In this article, we have presented the character and theme analysis for the novel, A Grain of Wheat, by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. If you haven’t read the story or just needs a refresher, follow this it here – A Grain of Wheat – Summary
Character and Theme Analysis of A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o.
A Grain Of Wheat is Ngugi’s third novel, written when he was a student at Leeds University, United Kingdom. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is a Kenyan post-colonial novelist, essayist, and short story writer whose works often shed light on politics, colonialism, and the Kenyan struggle for independence, making him a controversial figure in Kenya. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o initially wrote under James Ngugi before adopting Ngugi Wa Thiong’o in his later works.
A Grain of Wheat was first published in 1967 and inspired by Kenya’s struggle for independence against the British colonial government. Kenya became a British colony after the Scramble for Africa 1884/85. The colony later merged with Tanzania, a former German colony, but later lumped up with Kenya after the defeat of Germany in the First World War, which saw Germany deprived of its oversea territories.
A Grain Of Wheat describes scenarios that unfolded long before Kenya’s independence with the incidents that took place after independence. This incident is also known as Uhuru; it shaped the behaviours of the characters a few days after the Kenyan independence. The author tried to uncover the hidden story of the Mau Mau Movement, which started in 1946 against the resented British rule in Kenya. The initiators of the movement, with a militant undertone, ended up being captured, detained, and several of them executed by the British colonial government. However, scholars believe the aggressive movement against the colonial authority ended up browbeating the British government into granting Kenya home rule in 1963 under Uhuru Kenyatta.
In the novel, several characters betrayed the struggle for personal gain and safety but eventually sought to lessen the burden of their secrets from the villagers.
Characters in A Grain Of Wheat
A good-looking and introverted Mugo wishes to live in solitaire. He’s the protagonist of the novel. He spent months in the detention camp, where he proved himself a hero by initiating a hunger strike for the Mau Mau fighters in prison and stopping a village guard from beating a pregnant woman to death. The villagers think him a hero. However, he stealthily works for the British as a reward. Initially, he had no interest in joining the struggle until Kihika found safety in his house.
Mugo betrayed Kihika to the British and became remorseful of his unpatriotic act afterward. No one knows this secret in the village except one person, but the secret made him restless throughout the novel. He confessed to Mumbi of his evil deed, but she decided not to reveal it to anyone to avoid shedding more blood. Everyone in the village thought of him as a hero, especially when he downplayed the offer to deliver a speech to Uhuru. When he stepped on the rostrum to confess his secret, everyone was disappointed and bewildered. He accepted death as a repercussion for collaborating with the oppressive colonial government.
He is a courageous Mau Mau fighter who became famous amongst his people after he captured a police garrison, killed a notorious officer, DO Robson, and took over Mahee prison, where several Mau Mau fighters were detained illegally. He earned heroic status from his people for his action but was unfortunately tricked into the British net by Mugo for a monetary reward and safety. He was eventually captured by the British colonial government and hanged thereafter. His heroic deeds and death strengthened the Mau Mau Movement. Moreover, it shaped the events unfolding towards the Uhuru as other fighters planned to honor him at Uhuru and hang his betrayer. Kihika is a brother to Mumbi.
He often found himself competing for stuff with Karanja. Gikonyo is a businessman, carpenter, and husband to Mumbi. He solicited Mumbi’s love at the same time as his childhood rival, Karanja, but won her heart over Karanja. Unfortunately, Gikonyo returned from detention camp to find Mumbi with a child by Karanja, leaving him devasted. He is a member of Mau Mau, but when arrested, he confessed to taking the oath of resistance in the hope to secure an early release to meet his wife. Therefore, seeing her with a child for his rival left him devastated. Gikonyo denounces his wife, but after learning how the child came, he reconciled with Mumbi and reunited with her.
Mumbi is Gikonyo’s wife and a sister to Kihika. While Gikonyo was in the detention camp, she fell for Karanja’s advances, which resulted in a pregnancy. When Karanja announced to her about the return of her detained husband, whom she had thought was dead. She became very excited, making Karanja take advantage of her happiness to get into her. She decided not to reveal to anyone that Mugo betrayed her heroic brother, Kihika, to prevent further bloodshed in the village.
Everyone in the village thought he betrayed his long-time friend, Kihika, because of his prideful service to the British colonial government. He worked at Githima for the British as a home guard and also a chief. He had tried to court Karanja on different occasions but failed. He takes pride in working for the British against his people, which made him a hated figure in his village.
While Gikonyo was in prison, he tricked his wife, Mumbi, to sleep with him. She ended up bearing him a child but refused to have any relationship with him after. When Karanja heard the British were about to leave Kenya, he considered standing in the way of a moving train and getting crushed. He later brushed this thought aside and expelled himself from his village for fear of his people. At Uhuru, everyone expected him to come forward as Kihika’s betrayer, but Mugo stepped forward instead.
A husband to Margery and District Officer of Thabai, Thompson is a cruel British officer, who was notorious for killing several Mau Mau fighters. He was saddened by the British decision to end their rule in Kenya, hence prepared to leave Kenya for Britain. He forbade living in Kenya under a black government. Thompson saw colonialism as a worthy cause as it tended to civilize the primitive people of Africa.
Themes in A Grain Of Wheat
Each of the characters in A Grain Of Wheat had in some way betrayed the Mau Mau Movement or each other – ranging from Mugo, Gikonyo, and Mumbi to Karanja. The theme of betrayal is the most notable in the novel. Mugo, who was perceived as a hero by everyone in the village, betrayed the struggle to the British for a reward. Gikonyo confessed to taking an oath of resistance in the detention camp to get an early release to meet his missed wife, Mumbi, only to get home to find that Mumbi had a child for his rival, Karanja. Further, Karanja took pride in betraying his people for pride and status elevation.
2. Guilt, Forgiveness, and Freedom
Most characters were burdened by their betrayal of the struggle or each other in the story, which they did for personal aggrandizement or safety. The characters’ past actions during the Emergency hurt them, hence seeking to exonerate themselves from the hurt by uncovering the secrets to the public notice. Starting from Gikonyo, who confessed to betraying the struggle in the detention camp, to Mumbi confessing how her delirious happiness made her allow Karanja to get into her. Mugo denounced himself as a hero for betraying Kihika, and most characters had a secret stemming from the Emergency, which they harbor. All the characters felt redeemed after their confession.
Personality and Community
The novel focuses on two conflicting characters, Mugo and Kihika. Mugo is introverted, so wishes to live a secluded life. Whereas Kihika is a selfless fellow who wishes to liberate his land from the oppressive external settlers, Mugo is only about self-interest— to live in solitaire and not get involved in Mau Mau’s struggle.