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Contrasting Role of Women as Projected in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God & Ngugiwa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat


Contrasting Role of Women as Projected in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God & Ngugiwa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat

Ritu Jha

Assistant Teacher

Department of English

M.R.S.H.S. School

Titabar, Assam, India


Simi Chutia

M. A.

Mahapurusha Srimanta Sankardeva Viswavidyalaya,

Sivasagar , Assam, India


Chinua Achebe and Ngugiwa Thiong'o, both being postcolonial writes projects their female characters in completely contrasting manner. Achebe in his Arrow of God paints women characters with quite typical role, whereas Ngugiwa Thiong'o shows women as in equal to male characters in A Grain of Wheat. Achebe paints a male dominated society of Igbo community where women co-operate with the domination. While on the contrary, Ngugiwa Thiong'o carves women characters as freedom fighters. Ngugiwa Thiong'o tries to bring in the idea of ‘New Women’ through his novel by illustrating the role of women characters as freedom fighters who indulges into the Kenyan War along with the men’s of the country. Thereby, this paper aims to looking into the difference in the prescribed roles of the women that both the postcolonial writers demonstrate in their respective works.

Keywords: Women; differentiation; new women; domination

About Chinua Achebe:

Father of African Literature, Chinua Achebe is a Nigerian novelist, poet and critic who belongs to Igbo community. Achebe’s original name is Albert Cginualumogu Achebe. Achebe’s purpose of writing is to present the world about the history of Africa through the eyes of the natives and voice of the unheard. He also makes efforts to highlight the rich and ancient cultural heritage of Africa through his works. He is a world-wide popular author, who has influenced many other writers as well. Along with being a writer and critic, Achebe has also been a professor at the University of Nigeria, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and also at Bard College in New York.

The most famous, ‘African Trilogy’ by Achebe is highly recognized work in the field of literature. The ‘African Trilogy’ includes: Things fall Apart (1958), No Longer Ease (1960) and Arrow of God. Except these three, some other celebrated works by Achebe includes: A Man of the people (1966), An Image of Africa (1977), The Trouble with Nigeria (1983), There Was a Country (2012) and many more. Achebe primarily deals with the themes of colonialism, culture, politics, history, masculinity and femininity. Achebe receives several literary awards including ‘Lotus Award for Afro-Asian Writers’ (1785), ‘Man Booker International Prize’ (1987) and ‘Dayton Literary Peace Prize (US)’ (2010). ‘Booker Prize for Fiction’ is also given to him in 1987.

Outline of Arrow of God:

Arrow of God is among Achebe’s famous African trilogy. Arrow of God is written in ‘African-English’ language and its original title is “Devta Ka Baan”. The novel is published in the year 1964 and the setting is in 1920’s at Southeastern Nigeria, when Africa is under British rule. The title of the novel reveals that the text mainly deals with the theme of religion, but along with the idea of religion, the major complications encountered by the natives under a colonial rule has also been highlighted. Achebe’s Arrow of God explores the rich Igbo culture. And he also illustrates how the peoples of Igbo community have been confronted by the colonial power. Cultural and religious conflict plays a vital role in the entire novel, as Achebe very skillfully projects the difference between the deities of the Igbo people and the colonial Christian God. And as a consequence, Christianity is accepted for its source of Colonial power and liberalness. It can be admitted that the novel Arrow of God specifically deals with the idea of urge for power authority and implementing power over the inferiors.

            The novel begins with a fight between two small regions, the protagonist Ezeulu’s clan Umuaro and the neighboring community Okperi. The reason behind the fight is a piece of disputed land. To achieve the position of ‘chief priest’, Ezeulu shake-hands with the District Commissioner T.K. Winterbottom’s verdict of offering the land to Okperi. And because of this decision, the entire Umuaro community has conflict with Ezeulu. Slowly and gradually, the Whites starts to establish their own culture and customs by generating confusions and misunderstands between the natives. As always, the Whites apply their policy of ‘divide and rule’ and take control over all the natives and indirectly force them to follow the footsteps of the Whites. In the time of the New Yam Feast, the people of Umuaro resist to start the Yam festival because their chief priest, Ezeulu decline to have the last year’s Yam. And without finishing the last year’s Yam, the natives cannot harvest the New Yam.  As the White colonizers knew about the inner conflict between the clan members and Ezeulu, they grosses it as an advantage and asks the Umuaro clan members to offer their yam to Christian God so that they can harvest the new yam for coming year.

Role of Women’ in Arrow of God:

            Women in Arrow of God, reflects the traditional gender exhibition with an imbalance of the female ideologies. The personality of the women is projected in such a way that women are supposed to in the lower rank than the men. They are always exposed in a form of the rank in a social order. Their self-identity is never given importance in the society. In Igbo community, Achebe displays the Igbo beliefs that women are supposed to be inferior to men. From giving birth, to maintaining and preserving her sexuality and virginity, to till the marriage system, the Igbo society has prepared some sort of ideologies for the women. According to the Igbo creeds, women are sort of slaves to their men’. They can neither disobey their men’s decisions and nor can the women take stand for themselves in opposition to the men. Being physically tortured and discriminated is completely acceptable. And even women are hypothetically agree with their husband’s inappropriate practices and immoralities. Whereas any such fault by women would be considered as sin. So, it cannot be denied that the Igbo community actually commodifies women for their own benefits.

            The individuality of men minimises the potentials of the females and these traits are constructed by the society. The matrimonial system in Umuaro flashes the lights of unfairness and discrimination between men and women. As the matrimonial system is all about multiple marriages the men of the Igbo community are allowed to tie the knot with numerous women without even getting divorced. Whereas women are asked to stay loyal to their one and only ‘men’, men are permissible to marry several women and stay with each and on the other hand, women are expected to stay with the other wives of their man happily. Achebe states about several marriage practice in his writing. In the narrative, Arrow of God, Ezeulu the chief priest of Ulu has three wives. The age gap between his wives is quiet inconsiderable. Ezeulu’s younger wife’s age is equivalent to his first daughter. One of the local leaders of the village, Nwaka has the five wives. Ezeulu’s only friend, Ogbuefi Akuebue has also married a couple of times. The custom of marriage is all about having more wives during the time of Colonialism in Nigeria.

            Not only marring multiple women but even the virginity of women is always a major issue in the Igbo community. One of the interesting instances is mentioned by Achebe in the novel, where Obika’s wife, Okuata’s virginity and dignity have been questioned. Even she is also found to be insecure and stressed because in the past, she engages into a physical intimacy with Obiora which made her suspicious. But the results discovers that Okuata is still a virgin, and thereby she considers this as a matter of gratification and honour when her husband announces that if his wife is found to be virgin, he will present a ‘goat’ to his in-laws as an endowment.

            “Obika had already chosen an enormous goat as a present for his mother-in-law should his wife to be a virgin” (Achebe, 190)

            Considering all these essences, it should be phrased that women are conventionally considered as burden. As they have to endure all the burdens of their husband inaudibly. Achebe demonstrates an incident where, Ezeulu’s daughter, Akueke suffers and tolerates the physical abuse and ill-treatment from her husband, but she silently swallows all those pains. And when people starts talking about Akueke’s marriage, Ojiugo’s mother claim that Akueue’s marriage life is well-doing. And also quotes that,

“But Ojiugo’s mother said it was a lie and that Akueke was headstrong and proud, the kind of woman who carried her father’s compound into the house of husband” (Achebe, p24)

These words suggest that, in Igbo society, after marriage women has no right over her parents and parental belongings. Hence for the Igbo people, a woman ought to stay with her husband, no matter how her husband and in-laws treat her. The women must have to undergo every sufferings docilely.

Molestations and rape are also set up to be as a major concern in the Colonial African Igbo community. Achebe illustrates that the Umuaro society plans to increase the numbers of male child to give security to the females of the clan from molestations and harassments. Ezeulu, in his prayers always asks for growth of male numbers in the clan only because, he thinks,

“But if we are many nobody will dare molest us, and our daughters will hold their heads up in their husbands’ houses” (Achebe, 27)

This illustrates that the safety and specially the virginity of women of Igbo is always a threat to the clan. This idea also suggests that the women are permanently found to be under the male oriented society. And even the women of the society have readily accepted those submissive and dominating male disposed environment and customs. The women are not given equal status, importance and opportunities in the Igbo society. Communal and legal domination by the Igbo folks on the women is clearly reported in the novel. Achebe noticeably reports the patriarchal society of the African Igbo community.

About Ngugiwa Thiongo:

Born in 1938, Ngugiwa Thiong'o becomes Kenya's one of the most prominent writer. Best-known as a novelist, he has also written plays, literary criticism, and essays on cultural and political topics. Writing originally in English and then switching to his native tongue, Gikuyu, Ngugi has been in exile from his country, Kenya for being an outspoken critic of its government. His novels are powerful indictments of the postcolonial condition where dictatorships, corruption and Westernization have ruined traditional tribal cultures in Africa.

Ngugi's literary works mainly concern with social, cultural, and political problems in Kenya, past and present. His first two novels, Weep Not, Child (1964) and The River Between (1965), sets in the colonial period of his childhood, focused on the traumatic effects of the Mau Mau movement on Gikuyu family life and on the impact of the independent schools movement on rural Gikuyu society. His third novel, A Grain of Wheat (1967), combines the memories of the Mau Mau era with a depiction of Kenya on the eve of independence—a time of great bitterness, Ngugi claims, "for the peasants who fought the British yet who now see all that they fought for being put on one side." In Petals of Blood (1977), his longest and most complex novel, he describes in even greater detail the exploitation of Kenya's masses by its own established elite.

Outline of A Grain of Wheat:

            A Grain of Wheat is one of the famous masterpieces by Ngugiwa Thiong'o. The novel manifests the Kenya's struggle against imperialism. The core story takes place in the turbulent days leading up to Kenya’s independence in 1963, with frequent flashbacks to events that happen as early as the 1920s. The prime focus of the novel is laid on the Mau Mau Movement. In African history, the Mau Mau movement is a resistance movement; resistance against injustice, against imperialism. But on the contrary, the colonials portrayed the movement as violent and bloodshed and the African men as brutal and savage.

The novel is set against the emergency period. It can be considered as a counter-narrative to the misrepresentation of the Mau Mau Movement. This piece of work is a critique of how the colonizers have represented the movement. Witnessing everything, at the center of it all is the reticent Mugo, the village’s chosen hero and a man haunted by a terrible secret. We have learnt the villagers’ tangled histories in a narrative interwoven with myth and peppered with allusions to real-life leaders, including Jomo Kenyatta, a masterly story unfold which compromises of forced, friendships are betrayal, and where loves are tested.

Role of Women in A Grain of Wheat:

While analysing the women characters, the historical and societal background should be noted from where these women are coming. Women in the colonial setting are shouldering a double burden. They are dually victimized and marginalized; one by their own men and other by the colonizers. Ngugiwa Thiong'o’s depicts a very realistic picture and an objective view of women and he presents both African and White women in his own distinctive way. The idea of the national fight for liberation is one of the fundaments of Thiong'o's feminist doctrine in A Grain of Wheat. The novel is constructed on the feminist belief that the backbone of Independence lies in establishing a collective and common public target. The African women rendered a very significant role in colonial struggle whether in Kenya, Uganda or Zimbabwe.

All throughout the storyline of A Grain of Wheat, Thiong'o builds bonds between the characters' present and their memories in order to celebrate the sacrifices of the patriotic champions who voluntarily lose their lives that their land become free. Thiongo's one of the most influential character, Kihika becomes the emblem of the public sensibility. Kihika is known to be the epitome of potential and quest of every citizen to redeem their colonized country. He always thinks rescuing all the Africana people from the Whites domination. Thiong'o expresses his cordial respect towards Kihika for dedicating himself and his life for the national cause. By instigating Kihika, he illustrates the feminist thought that the unity of the country's natives is the key to gaining an inclusive Independence. Leslie Monkman declares:

“The possibility of rebirth and growth lies not on the elevation of heroes and condemnation of villains from the past but in the union of all men in an objective recognition of their interdependence and of their common potential for future achievement. Kihika's significance lies not just in his own actions but in the accomplishments which his actions can inspire.” (Monkman, p 113)

The establishment of the Mau group was due to the Kenyan feminist group. The Mau revolution is one of the national parties that have been formed in the Emergency period to assist the Black natives to regain their seized country. The European settlers have usurped their country and abused its wealth to financially satisfy their greed and need. This is evident and it produces a bad influence generally on the Kenyan community and specifically on women.


The women characters of Thiong'o represent hope and deliver optimism to the other characters. Eventually this authenticates his feminist belief of African women's inputs within life. Hence, A Grain of Wheat points out the important tasks done by Kenyan women in different occasions. One of such noteworthy Kenyan women is Wambui, the unbelievably struggling, popular heroine who does her best to assist the Mau Mau group. She is extremely courageous and her job was to carry secret messages and sometimes ammunitions to the Mau Mau fighters in the hidden places.  Wambui was a distinct Mau Mau warrior who stands as an outstanding example to the other Kenyan women.

"During the Emergency, she carried secrets from the villages to the forest and back to the villages and towns. She knew the underground movements in Nakuru, Njoro, Elburgon and other places in and outside the Rift Valley" (Thiongo, 23).

Wambui played a pivotal role in the movement. For instance, her speech in the market strengthens the patriarchal ideology. Bravery, courage is a representational trait of manhood. Her emphasis on manhood reinforces the gender roles that women are weaker section.  She states:

“Was there any circumcised man who felt water in the stomach at the sight of a white man? Women, she said, had brought their Mithuru and Miengu to the platform. Let therefore such men, she jeered, come forward, wear the women's skirts and aprons and give up their trousers to the women. Men sat rigidly in their seats and tried to laugh with the crowd to hide the inner discomfort. The next day all men stayed away from work.” (Thiong'o, 205)

Displaying females as bold and perseverant does not signify that they have encountered no problems and sorrows in the occupation reality, however, they have appeared as triumphant albeit the difficult circumstances in the Emergency years. Yet, Mumbi, the typical revolutionary woman, is one of those who challenge destitution and famine so as to remain faithful to her spouse. She is the illustration of the most beautiful woman in the village of Thabai. She is a typical Kenyan woman whose position in her family seems unsatisfactory. Even though she is in love with her husband, Gikonyo, still she is brutally tortured by him.

She is even exploited by Karanja. Actually, it seems extremely sorrowful to be physically harassed by one of your natives who are believed to be providers of safety and defence. Karanja is cunning as he uses his position to exploit many African women. He uses his position to seduce Mumbi when her husband was in the camp. The colonizers were also exploiting and molesting the African women. The concept of dual marginalization is very apt. They have no ‘men’ in the house so they have to surrender themselves. In reality, Kenyan ladies are bullied by Black males' oppression.

Polygamy has been a social evil in Africa since long. Women were treated as mere sexual objects. In the plot, Wanjiku, Mumbi's mother, is a representative of a typical mother who has imbibes all kinds of patriarchal ideologies. She holds the old traditional belief that a woman is shaped by the amount of patience she has when she is tortured by her husband. They believed that it should be natural for a woman to accept all the flaws of her husband.

Gikonyo’s mother, Wangari’s husband is seen marrying new woman every month because he got sexually bored with the older ones. Likewise, Karanja’s father has five wives and he is proud of the fact that he visits every wife in turns that lived in different huts. These all gives an impression of the African society. Although Thiong'o highlights the old traditional customs of the African society but he doesn’t lag behind in forming the ‘new women’ which is highly visible through his characters. He surpasses those traditional beliefs and curves his characters in the new era.

Thiong'o has objectively placed the women on the societal concerns. The women characters are based on race, gender and class. Some women are presented as strong but when it comes to patriarchal ideology, it overshadows every kind of strength.  A Grain of Wheat includes a number of the features of Black feminist hypothesis which encourages the cooperation among the whole Kenyan citizens so as to reach self-autonomy. Its female characteristics express esteem for old people, are connected with males in resistance, and are dedicated to the public fight. They believe in the idea that they must receive every acclaim and respect. But for their distinguished deeds within the Mau movement, they could not have made any success. Despite bearing aggressive conditions, Africana females have made unbelievable achievements in the socio-political circles.

Contrast between Arrow of God and A Grain of Wheat:

            Both the text clearly define that the position of women is always placed behind men and the suppression and domination over them is forever constant. Ngugiwa Thiong'o in his A Grain of Wheat tries to break the established position of women by tagging them with ‘new women’ who plays the role of a fearless freedom fighter and put themselves in an equal position to men. Though both Achebe and Thiong'o, shows women suppression including polygamy, physical violence still there is a huge gulf between the projection of the women roles in their respective texts.

            Achebe portrays his women characters with stereotypical characteristics, where women are found to be submissive and endurable. Even though they’re in severe torment, the women prefer to gulp everything silently. Where on the contrary, Thiong'o gives his women a new identity, where the women finds themselves equal to the men. Though the life for instituting themselves becomes pretty rough and rigid but their aspiration to uplift their situation leads them to stand in equal position to men.


            To conclude, Ngugiwa Thiong'o's A Grain of Wheat carves the status of women as influential, powerful and courageous that doesn't lag behind and is placed equal to men in every aspect in the society. He breaks down the stereotypical norms and highlights the image of women as ' new women' who can reform the current reality and portray a flourishing picture of the coming days. Despite enduring harsh circumstances, Kenyan women adopt the primary feminist attitude. They have witnessed cruel communal, public, and financial conditions, but they continue to struggle actively. Whereas in the African Igbo society the subject of an individual’ identity is entirely reliant on the society and their traditional views where the idea of ‘patriarchy’ is considered as obligatory. The perpetuation of their cultural patterns becomes the complex issues as they never tries for changes, rather they believes that the changes are destroying their cultural values.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. New Delhi: Penguin group, 2010. Print.

Al- Afiffi, AzeemaSaad. "Women as Fighters for their Land Freedom InWaThiongo's A Grain Of Wheat (1967)”. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Education Studies. Vol.1. Issue.1. April, 2020.

Anaso, George Nworah. Nwabudike, Christopher Eziafa. “Social Conflicts in Arrow Of God: Lessons in Flexibility and Good Governance”. International Journal of Comparative Literature & Translation Studies. Vol. 4 No. 1. January 2016.

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. New Delhi: Viva Books Private Ltd, 2018. Print.

Monkman, Leslie."Kenya and the New Jerusalem in A Grain on Wheat". African Literature Today. Vol. 7, No. 1. 2019.

Nayar, Pramod K. Postcolonial Literature- An Introduction. Delhi: Pearson India Education Service Pvt. Ltd, 2019. Print.

Thiongo, Ngugi Wa. A Grain of Wheat. U.K: Heinemann, 1967. Print.