A Grain of Wheat as a Post-Colonial Novel
Colonialism is the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically. It was a response to the economic needs of industrial capitalist Europe who desire colonies in order to have access to raw materials of the colonies, to have markets for sale of manufactured goods and ambit for the investment of surplus capital. Colonialism ravaged Africa like wild fire with disastrous consequences. Colonialism can be seen as a product of imperialism and it has caused diverse effects around the world. It destroys the lives of innocent people and denies a whole community freedom. Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth observes:
“Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all forms and content. By making use of a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures and destroys it.” (Fanon 1967:169)
In Decolonising the Mind Ngugi observes:
“The real aim of colonialism was to control people’s wealth and this was imposed through military conquest and subsequent political dictatorship. But its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonized, the control through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world. Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. To control people’s culture is to control their tools of self definition in relation to others”.
Ngugi’s essays in Homecoming reflect his concern with the dangers of exposure to European ‘knowledge. “The colonial system”, writes Ngugi, “produced the kind of education which nurtured subservience, self-hatred, and mutual suspicion.” The result was that it produced “a people uprooted from the masses.”
Helen Tiffin in Post-Colonialism, Post-modernism and the Rehabilitation of Post-colonial History (1988) suggests that the term ‘Postcolonial’ “can be used to describe writing that was both a consequence of and reaction to the European imperial process.”
Thematic preoccupation of text in postcolonial literature varies; it could be the theme of place and displacement, struggle for freedom and resistance to imperial domination, nepotism, corruption, capitalism and exploitation, alienation and uprootment etc. Thus, postcolonial writers develop a perspective whereby states of marginality, plurality and perceived “Otherness are seen as sources of energy and potential change.
Published in 1967, A Grain of Wheat, which is Ngugi’s third novel, is essentially about the story of Thabai, a Gikuyu village, at the moment of Kenyan decolonization. It focuses more on the sociopolitical domain, depicting the long-standing struggle of the peasants against British rule. The main characters-Kihika, Mugo, Gikonyo, Mumbi and Karanja–both as individual subjects and community members are profoundly affected by colonialism in different ways. Kihika, a Mau-Mau leader, struggles to free the Kenyan masses from the exploitation of the Britishers.
“What’s this thing called Mau Mau?” (AGOW:54). This is the question John Thompson, the white colonial administrative officer, asks in his diary. His answer to the question follows a few sentences later in the diary notes. It reads as, “Mau Mau is evil: a movement which if not checked will mean complete destruction of the values on which our civilization has thriven.” The Mau Mau movement is regarded and recorded by the British as primitive, irrational, apolitical and a fanatic movement which resisted Western modernity and civilization. The movement is not seen as a national movement but a tribal one that is limited to the Gikuyu.
As a District Officer fully embracing British Imperialism, Thompson sees himself as a man with a clear mission who sees Africa as a “dark” continent and the Africans as always-dependent children. As Thompson notes in his diary, which later would be published as Prospero in Africa: “Was it not possible to reorientate people into this way of life by altering their social and cultural environment?” (AGOW, 53); it also included thoughts like – The peasant in Asia and Africa must be included in this moral scheme for rehabilitation.” (AGOW, 53); “The Negro is a child and with children, nothing can be done without the use of authority” (AGOW, 54):
“Remember the African is a born actor, that’s why he finds it so easy to lie.” (AGOW 53)
Ngugi in the novel tries to contest the history of the Mau Mau—as an anti-colonial movement -as written by the British. Ngugi, however, argues that what gave birth to the Mau Mau Movement, during the years of the State of Emergency (19521960), is essentially the land problem arising from the fact that the Europeans took over the most agriculturally developed area known as the “White Highlands.”At the same time, the native Africans were compelled to work as hired labor for the white man for cheap wages. Harry Thuku in his letters to the white man clearly states of
“people’s discontent with taxation, forced labour on white settler’s land, and with the soldier settlement scheme which after the first big war, left many black people without homes or land around Tigoni and other places. Harry asked them to join the Movement and find strength in unity.” (AGOW 12).
This indicates that the movement is a politically motivated one which transcends tribal boundaries in Kenya.
Ngugi describes an incident- the death of D.O Robson-to show the difference in perception. For the natives’ image of Robson is that of the savage:
“…generally known Tom, the Terror. He was the epitome of those dark days in our history that witnessed his birth as a District Officer in Rung’ei-that is, when the Emergency raged in unabated fury. People said he was mad. They spoke of him with awe, called him Tom or simply ‘he’ as if the mention of his full name would conjure him up in their presence…, he would suddenly appear at the most unexpected times and places to catch unsuspecting victims. He called them Mau Mau. He put them in his jeep, drove them into the edge of the forest, and asked them to dig their graves…. Some village men saw his jeep in their dreams and screamed. He was a man-eater, walking in the night and day He was death. He was especially brutal to squatters who were repatriated from the Rift Valley back to Gikuyu-Ini.” (AGOW 81).
In the novel Ngugi uses kihika to defend the violent activities of the Mau Mau, Persuading Mugo to join the Movement, Kihika reasons why they have to kill:
“We are not murderers. We are not hang men-like Robsonkilling men and women without cause or purpose.” (AGOW: 54).
As Kihika furthers explains to Mugo:
“We only hit back. You are struck on the left cheek. You turn the right cheek. One, two, three-sixty years. Then suddenly, it is always sudden, you say: I am not turning the other cheek any more. Your back to the wall, you strike back… We must kill. Put to sleep the enemies of black man’s freedom… They say we are weak. They say we cannot win against the bomb… . Because a people united in faith are stronger than the bomb…. Strike terror in their midst…Strike terror in the heart of the oppressor.” (AGOW: 54)
As Ngugi has noted in Homecoming: (1972):
“Mau Mau violence was anti-injustice; white violence was to thwart the cause of justice. Should we equate the two forms?”
Ngugi would like to clarify that it was colonial suppression that caused political violence in Kenya in the first place. The violence of the British authority and that of the Mau Mau are not comparable; the rulers used authority to take advantage of native’s weakness and ignorance whereas the natives were compelled to use violence to protect their own rights and liberties.
Ngugi further comments in his Home Coming, “We have scorched the snake of colonialism, not killed or rather colonialism was one of the injured skins the snake can put on” (p.45). John Thompson is haunted by his post-independence vision of broken jars and test tubes on laboratory floors. On the eve of Uhuru, he asserted, “we are not yet beaten, Africa cannot, cannot do without Europe.” His words portend the neo-colonial phase in the history of Africa. Associated with this white dominance is the inferiority complex developed by native men like Karanja; he is awed by the white man’s power and superiority that he always stood “feet slightly parted, hands linked at the back, all in obsequious attention” (AGOW:35). Karanja believed that the English power was invincible and he had felt secure working under them. He aligns with the colonial authorities during Emergency. He joins the home guards and becomes informer in a “hood”. The “hood” (a white sack) covered all his body except the eyes and he had to ‘identify, betray, his own village men who were Mau Mau activists. He rises to become the colonial appointed Chief of Thabai and is very brutal to his own community people. “At first this had merely thrilled Karanja and made him feel a new man, a part of an invisible might whose symbol was the whiteman.” (AGOW: 225). Thus, Karanja’s place in the novel sees a complete inversion from oath-taking member of the Mau Mau movement, to colonial officer and ‘traitor.’ He recalls “the many men, terrorists, he and other home guards led by their white officers, (have) shot dead”, recollecting that “when he shot them, they seemed less like human beings and more like animals” (AGOW: 225). However, his mother warns him “Don’t go against the people. A man who ignores the voice of his own people comes to no good end.” (AGOW: 222). He is unable to reconcile that Kenya had gained her freedom and the power would be transferred to the blacks—“He was scared of black power: he feared those me who had ousted the Thompsons and had threatened him.” (AGOW: 225) Karanja feels betrayed when John Thompson confirms his departure from Githima; he is seized by ‘panic’ and “would have loved to suddenly vanish from the earth”. (AGOW: 156).
Through certain incidents, Ngugi shows how corruption had become a norm in post independent Kenya. Gikonyo, after his return from detention, had quickly worked himself to be a successful businessman; he knew it was possible “if you oiled smooth with money your relationship with the traffic and market police” (AGOW:58). In another incident, the bus called A DIGILENT CHILD’ plying to Nairobi from Thabai is stopped by the police for carrying more number of passengers. The cashier of the bus bribes the police and when he comments, “They just wanted a few shillings for tea” the “people in the bus laughed.” (AGOW:59).
“Ngugi uses Gikonyo’s growing consciousness of political betrayal as a severe indictment of the party for the path it was taking even before the official flag declaration of independence.” (Mala: 34) Gikonyo and five other members decide to jointly buy a farm land from Mr. Burton and he makes frequent visits to the M.P’s office in Nairobi to request for a government loan. The MP deceitfully appreciates their cooperative venture and betrays their trust by buying the farm land himself. Moreover, the scene outside the M.P’s office clearly indicates that “people were used to broken appointments and broken promises. Sometimes they would keep on coming day after day, without seeing their representative.”
Mala Panduranga in her Post Colonial African Fiction (1997:19) says: “the novel ominously portends that in independent Kenya it will be the ‘betrayers’ of the movement who will assume the mantle of power.”
In Chapter 14, the Uhuru celebrations of Thabai district is chaired by the secretary of the Party, Nyamu, who calls upon the Reverend Morris Kingori to open the meeting, with a prayer. Ironically, both don’t deserve a place on the dais. Nyamu had been arrested for carrying bullets in his pockets during Emergency but had escaped a death sentence as his rich uncles had bribed the police; the Reverend Morris Kingoro, a renowned preacher, had himself worked “as an instructor in the agricultural department during land consolidation” which resulted in the displacement of thousands of peasants from their ancestral lands. Further, Ngugi foreshadows the indifference of appointed MPs, few having their offices in their constituency, when Nyamu reads an apology from the MP of Thabai who is absent since he is attending the national celebrations at Nairobi. Followed by a few speeches comes Mugo’s confession. “Like those who had come from afar to see Mugo do miracles or even speak to God, we all vaguely expected that something extraordinary would happen. It was not exactly a happy feeling; it was more a disturbing sense of an inevitable doom.” Mugo had betrayed just not Kihika but their faith in him.
Independence, however, does not grant them a new life; on the contrary, it is a period of disillusionment in which the characters learn that the past they long for is unattainable and the fruits of Uhuru they fight for are eaten by the elite and bourgeois, the new ruling classes in post-independence Kenya. The working-class people and the peasants do not eat the fruits of Uhuru, the two classes which Ngugi thinks form the majority of the freedom fighters. Ngugi evokes the personal impact of colonial conquest. He writes of his own experience as a boy and of what it meant to live in a colonial situation.