I hadn’t expected to come across World War 1 in Weep Not, Child by Ngugi wa Thiong’o but I did. And what a little gem. The short book (136 pages) written in 1962 was published in 1964 and deals with the life of a Kikuyu family in Kenya leading to independence.
While most authors on the GWAA list of novels concerning the war and those I’m covering in the Novelist posts have the war as a feature or setting, Ngugi’s characters refer back to it comparing it with World War Two. Both are referred to as the Big War – first and second. This correlates with my discovery of speaking to older generation people in Africa who do not associate the Great War with what we in the west call World War One, the First World War or even the Great War. I’ve generally come across it referred to as ‘the war between the great white queen and king’ or ‘the war where white men fought each other’.
What was more fascinating about Ngugi’s references to the Big War was how they were perceived. The first being of little consequence other than giving people a hard time by making them carriers, whereas the second was more fearful where black men were fighting the white man’s war which featured poison, bombs etc. The immediate horrors of the Second World War tower over those of the first. This contrasts with the veteran interviews Mel Page did in Malawi (Chiwaya War Voices) where the First World War was seen as more destructive than the Second. In fact a number of the veterans comment that Europe should be told about the Great War which happened in Africa as they have no idea about it, the Second being fought in Europe. These two texts bring to light the very different experiences of the same events by peoples of Africa – Kenya and Malawi – and the impact of these two great wars on the local communities.
Whether it’s intentional or not, Nugi’s telling of the story of young Njoroge who is the first in his family to go to school provides an insight into the impact of war. There was a justification for the First World War, being to prevent German slavery across Africa whereas the Second was purely for British interests. Those who participated in the First were not as severely impacted as those who served in the Second where killing and death from military action was more intense than that of 1914-1918 (fewer than 10% of losses in WW1 East Africa were directly war related). One can see the result of the disillusion of returned soldiers leading to freedom fighters linked with Mau Mau.
This is one of the few books I’ve read where the legacy of war has been addressed at a local level – where the outcome is not ‘moonlight and roses’. It’s one of the reasons Ngugi is such a powerful writer: he’s not scared to tell it how it is.