Fifty years ago, a young man studying at Makerere wrote his first novel in English...

Saturday June 06 2015

Two weeks ago, we marked the beatification of Sister Irene Stefani, a Catholic nun who came to Kenya early in the past century to work in a village in Nyeri.

She taught, treated and comforted the sick. She taught herself the local language, and would trek for miles visiting the sick. She died from bubonic plague after catching it from a patient who died in her arms. Her acts of mercy earned her the name, Nyaatha (One of Mercy).

And this week, we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Ngugi wa Thiong'o’s book, Weep, Not Child. Ngugi wrote the book when he was still a college student in Makerere.

It was the first novel in English by an East African. In the book, the character of Njoroge pursues his ambitions in both personal and historical terms. He wants to get an education, not just to better his personal situation, but also to help black people in the struggle against the white man.

Of course, Ngugi would go on to write other, perhaps more accomplished books. But the significance of Weep, Not Child can be thought of in two ways. Its historical significance as a pioneering literary work, but also as a testament to the personal drive, discipline and huge literary ambitions of a young man still in his early 20s.

Nothing is impossible


As Ngugi himself put it during a press briefing, his fellow students jeered at his intention to write the novel, dissuading him from the “impossible” task he had taken upon himself.

But, as he told members of the press, he has never believed in the impossible — the limitations we place on ourselves or which are imposed on us.

Ngugi’s mental attitude and the example of Stefani’s selfless dedication to others are values that we seem to have lost in our society today. Our efforts at development lack tough-mindedness, and as Paul Kagame told Kenyan journalist Julie Gichuru, they seem to be characterised by a psychological outlook that has come to accept low expectations of ourselves.

Thus we repeat the same mistakes year in, year out. We accept the deadly annual flood disasters with a sense of fatalism. As if it were a seasonal certainty, hundreds die from lack of food every year. Every now and then, buildings collapse on people.

By contrast, the Dutch have tamed the sea by building dykes, and Israel, a dry, water-starved country, exports food. And in many places around the world, official negligence is punished.

Mercy, compassion and selflessness, the values that drove and characterised Sister Stefani’s life, are clearly lacking in our political and social leadership. Our politicians, with mind-boggling impunity, grab every opportunity to steal, legally or illegally, from us.

Politicians, even those in very high positions, feature regularly in various corruption and extortionist scams.

Tribal differences

In her work, Stefani, a white woman, worked and died helping people of another race. Our politicians see the future in terms of tribes. And incredibly, as we in Kenya keep showing, the most popular politicians are those that advance the most bizarre ideas about tribal differences.

During his lifetime, the late Nelson Mandela exemplified both the selflessness of Stefani and Ngugi’s tough-mindedness.

In prison he would wake up at 4am for exercise and study. And on leaving prison, he pursued a policy of reconciliation, driven by a vision of the future in which all are “free and with equal opportunities,” regardless of race and tribe.

It was a future, he once told a court that would sentence him to life imprisonment, he hoped to live for and to achieve, but it was also a future for which he was willing to die. Jesse Jackson, the American civil-rights crusader, once described Mandela’s life example as a “paradigm for Africa’s renewal.”

These values of compassion, tough mindedness and magnanimity of thought exemplified in inspirational fashion by Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Nelson Mandela and Sister Stefani, should be the materials with which we construct our visions of the future.

Then we can say to the millions in Africa crippled by hopelessness, “Weep, not child.”

Tee Ngugi is a political and social commentator based in Nairobi.