Why is dirt an important motif in A Grain of Wheat and give three supporting evidences?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Interestingly, "dirt" is used only twice in the text. The first use comes early on when Mugo encounters Githua: "[Githua's] shirt was torn, its collar gleamed black with dirt." The second use occurs very late in the novel when Wambui is wracked by her "consciousness of a terrible anti-climax" to their fight for freedom: "First I must sweep the room. How dirt can so quickly collect in a clean hut!"

Dirt: Dirt is a product of soil, and soil is what comprises a land, and a land houses a people, like the Kenyan people. In these two above uses, dirt accumulates where it is not wanted, turning the beneficial soil into a detrimental force that needs to be cleaned and removed.

There are words similar to "dirt" that are used extensively throughout the text, yet each seems to have a specialized association with it; the words are not used as exact synonyms. The words used are: dirt, land, soil, dust.

Dust: "Dust" is used when a negative connotation is imputed to the dirt of the soil of the land of Kenya. A person is said to walk on a lonely dusty road; to spit in the dust to show anger; to raise dust in a cowardly retreat; to find dust accumulated from neglect; to have burning feet covered in sweaty dust. Dust is the product of the dirt and shows or demonstrates negative feelings, traits, attributes and reactions.

Soil: "Soil" is that which nurtures the people who live on the land. The soil feeds the people. The soil belongs to the people. The soil is the unity and care and hope that exists toward and between the people.

This soil belonged to the Kenyan people. Nobody has the right to sell or buy it. It is our mother and we her children are all equal before her. She is our common inheritance.

Land: Land is the majestic center of a people's home and hope. Land can be honored and valued or it can be violated and abused. The Kenyans cherished their land; it had a heart and it had their hearts; the land might give power to women; the land was equated with freedom. The British colonizers violated the land because they offered mock benevolence and mock protection since they restricted Kenyan access to the land and to freedom. The British abused the land by initiating "land alienation" that strip Kenyans from their land through "conscription of labor." These are phrases about "land" that appear in the text:

  • heart of the land
  • woman as a power in the land
  • benevolence and protection which denied people land and freedom
  • politics and the gathering storm in the land
  • the land was stolen
  • land alienation, ... taxation, conscription of labour into the white-man's land

If we consider the word "dirt" as a motif alone, then it is a symbol of how that which is good and valued (soil, land) can become troublesome, unwanted, problematic, something to clean up and sweep away when neglected, abused, misused, and stolen by people who do not belong to the land, but belong to a different land, who belong to "the white-man's land."

If we consider all the words together (dirt, dust, soil, land), a motif arises pointing to the relationship between a people and the earth that sustains them, a relationship that might be broken by that people themselves through neglect but that is assuredly broken through disrespect by an invading people who do not love earth that is away from, disassociated from their own native homeland.