Character Sketch of Mugo in A Grain of Wheat
Mugo is the chief protagonist in the novel, A Grain of Wheat. Mugo’s parents were poor and died young leaving him an orphan in the care of a distant aunt. She was a widow, a mother rejected by her six married daughters. Embittered, she took out her anger on Mugo and frequently reminded him that he was a burden. She tormented him and jeered at all his attempts to do something. Hence, he had no confidence in himself and grew up with “the image of his own inadequacy”. He loathed her so much that he fantasized strangling her with his bare hands. He imagined her struggling to escape from his grip like a fly, groaning and begging for mercy. However, she had died of old age and excessive drinking. She had remarked that he was a strange fellow and “the kind that would murder their own mother”. She can be blamed for Mugo growing up to be a loner, and an isolated man.
He lived alone after his aunt’s demise and craved for someone, “who would use the claims of kinship to do him illor good.” But when there was no one, he decided to get recognition from the society solely through his hard work, “through success and wealth”. He had turned to the soil.
Mugo’s loneliness led him to the lonely old woman, Gitogo’s mother. He thought, “There was a bond between her and him, perhaps because she, like him, lived alone”. He wished to talk to her but her eyes disturbed him, “He always felt naked, seen”. However, he once bought some sugar, maize flour and a bundle of firewood and went to see her. He found her lying on the floor, close to the fire place. This reminded him of his childhood and when he realized that she was staring at him with recognition” he ran out revolted with the thought that the woman would touch him.
Mugo had become a mythical character. The people of Thabai had a high opinion of him. He was their hero. They wanted him to lead the people for the Uhuru celebration and deliver a speech eulogizing Kihika‘s sacrifice to the community. It was believed, that Mugo had given shelter to Kihika on the crucial night when Robson was killed. Moreover, Mugo was known to have saved a pregnant woman (actually Kihika’s intended wife) from the wrath of a homeguard. This had resulted in his imprisonment. In detention, Mugo was admired for his courage it was believed that despite the torture he had never betrayed the Oath (which in fact he has never taken). On the eve of Uhuru celebrations, the people of Thabai stood outside Mugo’s hut for more than an hour singing they “wove new legends around his name, and imagined deeds”. Later, for the main celebration there was a big turnover as many had gathered to “see Mugo do miracles or even speak to God”.
- Significance of the Title A Grain of Wheat
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- Themes in A Grain of Wheat
Stories about Mugo’s greatness had spread and many conflicting reports had overnight turned into stimulating legends”. People spoke of him fighting “side by side with Kihika” at the battle of Mahee, his help to detainees to escape and join the Movement, his responsibility in smuggling letters from the camps to the MPs in England. They also said that. “no bullet would touch his skin” though he was shot at in the detention camp. Warui, who had given him a strip of land to grow his food, believed that he had a great future. The elderly man had learnt to respect his reticence. Gikonyo expressed his opinion this way, “You did for Thabai out here and in detention what Kihika did in the forest”. All these ‘stories’ were utterly false, as Mugo had not supported the activities of the Movement and he had despised Kihika. Mugo was selfish and had led a secluded life.
Mugo recollected the only real speech he had made in a party meeting outside the Kabui shops near Thabai. Mugo was compelled to speak and “his voice, colourless, rusty, startled him” and “he spoke in dry monotone, tired, almost as if telling of scenes he did not want to remember”. He was speaking of the hardships in the camp and suddenly disgusted with his voice, he stopped abruptly with: “I did not want to come back……..I did not have any. Tell me, then, whom could I have loved? His incomplete speech was interpreted variously and he became a legendary figure. The people in the gathering said that he was so moved he could not speak any more”. Warui commented, “Those were words from no ordinary heart.”
Mugo’s speech in the party meeting had impressed Gikonyo who confided about his relation with Mumbi. When Mugo did not comment, Gikonyo felt that he had bared himself before a “puritan priest”. However, Mugo was not a “puritan priest” but a culprit who had recoiled each time Gikonyo spoke vehemently about Mumbi and Karanja’s betrayal. Mugo had been baffled and irritated, and could not respond in any way.
To his community, Mugo was a hermit. But he had a secret to hide; he was a traitor and was guilty of betraying Kihika to John Thompson. Kihika had sought shelter in Mugo’s hut after killing D.O. Robson; Kihika had asked Mugo to head a Mau Mau underground cell in the village and arranged a rendezvous in Kigenie Forest to discuss the matter. Mugo’s carefully protected, peaceful life was about to be shattered. He was bitter and frustrated. To preserve the tranquility Kihika’s intrusion threatened to destroy; Mugo decided to betray the Mau Mau leader by revealing the planned meeting: “For a week, he had wrestled with demons, alone in an endless nightmare. This confession was his first contact with another man. He felt deep gratitude to the white man … who has lifted his burden from his heart, who has extricated him from his nightmare”. Thus, he had been instrumental in the white man’s success in capturing Kihika.
Mugo’s guilty feeling was so strong that he shirked everyone in the community and hardly spoke to anybody.”….the hut was an extension of himself, his hopes and dreams”; he was nervous of each and every movement taken by others and was self doubting. He walked with his head bent “staring at the ground as if ashamed of looking about him”. He was highly suspicious of others and wary even while talking to others. His voice rose due to his irritability, but consciously and immediately, he checked it.
Mugo’s dreams are significant. Mugo was tormented by guilt and unable to sleep peacefully. In the first dream, on a Sunday morning, Mugo had tried desperately to avoid the drop of cold water falling from the roof into his eye. Though it had been only a dream, “he kept on chilling at the thought of a cold drop falling into his eyes”. Mugo’s struggle in the dream to avoid a drop of water reveals his abhorrence for disturbance in his life. He had led a secluded life, a life of neutrality. His peace was ruffled as the people of Thabai had chosen to make him the Chief Guest. A single day had made a lot of changes in his life. Gikonyo had taken him into confidence and had shared his personal life; in the hotel Githua, the lame man, had saluted him and had addressed him “the Chief” and supplicated him to take care of the poor and helpless. Moreover, the few lines underlined in Kihika’s Bible, “he shall judge the poor of the people; he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor” which had been read out the previous night, were reverberating in his mind. All these incidents boosted his confidence in his own ability. He believed that he must be the God chosen man to save them. His past would be forgiven or “made clean by great deeds that saved many.”
Hence, on Monday night, he had his second dream. In his dream, he saw a group of detainees including Gikonyo and Githua lined up against the wall; John Thompson with his machine gun was ready to shoot them. It was at that moment that Githua had shouted: “Mugo save us.” Everybody, oddly, including Thompson was shouting out to Mugo for help. Mugo could not refuse “that agonized cry”; he answered the Lord that he was rising to do the needful and he heard the men cry: “Amen”. So, Mugo believed himself to be their savior He forgave even John Thompson who had spat on his face and had detained him. It is ironic that the betrayer, Mugo, is chosen to be a savior. A span of one day in Mugo’s life was sufficient to change a man who had shirked society (avoided the cold drop of water falling into his eye) willing to become a leader, a savior who could “bury his past in their gratitude.”
Mugo was almost ready to yield to popular demand when he learnt that he will have to denounce Karanja, the Homeguard, as the one who betrayed Kihika. Mugo is unwilling to betray the second time and he refused the responsibility of leading on the Uhuru day. Mugo’s meeting with Mumbi also constituted one of the dramatic events that ultimately lead him to his public confession at the end; Mumbi resembled her brother, Kihika, and meeting her was like meeting the dead. Thus compelled to denounce his isolation with the other villagers, Mugo now understood that he cannot escape from his communal responsibility; “he was responsible for whatever he had done in the past, for whatever he would do in the future” Finally awakening from his self-centrism to recognize his connection with the community, Mugo decided to confess his betrayal of Kihika.
The next day in the gathering of the Uhuru, he was bold enough to confess in public. Mugo’s public confession redeems his soul for, “as soon as the first words were out, Mugo felt light. A load of many years was lifted from his shoulders. He was free, sure, confident”. With Mugo’s public confession to signal the recognition of the past, A Grain of Wheat ends with how this recognition can help to foster the future of Kenya. “His confession also has a positive impact on the other characters, showing them the path to follow. Though initially a Judas figure, Mugo progresses beyond Judas and becomes a redeemer, a Christ figure.”(Jean Zida). “Mugo’s unexpected confession is a moment of disappointment, but it turns out to be also the catalyzer through which the whole village can regenerate itself and finally take a more conscient look to its recent past and impending future.” (Fabio De Leonardis)
Jan Mohamed makes an interesting point that even though Mugo, who is inflicted with guilt, wants to isolate himself from other people, he is integrated as a member of society who makes the community more open to each other:
“Mugo’s self sacrifice, through his confession is ultimately soothing it becomes symbolic of the regeneration of open communication and has notable effects on Gikonyo and Mumbi.”
(Jan Mohamed, Manichean Aesthetics, 1983:p-218).
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