Heroism is a central theme in most literature, especially Western literature such as Beowulf, The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Song of Roland. In Western literature, we expect heroism to be found in books that “chronicle the heroic deeds of great warriors like Achilles, Odysseus, and Aeneas and celebrate the life of warfare” (Cantor 375). Not all literary heroism is like this though. Also, this theme is not limited to European or American literature. Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiong’o certainly toys with this common literary theme in his novel A Grain of Wheat. This novel centers on the tumultuous times during Kenya’s struggle for independence. While heroism takes many hues throughout various genres and literatures, Ralph A. Austen suggests that there are two forms of heroism in African literature. There are normative heroes and deviant heroes (Austen 385). Austen states that “the normative or ‘culture hero’ creates historically durable public values; he (and it is inevitably a male) has problematic relations with the domestic sphere but ultimately serves as its defence against far greater threats from outside the community” (Austen 386). The deviant hero or anti-hero is quite the opposite. Enter the trickster:
“The deviant hero (or anti-hero) appears in traditional African literature and thought as a trickster or even a genuine witch. He (or quite often she) creates a private career on an episodic, transient basis; the public behaviour of these figures directly threatens domestic values; and they operate on the boundaries between domestic society and the alien world without resolving any of the tensions between them. (Austen 386)
Austen suggests that in pre-colonial literature, the deviant and normative heroes cannot be fully distinguished but nonetheless the focus of the novel is on the normative hero (Austen 386). However, in modern African works, the African cultural values take on a different accent as they assume the role of deviant to combat the European influx and post colonial strife (Austen 386). “Criminality becomes a more specific issue in these contemporary writings” (Austen 386). It is with this viewpoint that one can look at A Grain of Wheat and decipher its discourse on heroism.
From having this understanding of the distinction between “normative” and “deviant” heroes, one should realize that there really aren’t any deviant heroes in this novel. However, most of the heroes in the novel have darker elements, character flaws, which give them, at least in Western eyes, a “trickster” accent in some places. More importantly, Heroes in this novel, whether normative or deviant, are of two differing strains. There are the obvious heroes such as Kihika, Gikonyo, and perhaps even Karanja. One of the novel’s best qualities is the fact that there are heroes who do not seem so at first but then redeem themselves later, such as Mugo. Yet the novel shows human nature as it truly is for each hero has his flaw and even his downfall. Therefore, an analysis is needed of both the obvious and secretive heroes with special attention paid to why they might be heroes as well as a look at their “dark” or deviant side.
While there are vibrant heroic characters that are illuminated throughout the course of the novel, there is a small section which describes a history of heroic people who stood their ground for the “Movement.” The first heroes of the Movement were those who took up arms against the white man who desecrated their sacred places and preached a strange religion. Waiyaki was first to proclaimed a hero and a martyr (Ngugi 12). He tried to defy the white man and his “iron snake” and was buried alive for it (Ngugi 12). His heroic actions and death are described in these words, “Waiyaki’s blood contained within it a seed, a grain, which gave birth to a movement whose main strength thereafter sprang from a bond with the soil” (Ngugi 12). His actions were venerated and he was remembered as a man of great action whose death started a movement, thus making him, by definition, a hero.
Kihika is the first to really be known as a hero and stands as such in the novel. “Kihika, a son of the land, was marked out as one of the heroes of deliverance” (Ngugi 14). His heroism is defined by his words and actions throughout the book. In the beginning, even when he was a young man, he was known as a strong speaker and eventually a man of action. When he was younger, he dared to stand up and tell the preacher he was wrong about a certain interpretation of Scripture (Ngugi 85-86). After he left school, he found he had a new vision and that vision led him to speak about independence. “‘You ask for what is needed,’ Kihika was now saying. ‘I will tell you. Our people have talked for too long’” (Ngugi 87). When asked if he ever forgot politics, Kihika responded, “It is not politics, Wambuku, it is life. Is he a man who lets another take away his land and freedom? Has he a slave life?” (Ngugi 97). Kihika didn’t just give rousing speeches about what they should do to gain independence. He soon went to action when he and many others ran away to the forest to fight (Ngugi 101). Kihika soon became a freedom fighter but his end as a hero was quite dreadful. “Kihika was tortured. Kihika was hanged in public, one Sunday, at Rung’ei Market, not far from where he had once stood calling for blood to rain on and water the tree of freedom” (Ngugi 17). However this was not his true end. At the end of the novel we learn that he was betrayed by Mugo and hung (Ngugi 223). Kihika did, at one point, kill a man in cold blood but that action was seen by his own people as a heroic act; an act for the Movement (Ngugi 187). His heroism then was not sinister or in a trickster fashion. Kihika was a true hero who fought and died with words and actions for the independence of Kenya.
Gikonyo and Karanja are harder to discuss with regard to heroism since they both (Gikonyo not as much) get labeled as cowards at some point in the novel. Karanja has a harder case to prove with being a hero since he actually changes sides a few times and seems to have the most sinister heart out of all the characters. Gikonyo, as were many others, were brutally treated for their involvement with the Movement and were subsequently sent to concentration camps and beaten severely. During the six years in detention, Gikonyo remained steadfast to his party loyalties and never took the oath (Ngugi 107). Gikonyo stood firm as a normative hero, never wavering from his loyalty to Kenya and remaining defiant of the white man who oppressed him. However, upon being released, Gikonyo’s heroism took a downturn once he rejoined his wife Mumbi. He found she had a child with another man and would not even treat her justly or rightly as a husband should. While being a good loving husband doesn’t come under the usual definition of being a hero, husbands and heroes share the same selfless love for their wives or compatriots and remain true to them to the end no matter what the circumstances. In a way, Gikonyo abandons his heroism as a husband by shunning Mumbi and treating her like dirt (Ngugi 114-115).
Karanja, as a character, gets caught somewhere in the middle between Austen’s hero types. While other characters such as Gikonyo and Kihika are much more well defined in their political or national heroism, Karanja is never illustrated as speaking in public or having anyone really pay honor to him as others do to Kihika or Gikonyo. When they were younger, Karanja attended the same social circles as Gikonyo and Kihika but his only attitude toward Kihika was one of criticism. When they were at the train station, Karanja once commented on Kihika’s oratory, “You say one thing now. The next hour you say another” (Ngugi 94). Karanja never gives any sort of positive feedback to those who are known as heroes and in fact, he is never labeled as a hero. But is he an anti-hero? Karanja certainly displays less becoming characteristics especially that of siding with the forces that beat the Kenyan nationalists, but he never really becomes a true trickster. There is one incident which might be thought of as similar to being a trickster but I would not classify it so. This is toward the end of the novel when Karanja became a chief (Ngugi 147). He was “more terrifying than the one before him. He led other homeguards into the forest to hunt down Freedom Fighters” (Ngugi 147). Karanja has essentially become an antagonist but his “trickery” doesn’t occur until he tries to convince Mumbi to give into his wishes for love. He spares her several times and gives her gifts and finally in the end, when he tells her that her husband is coming home, he rapes her in her emotional “submissive gratitude” (Ngugi 150). This is the extent of his trickery; he overcomes a woman in her point of joy and emotional breakdown and rapes her. This act of rape is a pent up desire for her that he had six years prior. But she found love in Gikonyo and not him so he grew jealous until he could have revenge. While this is not textbook trickery, it certainly has some deviance and planning involved. Karanja is certainly no normative hero and not even quite an anti-hero. He is sort of a middle man whose flaws outweigh his good qualities.
Mugo is the last of the possible heroic characters and due to his presence throughout the novel, is perhaps the most important character yet. Moreover, his character is so well orchestrated and our perception of him changes throughout the book. He is also a character whose heroism seems nonexistent in the first part but later we come to realize that he may just be better than all the rest. During the first chapter and most of the book, we get the idea that Mugo is perhaps the most cowardly of all Africans. He constantly avoids talking to people and when they try to talk to him or confront him, he acts almost mad (Ngugi 1-2). In fact, throughout the entirety of the novel he seems mad. However, the people love him and think him to be this great hero (Ngugi 3 & 24). As a reader, I did not feel their favor for him was right or just. I merely thought that the African populace didn’t know Mugo as well as we did. After all, we have the omniscient narrator to tell us all. But just when one thinks there is no hope for this coward, Gikonyo comes to his house to talk to him and we realize why he seems mad. He was beaten several times for not taking the oath and suffering for his devotion to the freedom movement (Ngugi 27). Gikonyo also declares him to be a hero, “You have a great heart. It is people like you ought to have been the first to taste the fruits of independence” (Ngugi 68). This declaration really changes our view of Mugo from his lack of spine to realizing that he was beat so much for his heroism that he was changed forever. Mugo then becomes at that point a great hero. However he is not without faults since very shortly after this declaration we learn that just before men were sent off to concentration camps, he was the one who betrayed Kihika (Ngugi 223). While this act of betrayal might negate our Western ideas of heroism, he is praised for his act of courage to speak the truth. Karanja tells Mumbi, “he seems to be a courageous man” (Ngugi 228). He seems to be forgiven of that fault and though he is tried for it, others respect him for his bravery. Once again our impression of Mugo is different than it was previously. Mugo is redeemed a hero.
As one looks at the male characters in this novel, we find several heroes and perhaps one anti-hero. Mugo, Gikonyo, and especially Kihika are praised for their acts and words as they fought for Kenya’s freedom. Though they may not be quite similar to the Western heroes of old, still they stand for their cultural values and are loved and respected by others. Karanja does not fit into the mold of hero or anti-hero as well as other book characters, but nonetheless, he is never praised for his heroism and is hated for his betrayal and brutality toward his fellow native Africans. This novel helps Western readers understand the African sense of heroism as well as the realities of the human condition. No hero is really as pure as we’d like him to be but nonetheless they are still worthy of honor and devotion.
Austen, Ralph A. “Criminals and the African Cultural Imagination: Normative and Deviant Heroism in Pre-Colonial and Modern Narratives.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute. 56.4 (1986): 385-6. JSTOR. Web. 12 November 2011.
Cantor, Paul A. “The Politics of the Epic: Wordsworth, Byron, and the Romantic Redefinition of Heroism.” The Review of Politics. 69.3 (Summer 2007): 375. JSTOR. Web. 12 November 2011.
Wa Thiong’o, Ngugi. A Grain of Wheat. Johannesburg: Heinemann, 1967. Print.