When studying African literature, this quotation from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart sticks out in my mind: “When they came, they had the Bible and we had the land. We closed our eyes. When we opened our eyes, we had the Bible and they had our land.”
While reading James Thiong’o (who later on received fame as Ngugi Wa Thiong’o), I observed some similar accounts. In his novel Weep not, Child, Thiang’o described the words of a Kenyan revolutionary who, in a speech to the black people of his land, narrated how they were deceived and their land was seized by the white men: “For every race had their country. The Indians had India. Europeans had Europe. And Africans had Africa, the land of the black people. The land has been snatched from our ancestors through Bible and the sword. Yes, that’s how your land was taken away. The Bible paved the way for the sword.”
In his accidental entry into writing, Thiong’o had emerged as one of the finest writers of African literature and history with his powerful novels – including his masterpiece Weep not, Child. Although his second, he got it published first in sequence under the name of James Thiong’o who got to be Ngugi wa Thiong’o in the years that followed. The author has described a whole African society, its culture, its people, its psyche, its myths, its education, its religion, its foreign settlers and, above all, its ultimate revolution. From a student to a learner and to a Mau Mau rebel, Ngugi portrays a hapless situation for education in a colonial society.
“Education is important,” tells a father to his son. “But he doubts this because deep inside his heart he knows land is everything. Education is only important because it helps you in the recovery of the lost lands.” – from the pages of the novel.
For several years, his son studies and prays for help in learning. He studies very seriously and never misses out anything. He tops his class and becomes the first student from his entire region to get admission in a school where ‘Europeans’ teach. He goes there to study. After a year, when he is in class, he is called into the principal’s office where two police officers had come to take him. He is taken back to his village, beaten and accused of the murder of a ‘police chief’ while his brother is on warrant, and his father and another family member are under arrest. He is tortured and released after two days.
He thinks to himself that he was very hopeful that with education and learning he would do great things – but where this education led him was to be a worker in an Indian’s shop in the market. Was education this important in a society where black people were subject to colonial rule?
In a colonial setting, the biggest task is mass mobilisation. Thiong’o proposes a strike among the masses for receiving less wages and more work. However, he describes the consequences of such a step. What they do firstly is to propagate the news of a strike, spread the idea home to home and in all the public places. But eventually, they fail in their strike and pay a big price for that. We must not forget, of course: “Revolutions need blood.” But how much blood remains an open question.
I would quote Frantz Fanon of Algeria here who, in his book Wretched of the Earth, discusses such a thing as mass mobilisation or mass participation in such a colonised society. In the second chapter of his book, he says that when colonisation takes root in a society, the formation of parties becomes natural. They try to mobilise the people and get public support. They organise protests and strikes. He adds that in case of successful protests or strikes, they celebrate their victory as a massive thing they had done. But Fanon also points out that not everyone is satisfied with such strikes and such elements deem the organisers responsible for the negative impacts of the failure. Much the same happens in Thiong’o’s Weep not, Child where the strike proved to be failure – the result of the emotions of an individual, while society suffered as a whole.
What we learn from Thiong’o is that mass movements are people’s movements as a whole: a wrongful act of even an individual would bring losses to the people as a whole. In such a case, organising the members of a colonized people becomes imperative, for which political parties have a huge role. Or perhaps, Thiong’o showed us with this incident how a lack of a political party prevents them from recovering their lost lands. That is how the occupiers confound politics in a society as such.
“We must know clearly the difference between mobilisation and organisation. One of the characteristics of mobilisation is that it is temporary, while organisation is permanent and eternal. We must transform mobilisation into organisation.” So says Kwame Ture, organiser in the civil rights movement in the United States and the global pan-African movement.
Weep not, Child is a masterpiece in itself, which depicts how important and sacred one’s land is. It also takes us deep into the ravages of colonisation, which does not only capture a people’s lands, but their psyche, their life, their myths, their culture, their languages and everything else that belongs to them. Such colonisation gives birth to an unknown fear which stops the colonised masses from struggling to set themselves free.
As Thiong’o points out: “It is strange how you do fear something because your heart is already prepared to fear because maybe you were brought up to fear that something, or simply because you found others fearing.”