Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote a post-colonial novel “A Grain of Wheat” in order to explore the impact of colonialism on the people of Kenya. It also shows the people’s struggles for independence. The setting of the novel is based on the period leading up to Kenya’s independence in 1963. Thus, the novel portrays the effects of colonialism on the colonised nation.
Colonialism is one of the main themes in “A Grain of Wheat”. The writer tells the story of those people who were exploited by British colonists. The oppressed people of Kenya had very little to do against exploiting resources and exploiting labour, poverty and deprivation.
Colonialism does not only snatch the right of living freely but also changes the identity of a nation. The writer shows this principle through different major characters. For instance, the protagonist of the novel Mugo struggles with a sense of guilt and shame because of the complicity in the colonial system. He was being taught that the colonists were superior to him.
The novel is a complete illustration of events that imposed colonialism on Kenya. In addition, the writer also talks about the resistance that people had shown. They struggled for independence and stood against the violence that affected them not only physically but also psychologically.
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It is necessary to understand what is post-colonial literature before justifying “A Grain of Wheat” as a post-colonial novel.
What is Post Colonial Literature?
European powers colonised many other countries besides Africa. Thus, the authors from colonised countries wrote about the effect of colonialism on their people. Some universal themes that most of the writers use in this regard are identity, power, language, culture and history. All the works that talk about the impact of colonialism fall in the category of post-colonial literature.
If we talk about postcolonial literature in historical terms, the movement emerged in the mid-20th century. It mainly focuses on the colonised country rather than the country that occupies it. Thus, post-colonial literature deals with the miseries of oppressed people.
As far as prominent writers in this regard are concerned, those are Ahmed Ali, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Derek Walcott and Jamaica Kincaid.
Colonialism in Africa
The period between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries is the period of European colonisation in the African continent. In addition to Britain, France, Germany, Portugal and Belgium established colonies in Africa. Their apparent purpose was to make reformations but in reality, their aim was to claim territories and resources for themselves.
The writers from different nations highlight this issue. For instance “Heart of Darkness” highlights the greed of colonising powers through different symbols. “A Grain of Wheat” talks about the freedom movements and the contribution of people in freeing the country from colonies. Colonialism in “Things Fall Apart” is based on the loss of identity and culture.
All in all, the African post-colonial literature proves that African resources, land minerals and labour were being exploited. The above-said novels also sketch events which prove that underdevelopment countries suffered too much because of colonialism.
Apart from that, European powers had introduced their own laws. Most of the laws were against African cultures. As a result, conflicts arose and people started hating the authorities. However, almost every writer proves that the major loss in this regard was of culture and identity.
It is also a matter of fact that these writers do not talk about the positive developments during the period of colonialism. Either they have totally ignored it or they did not feel the necessity to write about it as the development was very less.
A Grain of Wheat as a Post-Colonial Novel
Colonialism is one of the central themes of “A Grain of Wheat”. Ngugi wa Thiong’o mainly focuses on the psychological condition of people. Thus, he highlights the psychological impact of colonialism on the Kenyan people.
In the book, many characters struggle with a sense of inferiority and loss of identity. However, ultimately most characters deny the superiority of colonists. Every character in the novel had a desire to get freedom from the grip of colonialism. There are many events that prove the equal contribution of freedom fighters in freeing Kenya. Nonetheless, the novel mainly focuses on the strained relationship that exists between colonists and the colonised ones.
The Mau Mau Movement
The Mau Mau movement is very much related to the theme of colonialism in “A Grain of Wheat”. It is a significant movement in the history of Africa. The novel talks about the struggles against British colonial rule.
The movement took place in Kenya between 1952 and 1960. It was the period when the Kikuyu ethnic group launched an armed rebellion against British colonial rule. There is no denying the fact that the Mau Mau movement emerged as a response to British colonialism. It contributed to ending the injustices suffered by the Kenyan people under colonial rule.
It is also evident from history that the Kikuyu people were the most oppressed people. They used to hate the colonial system from the core of their hearts. Their only goal was to end British rule. Nevertheless, the British authorities did not sit quietly to witness the rebelliousness. They responded with a brutal crackdown against them. The authorities used force, tortured the rebellions and detained them. In fact, they made all-out efforts to quell the rebellion.
Role of Characters and Post Colonialism
All the characters in the novel play their roles to demonstrate this significant theme. The writer uses them as a tool to give voice to the people of Kenya. He highlights the impact of colonialism on their minds through major characters.
Role of Mugo
The significant role of Mugo is mentionable in respect of exploring the theme of colonialism in the post-colonial novel “A Grain of Wheat” being its central character. He betrays his friend Kihika. His guilt is a symbol that the writer uses to show feelings of inferiority and powerlessness in Kenyans.
Mugo remains in isolation. His alienation reflects the negative feelings of Kenyan society. It is the result of colonialism. It also symbolises that the Kenyan people were put against each other in the struggle for power and survival.
Ultimately, Mugo finalises the decision of participating in the Mau Mau uprising. It is a rejection of bending knees in front of colonialism in clear words. He wants to do something to free himself as well as others from colonial oppression.
Role of Gikonyo and Mumbi
The writer uses Gikonyo for portraying the theme of betrayal and loss. But this theme is also related to colonialism. His wife Mumbi accepts the change and colonial rule but he is unable to do so. Thus, his wife Mumbi marries Karanja. Mumbi represents those people who accept change whereas Gikonyo represents those who resisted it. But the writer proves that the accepted change was not as good as imagined when Mumbi returns to Gikonyo.
Gikonyo remains in detention for years. The writer uses him as a symbol that the authorities used to use brutal tactics to maintain their control over people. He suffers physically and emotionally for six years. His scars are evidence that violence was there during colonial rule.
Despite the suffering, Gikonyo does not give up showing resistance. He remains determined to rebuild his life after his release from detention. It symbolises hope and optimism. It also shows the strength of the Kenyan people that they use against colonial oppression.
If this is not enough, Gikonyo eventually reconciles with Mumbi. It is a symbol which the writer uses to show unity among people. This unity is also the reason they get freedom from the authorities. The writer demonstrates through Mumbi in the novel “A Grain of Wheat” that women also faced many challenges during the post-colonial period besides men.
Role of Kihika
Kihika is a leader. His leadership and bravery inspire others to join the novel’s central event. He encourages people to join the Mau Mau rebellion movement. He is motivated to get independence for his people. He is also a symbol of hope and determination.
The colonial forces capture, torture and eventually execute him. It shows the violence and repression of the British to maintain control over Kenya. He willingly gives his life for the cause of independence and the determination to resist colonial oppression. Kihika’s death is a symbol of sacrifice.
Role of Karanja
The writer uses Karanja’s character to demonstrate the tactic of divide-and-rule, used by British authorities. In this way, they tried to gain control over the Kenyan people. His betrayal is a symbol that those who collaborated with the colonial authorities gained tenuous positions.
In the end, the colonial authorities abandon and betray Karanja. In this way, he falls from grace. The character also symbolises the fleeting nature of power.
Role of General R
General R uses violence to suppress the Mau Mau rebellion. By doing so, he maintains control over Kenya. The writer shows the theme of colonialism through the character of General R in the post-colonial novel “A Grain of Wheat”.
General R is a ruthless figure. He enjoys inflicting pain on his prisoners. He not only symbolises cruelty but also the inhumanity that was there in the colonial system.
Role of Muthoni and Mrs Mugo
Muthoni’s decision to sacrifice herself rather than betray the Mau Mau rebellion is an example that Kenyan women played an equal role against colonial oppression. Her character also demonstrates discrimination between genders under colonial rule. The writer shows the challenges that women faced in the struggle for independence.
Mrs Mugo struggles to support her family and maintains her dignity in the face of economic hardship. Her character represents the ways in which the Mau Mau rebellion challenged traditional gender roles and empowered women to resist colonial oppression.
She also participates in the rebellion. She refuses to be intimidated by the violence and brutality of the colonial authorities. Thus, she serves as a powerful symbol of the ways in which colonialism and the Mau Mau rebellion impacted the lives of ordinary Kenyan women.
The Three Periods in the Novel A Grain of Wheat
The writer shows three periods in the novel “A Grain of Wheat”: the period before colonialism, under colonialism and the post-colonial period.
Pre Colonial Period
In the pre-colonial period, the novel depicts the importance of community in Kenyan society. The writer mentions in detail the harvest celebrations. He also writes about the communal work parties. The people in this period were together and they were practising their traditions freely.
There are many practices that the writer illustrates in the novel. For example, circumcision, hospitality, storytelling, the role of elders and their respect, celebrations etc.
Period of Colonialism in A Grain of Wheat
One of the main impacts of colonialism was land dispossession. The colonial forces seize land and transfer it to white settlers. Resultantly, violent conflicts arose. The political repression was also there on the arrival of whitemen. None of them was ready to listen to the elders of the nation. They use force to maintain control over those people. For instance, Mugo and Kihika were imprisoned by the colonial authorities.
The authorities use the “divide and rule” strategy to maintain their control over the country. They create divisions among the various ethnic groups. For example, they successfully create a conflict between the Kikuyu and Luo communities. All these tactics led the people to the Mau Mau rebellion.
In short, the period of colonialism portrays the complex effects of colonialism in “A Grain of Wheat”.
Post-Colonial Period in the Novel A Grain of Wheat
As a result of the struggle of every central character, a time comes when they gain freedom from British oppression. However, they still need to solve their problems. Firstly, there is political instability in the country. For instance, Kihika becomes powerless in the end.
The second important issue in this regard is corruption. Karanja and the Minister of Agriculture involve themselves in corrupt dealings. They give priority to personal gain over the welfare of people.
Thirdly, nation-building is also a challenge that the people face. After decades of colonial rule, characters lose their identity. Finding a good direction for the country alongside discovering their own identity in this world is also a challenge for those people.
In a nutshell, Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote the post-colonial novel “A Grain of Wheat” with the setting of the period of British colonialism. It contains all the events leading up to Kenya’s independence. The novel shows the pre-colonial period, the period of postcolonialism and ultimately the challenges that the nation faces after colonialism. The novel is written from the perspective of a colonised country; therefore, it only talks about the drawbacks of colonialism.