I despise the weak. Let them be trampled to death, I spit on the weakness of our fathers. Their memory gives me no pride. And even today, tomorrow, the weak and those with feeble hearts shall be wiped from the earth. The strong shall rule. Our fathers had no reason to be weak. The weak need not remain weak. Why? Because people united in faith are stronger than the bomb. They shall not tremble or run away before the sword. Then instead the enemy shall flee.(p. 180.)
While wa Thiongo doesn't outright endorse Kihika's view of history, he doesn't refute it, either. But - though Kihika's unyielding condemnation and lack of interest in nuance might be appropriate (and is probably necessary) for a guerrilla fighter - history is more complicated, more interesting and kinder to Kihika's forebears than Kihika allows.
As an overall descriptive of the black African response to British imperialism, "weak" is an inadequate adjective. "Measured," "thoughtful," "multi-faceted," "practical" or "wise" are all more accurate. A close reading of the historical record reveals, decade by decade, a slowly-evolving, pragmatic African response to the British colonial presence. Here is a summary:
- From 1895 (when the British officially arrived) through 1914, the colonists came with - in addition to a breathtaking sense of superiority and the ideology of Pax Britannica - some things the Africans wanted and/or adopted: Jesus, medicines, new ways of living and - importantly - enough power to banish the twin menaces of the Masai and the Swahili slave traders. Some Africans did rebel and resist the British, and the British mounted "punitive" military expeditions against those tribes; but Africans also cooperated with the British, and some African leaders allowed themselves to be co-opted into service of the imperial cause.
- From 1914 through 1922, Africans adjusted their views of the British. The whites came to be revealed as fallible humans - and hypocrites: not super-human bringers-of-peace and banishers-of-slavery-and-tribal-warfare, but self-interested farmers who warred among themselves and forced the Africans into the white fight. Criticism of British government policies began to be voiced. Africans protested against "alienation" of African lands and reassignment of such property to whites. Africans additionally began to question to white missionaries' interpretations of Christianity, where such interpretations condemned traditional African practices.
- From 1922 through 1939, African opinion condemning colonial abuses coalesced, although little agreement could be reached about how to address such abuses. The Kikuyu, the largest tribe, split internally on the issue of how to engage the British. Few were willing to allow white missionaries to continue to "represent" black interests, but advocates for slow-going diplomacy found opponents in favor of more radical measures designed to bring faster results.
- From 1939-1952, Africans again adjusted their views of British rule, this time in light of WWII and India's triumphant achievement of independence. The Africans saw that the British could be defeated. The condemnation of colonial abuses hardened into a rejection of the imperial presence altogether. Jomo Kenyatta emerged as a leader who could shepherd Kenyans into independent nationhood.
- From 1952-1963, the Emergency pitched black Africans (and the Kikuyu especially) into a guerrilla war for independence. British atrocities during this period confirmed the worst suspicions about the white man being more devil than human and promoted a dichotomy of black-African-good/white-Colonist-bad that was to influence subsequent thinking about the colonial era. Nonetheless, not all blacks resisted the British (e.g., the spear-carrying soldiers depicted in the accompanying photograph), and the British had some African supporters.
For all its admirable undermining of reductive ideologies (explored in this post), A Grain of Wheat could have and should have done more to depict the variegated reality of Kenyan history and to honor the individual men and women whose forbearance, patience and negotiations skills gave the Mau Mau violence its claim to justice - and who made Kihika a freedom fighter, rather than a thug.
(Image of black African soldiers [carrying spears] escorting captured Mau Mau fighters from The Daily Mail)