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“A Grain of Wheat” by Ngugi wa Thiong’o Essay

The idea that sacrifice is required before Kenya attains true nationhood, is one of a range of ideas – others being birth, betrayal, heroism and forgiveness – in the novel “A Grain of Wheat”, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. It is conveyed through the words and actions of many characters (especially Kihika, Mugo and to a lesser extent Gikonyo), rather than through the author telling us, since the narration is that of a third person. 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 epitomises the theme of sacrifice, is Kihika, the past leader of the Movement. Kihika is, for better or worse, the leader most associated with the Christian qualities including sacrifice. Although at first he merely thinks of himself as a saint and a leader, he later talks, and is talked about, in clearly Christ-like terms. General R, for example, refers to Kihika’s death, as a “crucifixion”. Kihika believes in sacrifice for the greater good of national liberation, and regards it as Christ-like. This is emphasised when Kihika says, “I die for you, you die for, we become a sacrifice for one another.”

Ngugi wa Thiong’o also uses the character of Mugo to present and convey the theme of sacrifice, through his death and 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”. This in fact is false, when Mugo was the one “that betrayed the black people everywhere on the earth”.

Furthermore when Kihika at a Movement meeting in Rung’ei, calls for sacrifice upon hearing “the call of a nation in turmoil”, Mugo sits in disgust and thinks to himself “he could not clap for words that did not touch him”. This shows that Mugo is not willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good of Kenya, unlike Kihika. Mugo at the end of the novel opens his heart and repents, and his act of betrayal be ritually cleansed from the earth by his sacrificial death.

Two more characters that the author uses to convey sacrifice in the book are Gikonyo and Githua. Gikonyo betrays and sacrifices his loyalty to the Movement, by confessing to the oath in the detention camp. He does this, in order to secure a quick release from the camp, and re-unite with Mumbi and continue their marriage. But this does not occur, as Mumbi betrays Gikonyo, by making love to Karanja the day that she knew that Gikonyo was coming back. Githua represents the personal effects on individuals of British rule, he says his left leg was amputated because of British bullets (though doubt is cast on this later – it is said he lost his leg in a lorry smash). Ginthua emphasises his sacrifice for his people and doesn’t recognize any benefits from the struggle because of personal misfortune.

The individual dramas become more prominent as the narrative progresses, but the rebellion is its point of reference. Mugo, Gikonyo, and Karanja betray the cause of freedom in their different ways, but they also betray themselves, as does Mumbi. Through the guilt they suffer, they arrive at a point of understanding and self-knowledge, and so in the end, the novel offers a possibility of sacrifice, regeneration and birth. The connection between sacrifice and birth is first suggested by the title of the novel, which is explained by the quotation from Corinthian’s at the start of the novel.

The presentation of the theme of sacrifice in “A Grain of Wheat” is put across through a variety of individuals. Kihika’s selfless sacrifice depicts this belief that the unity of the black people is imperative for the country to move forward. Mugo’s deed of treachery as well as his demise at the end of the book also helps putting across the idea of sacrifice in the novel.

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