The book, first published in 1964, is set in Kenya, and is a portrayal of life in the country during colonial times. It is divided into two parts: “the waning light” and “darkness falls”, and has eighteen chapters.
In the first part, Ngugi sets the stage and introduces three central characters and their intertwined lives.
Ngotho is an African steeped in local traditions and has two wives – Njeri and Nyokabi Nyokabi, mother to the main character Njoroge. Jacobo, also an African, is rich and successful. He owes his success to his collaboration with the white settlers, and he is the only African in the land that is allowed to grow cotton, a privilege enjoyed only the settlers. He has a large chunk of land on which Ngotho lives as tenant. He is father to Mwihaki, Njoroge’s best friend. Because he is rich, he sends all his children to school. To the rest of the Africans, he is a traitor. Finally, there is Mr. Howlands, a white settler and Ngotho’s employer. Although he’s only a farm worker on Mr. Howland’s land, Ngotho tills the land like it was his own, because this is his ancestral land, on which his forefathers stayed.
In Ngotho’s family, only Njoroge attends school. Njoroge’s mother Nyokabi laments that if it was not because of poverty, she would have even sent her daughters to school. Despite their problems, the Ngothos view education as the sure road to success.
In part two, the intertwining lives of the three men and their families play out against the background of local resistance against British colonial rule. The Africans in Ngotho’s village arrange a strike demanding for higher wages. Mr. Howlands warns that if any of his workers join, they will lose their jobs. On the day of the strike, Jacobo comes with a white police inspector. The strike fails. Ngotho, who supports the strike, turns on Jacobo. For his part in the strike, he is fired from his job, and he loses the land on which his family stays.
His son, Njoroge, almost drops out of school, and only stays on when his brothers chip in. Njoroge is a bright boy though; and he passes an important exam to high school. There is hope in education.
However, Njoroge’s path takes a dramatic turn. When Jacobo is murdered. Ngotho and his son Njoroge are tortured as having a hand in Jacobo’s murder. Njoroge drops out of school, and his brothers are jailed for life. He wants to escape to Uganda with Mwihaki, his sweetheart and Jacobo’s daughter but she refuses. Frustrated, he loses hope in everything, even prayer, and attempts to commit suicide.
Contrary to the title, this child has every right to weep. Right from the start, good luck is not on his side save for the few moments he is at school.
It’s a very interesting book which has stood the test of time.