English, Nationalism, and Ngugi: Language in A Grain of Wheat

Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat is a Kenyan novel written in English, a language traditionally associated with colonialism and oppression in Africa. Despite the fact that the novel is written in English, Ngugi still uses language to speak to the novel’s theme of revolution by incorporating his native Gikuyu in the form of proverbs and folk songs. Additionally, the novel juxtaposes these Gikuyu proverbs with verses and parables from the Christian Bible, a medium through which missionaries spread English early in its history in Kenya. Though Ngugi wrote A Grain of Wheat in English, he manipulates and uses language in order to promote Gikuyu and Kenyan culture and to discredit English as a Kenyan language. In portraying English in a negative light in his novel, Ngugi reveals his opposition to English as a language of African literature and his larger national concerns for Kenya after its colonization and for its new status as an independent nation. In his essay “The Language of African Literature,” Ngugi expresses the opinion that the English language is unable to relate his African experience. Ngugi claims that every language is “a carrier of culture,” and that if African writers use English in their work they automatically promote European culture over their own (174). John Hawley notes that it is “the ‘linguae francae’ that have helped establish a ‘global village’ [that] have historically implied the subjugation of one community by another” in Africa (73). Similarly, Ngugi asserts that African writers using English represent “the final triumph of a system of domination [in that] the dominated start singing its virtues” (176); as a result, his vehement opposition to English takes on a nationalist and revolutionary outlook. For Ngugi, writing in English is a sign of “the conscious elevation of the language of the colonizer” and still bears colonial overtones (175). This negative attitude toward English as a language of African literature, as well as Ngugi’s urges for the promotion of native African language and culture, is certainly evident in A Grain of Wheat.Despite his vehement opposition to writing in English, however, A Grain of Wheat and many of Ngugi’s early novels were written in English. John McLeod claims that Ngugi’s “use of the English language and the literary form as the means to create a distinctly national representation” is questionable in that it is a language with colonial associations (99-100). One way to interpret Ngugi’s choice of language to keep it consistent with his views on English is to note that A Grain of Wheat is a novel about betrayal. Nearly all of the characters embody the theme of betrayal in some fashion, but two characters commit acts of betrayal against the nation. The first of these is Mugo, the main character of the novel, who informs the colonial authorities as to the whereabouts of Kihika, the nationalist hero, so that they could kill him (199). The second character is Karanja, who “quickly became a trusted servant of the white people at Githima”, thereby betraying his own background and people (158). In his essay, Ngugi writes that there is “a lucrative value of being traitor to one’s immediate community” through the choice of English over African languages (“Language” 173). As a result, Ngugi’s decision to write in English and neglect his own language linguistically represents Mugo’s choice to betray his own heritage and culture. Ngugi’s relation of writing in English to a betrayal of the nation further displays his nationalist opposition to English and preference for African language.If one does not consider Ngugi’s opinions toward English, however, the fact that the novel is written in English has a different effect. The style in which Ngugi writes A Grain of Wheat, incorporating words and phrases in Gikuyu into the English text, is very representative of most African authors writing in English. McArthur notes that different “kinds of hybridization, with or without glossing” is a common feature in African fiction written in English (270). By incorporating words from an African language into his English, Ngugi, in the words of Chinua Achebe, may be “fashioning out an English…able to carry his personal experience” as an African (171). Similarly, Ngugi’s narrative style, which moves backward and forward in time through “flashbacks,” is also characteristic of some African novels; in contrast, the literary genre of the novel itself is, according to McLeod, European (93, 99). When viewed in this light, Ngugi’s choice of narrative structure seems to adapt European literary conventions like language, form, and style to suit his own needs as an African author. According to Ngugi, Africans writing in English fall victim to a kind of “Europeanized writing;” he, however, recognizes “his own complicity in this scheme” (Hawley 71).Another way in which Ngugi criticizes anti-nationalist betrayals is through his descriptions of Karanja’s speech interactions with the European officials for whom he works. Communication between the two races, represented by Karanja and John Thompson, appears blocked and futile. Ngugi writes:Many times Karanja had walked towards Thompson determined to ask him a direct question. Cold water lumped in his belly, his heart would thunder violently when he came near the whiteman. His determination always ended in the same way: he would salute John Thompson and then walk past as if his business lay further ahead. (38)This passage details Karanja’s inability to communicate with the Whites. Though he is “determined,” he never succeeds in verbally communicating with Thompson. Ironically, the colonial official Karanja, the character most likely to use English (a language often viewed in Kenya as “an elitist colonial remnant, a vehicle of Westernization, and a threat to local languages”) is unable to do so (McArthur 270). Rather, the only communication that he achieves is nonverbal, and is a sign of deference (his “salute”). Karanja’s deference and subservience directly contrasts Kihika’s “cult of personality” and presence against colonialist oppression (McLeod 96). By stressing the importance of personality (and criticizing Karanja’s lack of presence) in the revolutionary movements, Ngugi seems to be paralleling Kihika with figures like Jomo Kenyatta, who charismatically led resistance movements against the British: “It is less the institution than the person of the president who is able to organize the people” of Kenya (Hervé 258). Ngugi seems to criticize Karanja’s reticence and failure to use language at all, never mind in defense of his country, as further evidence of his anti-nationalist betrayal and negative role in the novel.In addition to displaying the rift between Whites and Blacks in Kenya in terms of communication, Ngugi also manipulates the English language to more firmly establish their differences. In referring to a member of either racial group, characters in the novel employ the terms “whiteman” and “blackman” (3). As these are not accepted words in Standard English, Ngugi uses them as nonce words throughout his novel. In creating separate nouns for black and white men, rather than using two different adjectives to modify the same noun, Ngugi suggests that some kind of fundamental difference exists between the two groups of people. Karanja specifically states that the members of the Kenyan bourgeoisie had become “true Europeans but for the black skin” (89). On one hand, this difference may represent the vehement resentment felt by the Kenyan people towards Europeans; on the other hand, the use of different terms to describe each group of people supports the revolutionary cause for independence in that it supports the notion that the Kenyan “blackmen,” who are so different from the European “whitemen,” ought to have their own, separate, sovereign nation.Ngugi also manipulates language in A Grain of Wheat through his inclusion of several words in Gikuyu. Though Ngugi could have translated these words, he leaves them in his African language. Two of the Gikuyu words that he frequently employs are “Uhuru” and “Mau Mau.” “Uhuru” is a word meaning “independence,” and specifically refers to Kenyan independence in 1963. The fact that the novel is set in 1963 puts the concept of Uhuru at the forefront of its concerns. In choosing to keep “Uhuru” in Gikuyu instead of translating it into English, Ngugi suggests that Kenyan independence frees the country from the ties of colonialism. If he had chosen to translate “Uhuru” into “independence,” Ngugi would have been perpetrating the “domination of the mental universe of the colonized” embodied in the English language (“Language” 175). At one point in the novel Ngugi also employs “Uhuru” as a greeting and farewell; the use of the word in this light shows the concept of independence to be a major concern of the characters of the novel, A Grain of Wheat itself, and the nation of Kenya as a whole (63). Similarly, the “Mau Mau” movement is the Gikuyu name for the Kenyan guerrilla resistance movement (55); in keeping this word in Gikuyu, Ngugi linguistically embodies their resistance to the colonizers and to the English language. Ngugi may also have chosen to include these Gikuyu words to elicit an emotional response, as well: in writing in Gikuyu for a potentially African audience, he transforms reading from “a cerebral activity” to “an emotionally felt experience” (175).In addition to these individual Gikuyu terms, Ngugi incorporates cultural artifacts like songs and proverbs into his English text. One of these is “Uhuru bado! or Let us carve Kenya into small pieces,” a revolutionary song of the Movement (69). The inclusion of this song supports Ngugi’s anti-colonial outlook not only because it is in Gikuyu, but also because its message is for tribal pride and independence. Though the dividing up of the nation may not seem to fit with Ngugi’s sense of Kenyan nationalism, it makes sense in the context of his larger argument against colonial domination: because the colony of Kenya, made up of seven different ethnic and linguistic groups, was first united by the British colonizers, rebelling against that very unity is another way to resist colonialism (McArthur 282). In addition to this song about independence, Ngugi also includes a “new song” in Gikuyu, written by Kihika that also addresses revolutionary concerns: Gikuyu na Mumbi, Gikuyu na Mumbi, Gikuyu na Mumbi, Nikihui ngwatiro. (79)While the text of the song is in Gikuyu, the song lyrics reference Gikuyu, the language, itself; the song lyrics also make extensive reference to Mumbi, the female character in the novel symbolically regarded as “an allegorical mother-figure of the Kenyan nation” (McLeod 98). This song then, written by Kihika in Gikuyu and making explicit reference to the language and heritage of Kenya, comes to embody all aspects of the Kenyan nationalist and independence movement. The song also suggests the link between heritage and language, embodied by Ngugi in his essay on language and also by Hawley, when he asserts that “the post-colonial drive towards identity centers around language” (73).However, in addition to his songs in Gikuyu about independence, Ngugi also incorporates revolutionary songs in English. One such song is: We shall never rest Without land Without Freedom true Kenya is a country of black people. (21)Though this song represents Kenya’s zeal for independence, it places all of its emphasis on the revolutionary struggle. The notion that the people will “never rest” and that they are “without land” and “without freedom” highlights Kenya’s status as a colony; though the song expresses a desire for independence, Uhuru has not yet come. The song’s English lyrics perhaps speak to the continued oppression experienced by the people in the song: the English lyrics associated with the subjugation of Kenya may represent the English colonial government. Similarly, the final line calls attention to the people’s “blackness,” just as Karanja does when he notes that the only thing holding Kenyans back from being “true Europeans” and controlling their own nation is their “black skin” (89). Ngugi’s use of English in this folk song calls attention to the oppression of the people at the hands of the English colonizers.In addition to these songs in both English and Gikuyu, Kihika also relates another piece of African text in Swahili: “‘Watch ye and pray,’ Kihika said, calling on his audience to remember the great Swahili proverb: Kikulacho Kimo nguoni mwako” (15). McLeod also notes that “this incident is typical of how Kihika inspires the people by drawing upon both ancestral learning and the knowledge gained from his colonial schooling” (95); Kihika parallels his own African culture with that of the colonizers to undermine and subvert their message in a revolutionary way. Because “watch ye and pray” is a message of hope, Ngugi’s relation of this saying to a proverb in Swahili reinforces Kenya’s hope for sovereignty and political, cultural, and linguistic independence.The idea that Kihika parallels a Christian maxim with a Swahili one is a motif that recurs throughout the novel. At several points, Kihika uses language from the Bible in English, but subverts the messages to have revolutionary significance. Ngugi makes it clear that the Christian Bible was certainly a means to elevate English over African languages and culture, especially in elementary schools: What was the colonial system doing to us Kenyan children? What were the consequences of, on the one hand, this systematic suppression of our languages…and on the other the elevation of English and the literature it carried? (173)Kihika’s education under the colonial schools exemplifies this de-valuing of African language and culture in favor of Christian religious education, and by extension, education in English culture and language. Carol Sichermann notes that Ngugi attempted to find “a doctrine to replace the Christian-imperial model that was inculcated” during his years of schooling, and found it in nationalism (13); it is not surprising that Ngugi also discredits Christianity in favor of nationalist views in his fiction, as well. Ngugi recounts Kihika’s resistance to European interpretations of the Bible presented to Kenyan children: in response to the statement made by his teacher that the circumcision of women is “a heathen custom” and “As Christians we are forbidden to carry on such practices,” Kihika notes that “It is just the white people say so. The Bible does not talk about circumcising women” (85-6). This scene is not only an instance of Kihika resisting “the domination of the mental universe of the colonized,” but also establishes a motif of biblical re-interpretations that permeate the novel.In his juxtaposition of these European biblical proverbs with African sayings in Swahili and Gikuyu, Ngugi suggests that they share similarities. At several points in the novel, Kihika references the Christian Bible in order to strengthen his appeal for nationalism. As John McLeod notes,Kihika’s knowledge of the Bible is used to resist the colonial teaching he is exposed to. The Bible was one of the chief resources that Christian missionaries used to condemn indigenous African religious practices. […] He transforms the tool of the oppressors into the weapon of the oppressed. (95)Ngugi’s inclusion of numerous Biblical passages to promote nationalism is also linguistically significant, in that the Bible was a tool used by missionaries not only to gain converts, but also to teach English (and, in many cases, to teach English so that African converts might be able to read the Bible). Though the Christian Bible, a means of oppression and disenfranchisement for African language and culture, would not seem to support Ngugi’s revolutionary opinions on colonization, Kihika manipulates and subverts biblical verses, and consequently the colonialist power structure, so that they actually support his cause for Kenyan independence.Ngugi, through the character Kihika, references specific biblical passages and, altering the context of the passages rather than their language, uses them to inspire the independence movement. Between the larger sections of the novel, Ngugi places biblical verses with a note that they are “underlined in red in Kihika’s Bible” (129). One of the main biblical stories that Kihika references is the parable from which the book draws its title: that which concerns “the corn of wheat [that] falls to the ground and dies,” and as a result, “it bringeth forth much fruit” (201). Though this story is Western in origin, it comes to represent Kihika’s betrayal and death for Uhuru and the sovereignty of the nation. Peter Nazareth takes a Marxist view of this biblical allusion, stating that the reference to “a grain of wheat” and farming suggest that the “way out [of colonial domination] is a peasant revolution” (90). Furthermore, the notion that the book’s title comes from a Bible verse furthers Ngugi’s, as well as Kihika’s, campaign for nationalism and independence. Ngugi attaches Kenyan revolutionary significance to this Bible verse through his novel, just as through his character Kihika.Kihika uses several verses from Exodus in a revolutionary and subversive way, as well. Most notably, he employs passages describing “the affliction of [God’s] people in Egypt and Moses’ command to Pharaoh to “let my people go” (129, 31). In including these passages in A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi parallels the plight of the colonized people with that of the Israelites in Egypt, again lending a revolutionary interpretation to a traditional tool of colonial oppression. In this way, biblical stories that are uniquely European come to represent Kenyan nationalism and thereby subvert the colonialist worldview of the British, by whom the Bible was first brought to Kenya as a tool for oppression.Though Ngugi employs biblical proverb and language often without altering it, he also includes Christian maxims whose language has been altered by Kihika to more fully suit the revolutionary goals of the Movement. One of these is found in a conversation between Mugo and Kihika:We only hit back. You are struck on the left cheek. You turn the right cheek. One, two, three—sixty years. Then suddenly, it is always sudden, you say: I am not turning the other cheek any more. Your back to the wall, you strike back. (191)In this passage, Kihika takes the language of the “turn the other cheek” adage in Christian philosophy and literature and adapts it to suit the purposes of the revolution. In his version of this Bible verse, Kihika emphasizes the tyranny against which the revolutionaries in the book fight, and how desperate they are in that they “suddenly” decide to retaliate; he notes that Kenya has been the subject of abuse for “sixty years.” In his adaptation, Kihika emphasizes that the revolutionaries who “strike back” are justified in their actions. Kihika’s adaptation of this well-known Bible verse provides validation for the Mau Mau revolution and Kenyan resistance to British rule, portraying it as a defensive, rather than offensive, war.Ngugi also manipulates another doctrine of Christianity to transform it from a tool of the oppressors to a tool of the oppressed. Kihika states:[Christ] failed because his death did not change anything. […] I am Christ. Everybody who takes the Oath of Unity to change things in Kenya is a Christ. Christ then is not one person. All those who take up the cross of liberating Kenya are the true Christs for us Kenyan people. (95)In addition to perpetuating McLeod’s notion that Kihika has a larger-than-life personality, this passage also ties Kihika’s Christianity to nationalism. As John Hawley cites, Ngugi and other African authors “replace the European Christian story, which they associate with the religious and cultural subjugation Foucault observed, with an indigenized or hybridized Christianity aligned with liberation and justice” (69); Ngugi’s manipulation of the Christ story is certainly an example of this. The idea that one becomes a “Christ figure” according to his or her involvement in the Kenyan nationalist movement is certainly far-flung from the original Christian idea, indicating the extent to which Ngugi altered the language and gist of the Bible (96). Similarly, the notion that “all those” people who fight for liberation can assume the status of Christ perhaps authenticates Peter Nazareth’s Marxist reading of A Grain of Wheat as a novel emphasizing the collective and national unity.Another way in which Ngugi promotes Kenyan culture and language through Christianity is through a direct comparison of European and Kenyan cultures. General R, a member of the revolutionary Movement, states, “Let me first of all tell you that I never prayed to God. I never believed in him. I believe in Gikuyu and Mumbi and in the black people of this our country” (153). In this speech, the General suggests that his own heritage and language eclipse the importance of God (specifically the Christian God, in that Ngugi does not refer to God by an African name), and by extension, British culture. His specific reference to both Gikuyu and the people of his nation supports Ngugi’s claim that language informs heritage and vice versa, and that “colonial language [is] a carrier of culture” (“Language” 176). Additionally, the notion that “Mumbi” (the symbolic “mother” of Kenya) is again juxtaposed with “Gikuyu,” just as in the earlier song written by Kihika, further solidifies their relationship and the symbolic relationship between language and heritage.Ngugi also makes another specific reference to language that reveals his attitudes toward language and revolution. After leaving school, Kihika “read more; he even taught himself to read and write Swahili and English” (87). His newfound linguistic knowledge allows him to assume a leading role in the Movement. This passage reveals that English is a language of privilege in Kenya, historically because of its association with the colonial power structure. However, like his use of Christianity, Kihika takes his knowledge of English and subverts it, using it against the colonizers as part of the Movement and a “new vision” for Kenya (87). It is also significant that Kihika learns both English and Swahili in that, after Kenya achieved independence in 1963, these became the two official languages of the nation. By having him learn the two languages that would define the Kenya after independence was achieved, Ngugi ties Kihika’s character to the very idea of Uhuru and Kenyan sovereignty.In his novel A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi wa Thiong’o uses both English and African languages to promote the revolutionary Movement that fought for independence in Kenya. Though English is a language with colonial overtones in Africa, Ngugi uses the negativity associated with English to parallel the theme of betrayal that runs through the novel. In addition to using English, Ngugi also employs African languages, in his native Gikuyu and Swahili, through folk songs and proverbs. By incorporating these traditional aspects of African culture in their original languages, Ngugi reinforces his observation that language is a “carrier of culture” (174). By discrediting European language and culture in A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi promotes the language and culture of the Kenyan people, and as a result furthers Kihika’s cause in the novel for Kenyan sovereignty and independence.