Female characters in Ngugi wa Thiong'o’s "A Grain of Wheat" and Tsitsi Dangarembga`s "Nervous Conditions"

Fighting the dual burden of oppression

Academic Paper, 2018
12 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Historical background of the two stories
2.1 A Grain of Wheat
2.2 Nervous Conditions

3 Analysis of selected female characters in both books
3.1 A Grain of Wheat
3.1.1 Wambui
3.1.2 Mumbi
3.2 Nervous Conditions
3.2.1 Tambudzai (Tambu)
3.2.2 Nyasha
3.2.3 Maiguru
3.2.4 Lucia

4 Discussion and conclusion


1 Introduction

Men used to, and still do to some extent, dominate the literary sphere in Africa; therefore, the depiction of women was mostly that of a dutiful wife and mother. When this one-sided standard wasn’t met, the rebellious protagonist was shown to ‘suffer the tragic fate of the non-conformist’ (Uwakweh, 1995, p. 75), which comprehended dying or being outcasted. It might seem harmless at first, as it is ‘just’ literature, but it is important to consider the influential power it has on people’s perception of the world. For this reason, it became more and more important to analyze the representation of women in books and change it to a more positive picture. As the canon of female African writers started to grow, so did the multiplicity of different depictions of female characters. This change of view was not only to be found in female authors, but in male as well. Both Ngugi wa Thiong'o’s A Grain of Wheat and Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions depict different types of women and their dual struggle in finding their own female identity against both patriarchy and the colonizer.

The three questions this paper tries to answer are to what degree the African women in both novels are or are not being dominated, what plays a role in this power-play and whether there is a significant difference between the depiction of women in the two novels, as they are set in two different African regions, Kenya and Zimbabwe. In the first section, the historical background of both plots is outlined, followed by an analysis of selected female characters of both novels. In the last section, conclusions will be drawn comparing both novels, its characters, its authors and the respective history.

2 Historical background of the two stories

2.1 A Grain of Wheat

To fully understand the portrayal of women in both novels, it is crucial to know the history in which the two stories are set. The main events in A Grain of Wheat are centered around the four days that led up to the independence of Kenya in December 1963, with major flashbacks to the characters’ lives before and during the Emergency in the 1950s, which had been called out by the British to repress the armed rebellion of the Mau Mau who were trying to force the colonizer to leave (Gurnah, 2002, in Ngugi, 2002).

Likimani (1985, in Raditlhalo, 2001) states that women in Kenya played a very vital part in the fight for freedom and that ‘nothing could have been achieved without [them]’ (Raditlhalo, 2001, p. 3). They stole guns, brought them to the forests where the freedom fighters were hidden and at the same time delivered massages (Raditlhalo, 2001). Ngugi uses these historical facts of women’s political involvement in the depiction of Wambui and to some extent also in the depiction of Mumbi, as further described in chapter 3.1. To this political layer, Ngugi adds the struggle of Kenya’s women to define themselves and be the owner of their bodies. This recurrent theme is even more addressed in Dangarembga’s novel, as shown in chapter 3.2.

2.2 Nervous Conditions

Dangarembga’s story unfolds at almost the same time but different place, meaning ‘pre-independence Zimbabwe’ (Etter-Lewis, 2000, p. 919). The context of Zimbabwe described in Nervous Conditions seems to stand in contrast to that of Kenya in A Grain of Wheat regarding the political and social position of women. Indeed, Uwakweh (1995) states that African women in Zimbabwe had been subordinated and silenced primarily by not giving them the same ‘educational opportunities’ (p. 75) as men. Rooney (1991) describes how even in post-independence Zimbabwe the situation for women had not changed, as they still had to ‘work hard without acknowledgement’ (p. 60). Nevertheless, a social feminism developed ‘in academic circles in Zimbabwe just after [the] independence’ (Shaw, 2007, p. 14), which implies that its starting point had to be around the time the story is set in. These contrasting historical developments had profound implications for African women, who reacted in various ways. Dangarembga tries to capture these multiple reactions through her female characters, further described in chapter 3.2.

3 Analysis of selected female characters in both books

Dangarembga and Ngugi tried to fit parts of the historical background of pre-independence Zimbabwe and Kenya in their novels, putting an emphasis on how patriarchal society was able to manipulate women’s minds, making them partly blind against the injustice they had to endeavor. Furthermore, they also addressed ‘the dangers of cultural alienation’ (Uwakueh, 1995, p. 77) through Western society and its education. This is the ‘dual burden’ or the ‘two levels of domination’ (Uwakueh, 1995, pp. 78-79) African women had to endure. This led to different degrees of domination and silence, as shown in the following chapters.

3.1 A Grain of Wheat

3.1.1 Wambui

Wambui is part of the women who in Ngugi’s stories have an active role in political affairs (Sougou, 2010, p. 93). Her role in the liberation movement was to deliver messages, secrets, as well as guns from the villages to the forest where the Mau Mau fighters were hidden. In the present part of the story, Wambui is part of the committee which tries to convince Mugo to hold a speech at the ceremony. This shows that she is indeed regarded as equal to men and is taken seriously. Ngugi seems to take up the stance that it is impossible to control women or keep them out of topics which concern them as well (Raditlhalo, 2001). Nevertheless, the question remains open whether it was possible for African women to achieve this equality only after having reached a certain age as Wambui is not young anymore. This would imply that it could have been more difficult for younger women to be taken seriously, which leads to the analysis of the next character.

3.1.2 Mumbi

Mumbi is one of these young women in Ngugi’s (2002) novel. She first appears to the reader in a very simple role, the one of the dutiful wife who is treated badly by her husband. When the reader gets to know her past, she appears to be simple there as well at first glance. She was the most beautiful girl and ‘enjoyed the admiration she exited in men’s eyes (p. 75).

It does not take long for this facade to break, leaving the actual multiplicity of her character on display. One cannot but admire the way Mumbi declines several marriage proposals and how in the end she is the one who chooses her husband, Gikonyo. She makes her voice heard not only through singing and making decisions herself, but also by telling the truth of her betrayal to Mugo, which, as a consequence, brings him to his own confession. In the conversation between Mugo and Mumbi, the reader gets to know the bravest side of her. In the years of the Emergency, Mumbi ‘took on a man’s work’ (Ngugi, 2002, p. 136), as Gikonyo had been deported. She didn’t let Karanja or other men in her life, although he could have helped her in times when food was scarce. Other women succumbed to the harsh circumstances and ‘voluntarily offered themselves to the soldiers for a little food’ (Ngugi, 2002, p. 142). Only in Mumbi’s weakest moment, when the joy of her husband’s return overpowered her senses, did she make love to Karanja, but regretted it straight after. When Gikonyo calls her a whore she even leaves him, which shows how much she is able to shape her life. With all that, she shows resistance towards both the patriarch’s as well as the colonizer’s domination.

3.2 Nervous Conditions

3.2.1 Tambudzai (Tambu)

All events of the novel are narrated from Tambu’s perspective, which makes it easy to see the change in her point of view throughout the story. Tambu started experiencing the effects of patriarchy at a very young age with her brother being chosen over her to go to school when money was scarce. She seems aware of the injustice and acts against it, but when introduced to Nyasha’s world view of a more complex injustice happening on a macrolevel, Tambu does not seem to understand it. The determination she once showed to be considered equal to her male counterpart seems to get lost once she starts living under Babamukuru’s rule (Uwakueh, 1995).

Babamukuru might not be the colonizer but retains features of it. He is the patriarchal superior who can help with knowledge and money and therefore people feel obliged to do whatever he wants, which in Tambu’s case would be to play the silent, subordinated woman. Until almost the very end of the novel, Tambu goes along with what society imposes on her and therefore can not understand Nyasha’s rebellious behavior. Nevertheless, she starts to realize that most of female problems arise from gender inequality and not from ‘poverty, education, or tradition’ (Shaw, 2007, p. 14).

This leads Tambu to question Babamukuru’s decisions, which results in the first and only time she goes against his will. In the morning of her mother’s wedding, Tambu lies on her bed and is not able to move as she does not approve of the wedding. Her mind wanders off, creating a split between her body which becomes the embodiment ‘of the dutiful daughter who will not speak against the father’s will’ (Stone, 2006, p. 120). The fact that her uncle and society do not accept all of her creates in her and in other female characters some sort of nervous condition from which the book gets its title (Stone, 2006, p. 120). Nevertheless, the split is necessary for her to see things more clearly and it triggers a wave of female voicing: Lucia confronts Babamukuru on the beating he gave Tambu and Maiguru leaves Babamukuru for a few days.

In the end of the novel, it is not clear how much Tambu is able to see of the dual injustice, but the reader finds solace in the fact that she seems to have found a way to liberate herself through the act of writing, which proves that she understands the importance of voicing (Shaw, 2007, p. 16). Furthermore, with Tambu’s statement of ‘I was not sorry when my brother died’ (Dangarembga, 2004, p. 1), she shows that she did not succumb to the loving female role that society wants women to play.


Excerpt out of 12 pages


Female characters in Ngugi wa Thiong'o’s "A Grain of Wheat" and Tsitsi Dangarembga`s "Nervous Conditions"
Fighting the dual burden of oppression
University of Malta  (English Culture)
The Postcolonial Novel 1: African
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
tsitsi dangarembga, nervous conditions, ngugi wa thiongo, a grain of wheat, african studies, female characters in books, african women in books, dual burden of oppression, kenya, zimbabwe
Quote paper
Stefanie Dalvai (Author), 2018, Female characters in Ngugi wa Thiong'o’s "A Grain of Wheat" and Tsitsi Dangarembga`s "Nervous Conditions", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/456423


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