotho’s eldest son and a veteran of World War II. He has been troubled ever since losing his brother in the war, believing that his and his people's suffering seems to have no purpose. He demands to know why his father continues working for the man who took his land (Mr. Howlands), and then storms out before Ngotho can answer.
Ngotho walks to work the next day, brooding over Boro's accusations, and reflecting on how the boy has changed since the war. As he walks through town, he remembers the various odd jobs he had held in his youth. When he arrives at the shamba, or tea plantation, the narrative shifts to Mr. Howlands’s point of view.
After fighting in World War I, Mr. Howlands grew disillusioned and decided to become a farmer in Africa, hoping to find inner peace there. He is completely dedicated to his work, and he admires Ngotho and his special connection with the land. Mr. Howlands brought his wife Suzanne – or Memsahib, as most of the characters call her – to Kenya, but he is oblivious to the fact that she hates it there. The Howlands have three children. Their eldest son, Peter, was killed in World War II, and their daughter became a missionary. Their youngest, Stephen, still lives with them.
As Mr. Howlands and Ngotho walk through the plantation together, Mr. Howlands confides in his employee about Peter’s death, and about his doubts that Stephen can manage the plantation after he dies. Ngotho wonders to himself when the Howlands family will leave Kenya, and thinks that “Mr. Howlands should not complain [about Peter’s death]. It had been his war” (33).
Weep Not, Child was the first of Ngugi wa’ Thiongo’s novels to be published, and it is an excellent introduction to the author’s unique narrative style. One of the most striking features of Ngugi’s technique is his emphasis on free indirect narration, in which the narrator adopts the voice of the characters, without putting what they say in direct quotes. For example, Ngugi writes, “Ngotho did not beat his wives much. On the contrary, his home was well known for being a place of peace. All the same, one had to be careful” (10). In this passage, the narrator is not endorsing wife-beating; he is merely expressing what Ngotho is thinking.
Free indirect style is an effective choice for a novel like Weep Not, Child because it allows the narrator to quickly shift between different characters’ points of view. In the first three chapters, we hear the thoughts of a wide variety of characters, including Ngotho, Boro, and Mr. Howlands – not to mention the protagonists, Njoroge and Kamau. As the novel ultimately aims to explore an entire civilization, and not simply a few characters, the style allows Ngugi to conduct implicit arguments between different perspectives on the future of Kenya.
Another characteristic of Ngugi’s style is a freewheeling narrative technique, in which events do not always have a causal relationship. Instead of telling a linear story, Ngugi’s plot circles around characters, frequently pausing to offer historical context or background on the lives of secondary characters. For example, the interlude about Ngotho’s job history in Chapter 3 ostensibly has little to do with Njoroge and Kamau’s lives, but hearing about Ngotho's hardscrabble youth enhances the sense that the British colonists have exploited the people of Mahau – one of the novel’s most important themes. Further, it suggests the way that the past informs the present. Another example of this is the narrator's reflections upon the road that passes through Mahua. Again, this style reinforces Ngugi's intention as trying to understand the conflict within a society, and not simply the way one or a few characters react to that conflict.
Ngugi’s strong sense of political awareness is another notable quality in the novel’s first three chapters. Sometimes, this political perspective appears in expository passages – for example, the aforementioned passage about the road, or Ngotho’s version of the Gikuyu creation story. However, it also manifests through the more mundane interactions between the characters. When any character talks to or thinks about Boro, Ngugi makes sure to hint at the trauma Boro experienced fighting in the Second World War, and the resentment he feels toward the British overlords who sent him there. In fact, both World Wars feature prominently in these chapters, simply because they are mentioned so frequently. He does not make them a significant point of exploration, but the frequency with which he mentions them reveals how indelibly they have shaped Gikuyu culture at the time.
The Indian traders are another example of Ngugi imbuing daily life with political significance. Their relationship with the native Gikuyu showcases some of the issues that prevent oppressed peoples from uniting against imperial power. Most of the villagers have at least some awareness that Indians are oppressed by the British in their own country, in much the same way the Gikuyu are in Kenya. However, this knowledge leads not to a sense of common purpose, but to antagonism. The Gikuyu resent that the Indians were not forced to fight in the wars, and that the Indian traders in Kipanga act superior to their Gikuyu customers. This fraught relationship illustrates how minor differences between oppressed peoples can actually enhance the power of colonial overlords, allowing them to divide and conquer.
Mahua is a place with a deep sense of community, but there is also a dimension of internal strife that appears even in these early chapters. One example occurs in Chapter 1, when an old woman gripes because the black merchant in Kipanga will not lower his prices for other black people. Other examples come in the awkward moments that sometimes occur between friends; at Ngotho’s storytelling session, for example, “a young man tried to make a joke.... Nobody heeded him. He laughed alone and then stopped” (27). Each of these dissonant moments is indirectly caused by colonialism: the old woman’s problems with the merchant could be resolved by bartering, which fell out of favor after Europeans began to occupy East Africa; the solemnity in Ngotho’s hut reflects the gravity of Ngotho's story about the coming of white people. And of course, the greater resentments - like those against Mr. Howlands or Jacobo, who is considered something of a traitor for his complicity with the white man - are explicit reflections of political unrest. In fact, Jacobo is an example of the way that the tensions did not simply reflect racial difference. Though black, Jacobo has earned land and special privileges (he is the only black man allowed to grow pyrethrum) by collaborating with the white colonists. The Mau Mau Uprising, which this novel will detail, has not yet begun, but the conditions that give rise to it have already infiltrated so much of society.