Chapter eighteen – the last chapter – paints a horrific scene, the main character is preparing his suicide only to be saved by his mother who has come looking for him in the dark. The contrast with the optimistic beginning could not have been bigger. The 1964 novel by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o shows how colonialism and imperialism shatter the dreams of a young boy living in rural Kenya. The young boy, Njoroge, is aspiring to be a good student to help out his family. What at first sight looks like a novel about steadfastness and endurance takes a dark turn as it becomes painfully clear that a human can only take so much. While the novel also explores the influence of the World War II, dispossession of lands and frictions between Kenyans in relation to colonialism, I have decided to look at the multiple meanings of education as propagated by Njoroge in the novel. ‘Education’ serves as a prism to explore topics of hope and despair, social stratification, self-deception and self-hate.

‘The Waning Light’ as the first part of the novel is aptly named, starts with the announcement by Njoroge’s mother, Nyokabi, that he can go to school. His life-long dream is being fulfilled, hopeful Njoroge looks at the future. Education creates wealth Njoroge proclaims: “And you know, I think Jacobo is as rich as Mr Howlands because he got education.” Mr Howland and Jacobo are two powerful men in their community. Mr Howland is a white settler and Jacobo a local chief, despite their differences both cooperate and have large chunks of land. Njoroge thinks education has made them rich and influential. Education also offers opportunities as Jacobo’s son has ‘finished all the learning in Kenya’ and moved abroad. For small Njoroge living with his family on the land of Jacobo, education is the means to achieve all these so desired objectives. Not only for himself, but for his family as he envisions himself lifting his family out of poverty through education.

The English language and education are important vehicles to transcend the social class Njoroge was born into. He describes the social classes in terms of the ‘color bar’; “Black people had no land because of colour-bar and they could not eat in hotels because of colour-bar. Colour-bar was everywhere. Rich Africans could also practise colourbar on the poorer Africans.” This becomes especially clear as the relationship between Mwihaki, the daughter of Jacobo and part of the middle class, and Njoroge is seen as an exceptional. Njoroge’s own position in society also changes through education, as he becomes familiar with the English languages, which he adores because it opens the gateways to education. Slowly Njoroge is more oriented towards England as it is seen by Njoroge as ‘the home of learning’ and its language, the language of knowledge. The looming prospect of having to stop with learning drives him further into the Christian religion.

Njoroge is now fully incorporated in the colonial school system and his life consists of education and religion. However, the world around him is changing, the battle against colonial rule in Kenya is picking up and turning violent. This pushes him even further in the Christian faith, as he prays and prays that he can continue learning and start secondary school. He now not only wants to save himself and his family through education but also his village and fellow countrymen. His dislike for white settlers becomes more pronounced. This becomes clear from the following passage: “only education could make something out of this wreckage. He became more faithful to his studies. He would one day use all his learning to fight the white man, for he would continue the work that his father had started. When these moments caught him, he actually saw himself as a possible savior of the whole God’s country. Just let him get learning.” Eventually, Njoroge is sponsored by the whole village and is sent to secondary school. His family is very proud of him, so is the whole village. 

His brothers however are less fortunate, both his older brothers, Boro and Kori, are caught up in the violent resistance against colonial rule. Kamau who is about the same age as Njoroge, is learning to be a carpenter. The violence is putting pressure on the household and the community, which become increasingly divided. Ngotho, Njoroge father, gets into a quarrel with Jacobo and is forced to move from his lands. His eldest brother Boro disappears to the bush to hide from the colonial authorities and, Ngotho blames himself for Boro’s departure. Njoroge tries to focus on school but is distracted as he increasingly becomes entangled in family and community politics. Despite these difficult circumstances, most people in his life respect education and therefore Njoroge as he maintains; “In spite of the troubled time, people still retained a genuine interest in education. Whatever their differences, interest in knowledge and book-learning was the one meeting point between people such as Boro, Jacobo and Ngotho.”

We are now far into the second part of the book which Wa Thiong’o has called ‘Darkness Falls’. And indeed, the story has turned dark. Jacobo has been killed. In search of the perpetrator, Njoroge and his father are taken to the police station as the police and Mr Howland, who now is the District Attorney, suspect their family’s involvement. This is the end of Njoroge’s education. Njoroge and Ngotho are horribly tortured and his father dies as a consequence. We jump five months in time, Njoroge now works in an Indian shop and is treated poorly. We find out that Mr Howlands is murdered on the same day as his dad died, both is brothers Boro and Kamau are charged with murder. Where he first maintained that he would bring light to the country in these difficult times, he now hates his life. He believes he deceived himself, as his dreams for a better future have not materialized and he has lost his family and education. Hoping to find comfort in his relationship with Mwihaki, he proposes to leave together. When she rejects him all hope is lost.

His grieve, self-hate and anger accumulate in the horrific final scene. All alone, a rope in hand he overthinks his life; “God meant little to him now. Njoroge had now lost faith in all the thing he had earlier believed in, like wealth, power, education and religion. Even love his last hope, had fled from him.” Education is now symbolic for all the false promises he made himself, and the disruptive effect the colonial system had on local communities. Saved by his mom he returns home, convinced that he is a coward. The book has come full circle, the optimistic beginning now seems far away and the story ends sad as Njoroge now is a broken young man, living alone with his mothers, searching for his place in this world.