Themes in A Grain of Wheat
Theme of Unity in A Grain of Wheat
When Kihika talks about Kenyan independence, he says: “It’s a question of Unity” (AGOW: 86), that what is needed is unity. Unity is the strength of the people against the weapons and strength of the British. The novel explores the idea of unity, extending it to include community in individuals’ personal lives as well as political lives. The opposite of unity is isolation, and focusing on the self instead of focusing on the community. Mugo ultimately destroys himself through his own isolation. He has no family or sense of an extension of himself into the community of Thabai and Kenya, Mugo does not realize that he is in the same position as the other black people of Kenya.
Mugo is an orphan brought up by his widowed aunt whom he resents. He loathes her so much that he fantasizes strangling her with his bare hands. He lives alone in his hut which was an extension of himself, his hopes and dreams.” (AGOW: 182). He dreams of acquiring status and recognition in the community, making a house and getting married. From his childhood, he has avoided conflicts which would jeopardize “his chances of a better future.” While his countrymen are engaged in bloody struggles to rid their land of the white man’s repressive and exploitative rule, Mugo convinces himself that aloofness and noninvolvement are the safest policies. “His argument went like this: if you don’t traffic with evil, then evil ought not to touch you; if you leave people alone, then they ought to leave you alone.” (AGOW: 189)
Mugo only wants to be left alone. However, no man is an island. No man can exist only for himself, because he must live in the world. Kihika intrudes in his life and destroys the peace which he has established by being in a capsule. Kihika had told Mugo: “You are a self-made man…you have suffered. We need such a man to organize an underground movement in the new village.” (AGOW: 187).
Mugo tried to shirk the task by reminding him that he had not taken the oath. However, Kihika arranges a rendezvous in Kigenie Forest to discuss the matter. Mugo’s carefully protected, peaceful life is about to be shattered; he is bitter and frustrated By the following Friday, “He was in that stage of exhaustion…… that stage in which a man is irritable, ready to break at the slightest provocation without himself realizing his danger.” (AGOW: 190).
Kihika’s intrusion threatens to destroy his peace; “He felt shocked pleasure in his belly” (AGOW: 191) when he saw Kihika’s poster pinned to a shop. “There was a price on Kihika’s head-a price on-Kihika’s head.” (AGOW: 187).
Immediately, Mugo decides to betray the Mau Mau leader by revealing the planned meeting to the District Officer.
“For a week, he had wrestled with demons, alone in an endless nightmare. This confession was his first contact with another man.” (AGOW: 199).
Thus, he was saving himself from Kihika and hoped to gain some money. His relief is short-lived and illusory, for another nightmare begins as he is cast into a vortex of guilt engendered both by the betrayal and a shocking discovery of the true nature of the white man.
His guilt weighs too heavy on him. He is unable to mingle with anyone in the community and hardly speaks to anybody, “….the hut was an extension of himself, his hopes and dreams” CAGOW: 182); he is nervous of each and every movement taken by others and is self doubting. He walked with his head bent “staring at the ground as if ashamed of looking about him”. He is highly suspicious of others and wary even while talking to others. He is not able to comprehend the decision of the village people to choose him the chief speaker for the Uhuru celebration. He is apprehensive of their motives.
Mumbi’s story of the sufferings during Emergency and her confiding about the circumstances under which she bore Karania’s child has an effect on him. He does not feel the same as before after having heard Mumbi’s story; he ponders:
“How was it that Mumbi’s story had cracked open his dulled inside and released imprisoned thoughts and feelings?” (AGOW:167)
Mugo had imprisoned his sin and guilt of having betrayed Kihika to the white authorities. Mugo wanted to escape from these thoughts, “He wanted to resume that state, a limbo, in which he was before he heard Mumbi’s story and looked into her eyes.” (AGOW: 169).
However hard he tries Mugo is unable to escape from his guilt and for him “Life itself seemed a meaningless wandering.” (AGOW: ibid). He decided to confess in public about his sin.
Mugo’s second meeting with Mumbi also constitutes one of the dramatic events that ultimately lead him to his public confession at the end: Mumbi resembles her brother, Kihika, and meeting her is like meeting the dead. , Mugo is like a drugged person and confesses to her:
“I wanted to live my life. I never wanted to be involved in anything. Then he came into my life, her, a night like this, and pulled me into the stream. So I killed him.” (AGOW: 180).
Mugo confesses in public and redeems his soul. There is a supposed trial by the village elder, Wambui, and his supposed death towards the end of the novel.
Theme of Betrayal in A Grain of Wheat
Ngugi’s comments, written before the writing of the novel, illuminate the results of damage done to the social fabric of Kenya during the State of Emergency in Kenya between 1952 and 1963:
The terrible thing about the “Mau Mau” war was the destruction of family life, distrust of personal relationships, you found a friend betraying a friend, a father suspicious of his son. a brother doubting the sincerity of a brother.
In A Grain of Wheat each major character endures or participates in a betrayal. Each character in his own way betrays his community, his nation and his friends during the “Mau Mau” struggle. Most of the main characters in the novel are marked by either a private or political betrayal.
The whole novel hinges on the betrayal of Kihika, the Mau Mau leader, by Mugo, an uncommitted individual. At the centre of the theme of betrayal is Mugo, the selfish man, who wants to live in complete solitude, in his little world of peace and tranquility. At this point Kihika having shot dead the D. Robson takes refuge in Mugo’s hut. In addition to endangering Mugo’s life by his mere presence, Kihika asks Mugo to head a Mau Mau underground cell in the village and arranges their meeting the following Friday, a week later in Kigenie Forest to discuss the matter. Mugo’s carefully protected, peaceful life is about to be shattered. He is bitter and frustrated. However, he comes to the conclusion that Kihika is trying to destroy him out of jealousy.
Why should Kihika drag me into a struggle and problems have not created? Why? He is not satisfied with butchering men and women and children. He must call on me to bathe in the blood. I am not his brother … I have not done harm to anybody. I only looked after my little shamba and crops. And now I must spend my life in prison because of the folly of one man (AGOW: 188)
Mugo decides to betray the Mau Mau leader by revealing the planned meeting as he is convinced that “I am important. I must not die.” (AGOW: 191).
He meets the District Officer John Thompson and reveals the meeting place from where they can nab Kihika. Thus, Kihika is betrayed by Mugo to the white authorites. However, Mugo’s relief is transient and illusory, for another nightmare begins as he is cast into a vortex of guilt caused both by the betrayal and a shocking discovery of the true nature of the white man.
All this while, Mugo is considered a hero by the villagers. The people praise and respect Mugo, and want him to deliver a speech on Uhuru Day to honor those who suffered or died fighting for the national cause-martyrs like Kihika. But, Mugo refuses to lead the Uhuru ceremony.
After his second meeting with Mumbi, he decides to make a public confession of his sin. At the Uhuru celebrations, General R. asks for the person who betrayed Kihika to come forward and confess in public. General R. is expecting Karanja to come and confess. But, Mugo himself comes forward and confesses that:
“You asked for the man who Kihika to ths tree, here………He put his life into my hands, and I sold it to the whiteman. And this thing has eaten into my life all these years.” (AGOW: 218).
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 freeing, sure, confident” (AGOW: 231). His confession also has a positive impact on the other characters, showing them the path to follow.
If Mugo’s is a political betrayal and the greatest in the novel, Gikonyo and Karanja too have betrayed the Oath of Unity they had taken. Gikonyo was the first man in the detention camp at Yale to betray the oath. He was obsessed with his love for his wife Mumbi and “he only wanted to see his Mumbi and take up the thread of life where he had left it.” He confessed the oath but had refused to name anybody involved in oath administration, Hence, it took him four more years to be released from detention
Gikonyo comes back to Thabai and is shocked to find that Mumbi is mother to Karanja’s child. He feels betrayed by his wife, He is deeply hurt but is egoistic and refuses to discuss about the child and share Mumbi’s grieves. He is too frustrated as he has not only betrayed the movement, but he has betrayed himself by idealizing Mumbi as well. As his mother Wangari tells him: “See how you have broken your home. You have driven a good woman to misery for nothing.” (AGOW: 172)
Rejecting communion with Mumbi, he devotes his time and energy trading, gaining wealth and fame in the village.
Likewise, Mumbi feels betrayed by her husband Gikonyo. He is incognizant of the hardships and sufferings of the family during Emergency. He is unwilling to comprehend the situation that had compelled Mumbi to succumb to Karanja: he rejects communion with her. He humiliates her by shouting “I’ll make you shut this mouth of a whore” (AGOW: 163)
For Mumbi, the wounds of Gikonyo’s personal betrayal are slower to heal. She says: “People try to rub out things, but they cannot. Things are not so easy. What has passed between us is too much to be passed over in a sentence.” (AGOW: 243)
Gikonyo , on the eve of Independence, is betrayed by the M.P. of the locality. He with his friends had pinned their mind on buying a plot of farm land from an English man and had relied on the M.P. to procure bank loan. But, the M.P. had outsmarted them, betrayed their faith in him; he had purchased the land had become its proprietor. This incident shakes Gikonyo’s faith in Independence and the fulfillment of the dreams which accompanied the freedom struggle. Is it symptomatic of impeding betrayals by those who wield power in an Independent Kenya? Gikonyo wonders if things would change for the better. Lt. Koina also has the same doubts: “Would Uhuru really change things for the likes of him and General R?
Karanja feared the power of the colonizers and hence during Emergency he betrayed his friends with whom he had taken the oath. When Gikonyo was arrested Karanja had decided to stay close to Mumbi. He had joined the homeguards. He had worked his way up to become the leader of the homegaurds and then the Chief of Thabai. Karanja found it difficult to accept denial from Mumbi. This leads to punitive actions against the community. He seeks individual freedom and does not care for the freedom of his community.
The clarity of his betrayal becomes evident once Karanja realizes of his role as the “hooded man”. If Mugo had betrayed one man, Karanja had betrayed the whole community. As the “hooded self” he had anonymously betrayed “those involved in “Mau Mau’ as they were forced to queue in front of him. Even while recalling this, he could still feel the presence of the hood and he could sense the way “he saw the world. At the railway station the picture of Mugo merges with that of the hooded man. The “merging” is the moment of truth for Karanja. Finally, an acknowledgement of betrayal has occurred. Mugo and Karanja are now one. The eyes of the crowd that watched Mugo as he confessed the betrayal of Kihika now seem to angrily judging Karanja at the train station.
If Karanja betrayed his friends and the community he feels betrayed by John Thompson who symbolized the invincible power of the Britishers. Karanja felt betrayed by the impending departure of John Thompson to England. When their departure is confirmed “Panic seized Karanja…..He would have loved to suddenly vanish from the earth rather than bear the chill around.” (AGOW: 156).
Thus there are betrayals at different levels in the novel. Betrayal of the oaths of allegiance when under pressure (Gikonyo) or due to selfish motive men (Karanja, who sided with the British authorities and became the local administrator), Muso resents and betrays Kihika to the colonial powers for small gain. The author through the theme of betrayal would like to depict that there was little true solidarity among the Mau-Mau freedom fighters and that their resistance to the Colonial power lacked organization.
Theme of Sacrifice in A Grain of Wheat
The idea that sacrifice is required before Kenya attains true nationhood is one of a range of ideas in the novel A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. He refers in the title to the biblical theme of self-sacrifice, a part of the new birth: “unless a grain of wheat dies.” Ngugi explains that sacrifice is needed for the greater good of the nation, and of the people. The author insists that all members of a community must individually and collectively accept responsibility for its growth and well-being.
The person in the novel, who epitomizes the theme of sacrifice, is kihika, the past leader of the Movement. Kihika is an exceptional individual who is capable of making the supreme sacrifice, not for self elevation or for the purpose of satisfying a personal whim but because he has an abiding love for the land of his birth. Although at first he merely thinks of himself as a saint and a leader, he later talks, and is talked about, in clearly Christlike terms. General R, for example, refers to Kihika’s death, as a “crucifixion”. Kihika’s death was a sacrifice for the nation.” (AGOW: 214).
Kihika believes in sacrifice for the greater good of national liberation, he believes that “In Kenya we want deaths which will change things, that is to say, we want true sacrifice.” (AGOW:93). He regards it as Christ-like. This is emphasized when Kihika says:
“I die for you, you die for me, and we become a sacrifice for one another. So I can say that you, Karanja, are Christ. I am Christ. Everybody who takes the Oath of Unity to change things in Kenya is a Christ” (AGOW:93).
His words show his altruistic, self-sacrificial character. Kihika acts and just does not sermonize. His struggle against the British during the Emergency, his involvement with the Mau Mau proves him to be a man of ‘great deeds and noble qualities’. He eventually becomes a martyr for Kenyan freedom.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o also uses the character of Mugo to present and convey the theme of sacrifice, through his betrayal of Kihika. Initially, the villagers of Thabai ask Mugo to lead the Uhuru celebrations, in recognition of what they take to be his “heroic sacrifice”, by housing Kihika “without fear”. Furthermore when Kihika at a Movement meeting in Rung’ei, calls for the great sacrifice, he says:
“A day comes when brother shall give up brother, a mother her son, when you and I have heard the call of a nation in turmoil.” (AGOW: 15).
People gathered there were very much impressed but Mugo “could not clap for words that did not touch him.” (AGOW: 15 He reflected over Kihika’s words and abhorred at the sight and smell of blood.” Mugo developed hatred and terror for Kihika Moreover he was a self-centered man and did not feel that he was a part of the community. He believed that if he did not interfere in anybody’s life, others too would not disturb his well established routine and peace. Hence, when Kihika intrudes upon his peace, he decides to betray the man to the white authorities without any compunction. He is not ready to take any kind of risk and jeopardize his future plans; he is not willing to sacrifice for the good of the community and the nation by extending underground support. Rather, he sacrifices Kihika for his personal gain.
Theme of Heroism in A Grain of Wheat
Heroism is a central theme in most literature. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o certainly considers this theme in his novel A Grain of Wheat. The heroic character depicted excellently is that of Kihika, the courageous guerilla leader. One of the novel’s best qualities is the fact that there are heroes who do not seem so at first but then redeem themselves later, such as Mugo. Further, there is a small section in the novel which describes a history of heroic people who stood their ground for the “Movement.”
The first heroes of the Movement were those who took up arms against the white man like Waiyaki. He was the first to be proclaimed a hero and a martyr (AGOW.12). He tried to defy the white man and his “iron snake” and was buried alive for it (AGOW: 12). His heroic actions and death are described in these words:
“Waiyaki’s blood contained within it a seed, a grain, which gave birth to a movement whose main strength thereafter sprang from a bond with the soil.” (AGOW: 12).
His actions were revered and he was remembered as a man of great action whose death started a movement, thus making him, by definition, a hero.
Eileen Julien, in an article entitled “Heroism in A Grain of Wheat, makes this perceptive observation about Kihika:
Kihika can he likened to heroes typical of romance or epic. Such figures are, Northrop Frye tells us in An Anatomy of Criticism, “superior in degree to other men” and sometimes to their environment as well. Like other warrior heroes in literature… Kihika is elevated too above his companions and comrades.”
Kihika is the first to really be known as a hero and stands as such in the novel. We learn of Kihika’s life and deeds mainly from the memories of those who survived and the voice of the omniscient narrator. When he was at Mahige School, in the Sunday Bible class. he had dared to stand up and tell Teacher Muniu that he was wrong about his Biblical interpretation of female circumcision as it was not mentioned in the Bible at all. For this the teacher had decided to whip him ten times and “Kihika would have to say thank you to the teacher and also recant his words of last Sunday.” (AGOW:85). But, Kihika had escaped out of the school window. He did not go to any other school though he “taught himself how to read and write Swahili and English.”
After the war ended, he worked in Nairobi, “attended political meetings and discovered the Movement. He had found a new vision” (AGOW: 86). In the beginning, he was known as a strong speaker and eventually a man of action. He spoke of the need for unity among the people, struggle for freedom, and sacrifice for the sake of the motherland. “What we want in Keya are men and women who will not turn away before the sword.” (AGOW: 86). He was soon revered by the people of Thabai and “Kihika, a son of the land, was marked out as one of the heroes of deliverance” (AGOW:14).
Kihika didn’t just give rousing speeches about what they should do to gain independence. “Kihika lived the words of sacrifice he had spoken to the multitude.” (AGOW: 15). He soon went to action when he and many others ran away to the forest to fight. Very soon people learnt about his fight against the white authorities and “People came to know Kihika as the terror of the whiteman. They said that he could move mountains and compel thunder from heaven.” (AGOW: 16). However, “The greatest triumph for Kihika was the famous capture of Mahee.” (AGOW: 15) and later “when Emergency raged in unabated fury” he shot dead the District Officer in Reng’ei “Thomas Robson, or as he was generally known Tom, the Terror” (AGOW: 181).
Kihika soon became a freedom fighter but the conjectures of his end were quite dreadful. “Kihika was tortured. Some say that the neck of a bottle was wedged into his body through the anus as the white people in the special Branch tried to wrest the secrets of the forest from him.” Whatever the versions be, at the end of the novel we learn that he was betrayed by Mugo and hung-“Kihika was hanged in public, one Sunday, at Rung’ei Market, not far from where he had once stood calling for blood to rain on and water the tree of freedom. A combined force of Home guards and Police whipped and drove people from Thabai and other ridges to see the body of the rebel dangling on the tree, and learn.” ((AGOW: 17). Kihika is labeled a rebel by the colonizers but his actions were seen by his own people as a heroic act; an act for the Movement. Kihika was a true hero who sacrificed himself for the independence of Kenya.
Ngugi explains in Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary the importance of Mugo’s suffering and fate: In the novel A Grain of Wheat, I tried, through Mugo who carried the burden of mistaken revolutionary heroism, to hint at the possibilities of the new Kenyatta.
Mugo’s character is well organized and our perception of him changes throughout the novel. Initially, we get the idea that either Mugo is a coward or a shady character as he constantly avoids talking to people and when they try to talk to him or confront him, he shrinks from them. As the novel unravels, Mugo’s character can be deciphered-he is an orphan left in the hands of a cruel aunt; he has a harrowing childhood; he suffers from lack of love and loneliness; he is self-centered and does not consider himself to be a part of the community; he has a sin and guilt to bury and hence isolated himself from the society. He was the one who betrayed Kihika to the white oppressors for a small personal gain.
However, the people have wrongly identified him as their hero after Kihika; they ascribe to him deeds which are “heroic” in their belief. He had risked his life and sheltered Kihika from the hunting police, on the night he had shot dead the D.O. Robson; he had prevented a home guard from beating a pregnant woman in the trenches; he had lead a hunger strike at the Rira detention camp and had been beaten severely by the authorities. In the words of Gikonyo: “You did for Thabai out here and in detention what Kihika did in the forest.” (AGOW: 24). Hence, the people of Thabai want their new-found hero, Mugo, to lead the gathering for Uhuru celebration and make a speech extolling the virtues of their cherished hero Kihika.
Mugo is flattered by this reverence and sees himself as a Black Moses for his bravery in the trenches: Mugo is almost ready to yield to popular demand and hopes to “bury his past in their gratitude.” However, when he learns from General R that on the Uhuru celebration occasion, he will have to denounce Karanja, the former Homeguard, as the one who betrayed Kihika, he withdraws. Mugo is asked to betray twice and, ironically enough, at the market place, where Kihika was hanged. His torment becomes acute, and he decides to confess publicly. His is a forthright confession:
“You asked for the man who led Kihika to ths tree, here……… He put his life into my hands, and I sold it to the whiteman. And this thing has eaten into my life all these years.” (AGOW:218).
However, 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 LAGOW: 231). He is evaluated for his act of courage to speak the truth. Karanja telis Mumbi, “he seems to be a courageous man” (AGOW:224). He seems to be forgiven of that fault-betrayal of Kihika– and though he is tried for it, others respect him for his bravery. “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 it recent past and impending future.” (Fabio De Leonardis)
2 thoughts on “Themes in A Grain of Wheat”
good work,though some of the pages are not clearly noted as how they appear in todays edition of a grain of wheat.
Thank you very much