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Ngugi Wa Thiong'o's a Grain of Wheat: Representing 'the Other' in English?

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Ngugi wa Thiong'o's A Grain of Wheat: Representing 'The Other' in English?

Ngugi wa Thiong'o makes a compelling nationalistic argument in his novel A Grain of Wheat, the counter discourse to Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes. Thiong'o uses elaborate characterization with the main characters representing key postcolonial aspects that the text explores. Because the text lacks a main character, the combination of these central characters allows Thiong'o to examine these postcolonial elements on an even scale. Through the character of Mumbi, elements of feminism are explored, representing the colonial subaltern. The language used throughout the novel, including the many different African phrases, allows Thiong'o to show pride in the Kenyan culture and speak to those who know the intimate details of the land. The novel also works on a level of historiography as it incorporates the many individual influences and memories that are involved in Kenyan history. Through these very strong aspects of the novel Thiong'o's nationalistic stand becomes clear. However, as the novel is written in English, the language of the colonizers, how can Thiong'o represent Kenya? Where representing the colonial 'other' has proven a challenge to many different postcolonial writers, Ngugi himself is African and therefore this should have been less difficult for him. However, his attempt at representing the female, as well as his use of the English language demands the question is Thiong'o undermining the postcolonial genre? Thiong'o makes a strong nationalistic stand against colonialism in Kenya through the use of characterization, language, and an attempt towards creating personal identities in the history of Kenya, while propelling the need for a strong African culture to prevail in his novel A Grain of Wheat; however, through his use of English Thiong'o undermines his own efforts by employing the language of the colonizer.

As A Grain of Wheat is a counter-discourse with Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes characterization could have proven to be problematic for Thiong'o. There are some critics who believe that through the use of Conrad's novel the embedded ideology "infected Ngugi's novel. Ebele Obumselu has argued that A Grain of Wheat is a radically divided work [because] Ngugi identified Kihika [a symbol of revolutionary values in the novel] but he still retained the plot which Conrad devised to show the futility and ironic contradictions of revolutionary nationalism" (Caminero-Santangelo 139). However, Thiong'o was able to manipulate many of the characters to serve his functions perfectly. As Kenneth Harrow has noted "we are presented with the full spectrum of heroes, traitors, oppressed and oppressors, and particularly with those who do not fit comfortably into any such easily defined categories" (244), thus, because we are presented with all of these characters on an even scale, without a main character to take precedence, Thiong'o is able to examine and critique each aspect of postcolonial theory on an even scale as well. Therefore, through each character and the aspect of postcolonialism that they embody, be it capitalism, colonialism, or the subaltern, we are presented with a new perspective and mode to convey nationalism. Although each character is unique and therefore portrays these elements in slightly different ways a system of symbolism exists throughout the text that helps to unite each of these individual and unique characters to the common goal of exploring postcolonial theory. The symbolism of silence and speech unite all of the characters, oppressors and the oppressed, the heroes and the traitors: "In A Grain of Wheat, silence is rarely heroic...[silence] is the manifestation of missed or failed communication" (Harrow 257). Therefore, through each different character Thiong'o demonstrates to the reader another aspect of postcolonial theory while bringing them together through symbolism.

Throughout the novel the character Gikonyo becomes the representative of capitalist ideology in the village. He is an entrepreneur who embraces this capitalist ideology which was brought to Kenya by the colonizers. Gikonyo learns through colonialism that through the exploitation of your neighbors you can become rich. Although this begins innocently enough with both sacrifice and need it quickly escalades into greed: "He argued: they... have been naked and starved for the last six years. A few months of waiting won't make much difference" (Thiong'o 58). Thus, Gikonyo begins to represent the direction that Kenya may take after the departure of colonialism. Therefore, through the character of Gikonyo Thiong'o is able to make observations that although the colonizers are leaving and Kenya may once again be independent, perhaps the imprint that the Europeans had left on Kenya would prevent them from preserving the original Kenyan culture. This new direction that Kenya is moving in, marked by the men who "started respecting [Gikonyo]... [and] even tried to follow his example with varying degrees of success" (Thiong'o 58), is very different than the Kenya that had existed in the pre-colonial time. Therefore, Thiong'o is arguing that pre-colonial to colonial through to postcolonial is not a linear, straight-forward progression. There are too many different variants that prevent such a linear occurrence. Thus, "Ngugi presents a world which calls for historical and cultural repositioning, denying what Henry Giroux calls a 'comfortable sense of place and history', encouraging us to ask different questions which are perhaps less answerable but more liberating" (Kessler 75-76). Therefore, as the Kenyan's themselves have begun to embrace this Eurocentric system of capitalism Thiong'o "examines the meaning of individual and collective commitment to cultural/political revolution" (Kessler 82). Thus, as Gikonyo, as well as many others, have selected a capital driven lifestyle this commitment is no longer to the original Kenyan society; thus proving that the movement from pre-colonial to post-colonial is not a linear succession. This evolution is influenced by every individual that has been involved and their experiences and memories concerning their lives during the colonial period.

While Gikonyo represents the potential route that Kenyan culture may take in capitalism, in the character of Mugo the lingering danger of colonial ideology is represented. This is revealed in the betrayal of the rebel leader Kihika which has been observed by Caminero-Santegelo: "Through his musings it becomes clear that [Mugo] conceives of power in colonial terms - that is, as separated from any identification with or sense



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