Sunday, January 9, 2011

Looking Back on "A Grain of Wheat"

My African Literature and Politics course concluded with a study of Ngugi wa Thiong'o's A Grain of Wheat as I had noted in a previous blog post. After ranging across the African literary landscape, discussing A Grain of Wheat was, for me, a veritable return home to East Africa, to the lives of peasants similar to what I experienced in my childhood and the sounds of Swahili.

At the same time, A Grain of Wheat brought up themes we had encountered in previous texts. In A Wreath for Udomo we read about Africans in Europe, where they interacted with Europeans in the years before African independence. In A Grain of Wheat, we read the story of Mr. Thompson, an Englishman who got to know Africans in England, an encounter that inspired him to take up a career in the colonial service, ending up in Kenya.

Both A Wreath for Udomo and A Grain of Wheat recount the sadness and frustration of colonial officials about to depart the colonies on the eve of Independence. A source of joy for the Africans, Independence is a painful experience for these functionaries of the colonial system.

There are parallels, as well, between God's Bits of Wood and A Grain of Wheat. The theme of a strike, central in God's Bits of Wood, appears also in A Grain of Wheat. The strike by detainees at Lira is one of the most painful episodes in the novel as a graphic testimony of the inhumanity of the colonial system. The railway, a central feature and symbol of economic exploitation in God's Bit's of Wood, features in A Grain of Wheat as well.

One of the key themes in God's Bits of Wood is, of course, the heroic role women play in the strike. As I noted in a previous blog post, this harks back to the ancient epic traditions. A Grain of Wheat presents women of great courage as they participate in the Mau Mau uprising. In both texts, these women challenge the men to show their mettle, even putting them to shame.

In both God's Bits of Wood and A Grain of Wheat, the people struggling against oppression find themselves contending with others they consider traitors. In both novels, there are dramatic, suspenseful trials, which end in unexpected, anti-climactic ways. In God's Bits of Wood, an old man diffuses the fury of those who would put the traitors to humiliating punishment, while in A Grain of Wheat, Mugo, the person the community believed to be one of their greatest heroes, steps forward and confesses, to everyone's disbelief and shock, that he is the person who betrayed Kihika, the hero the colonizers hanged.

This outcome is as surprising to the people in the novel as it is to us readers. Ngugi succeeds in weaving a suspenseful tale with a truly unexpected ending. In the process, he deftly describes the intricacies of interpersonal relationships as they get tested by the hardships and agonizing dilemmas brought about by the state of Emergency and long periods in detention camps. While he infuses a realism in his description of events which is sometimes graphic, Ngugi's warm affection for the people and the land is unmistakable. He evokes very well the spirit of the people on the eve of independence, their hopes as well as anxieties.

Reading my students' answers to my final examination questions, I felt that they had gained a credible understanding and deep appreciation of the challenges Kenyans faced in the struggle for independence. In conjunction with the other texts, the students seem to have gained a good understanding of the social and political realities Africa faced in the twentieth century, especially in the fifties and sixties.

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