107. A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo

Title: A Grain of Wheat
Author: Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo
Genre: Fiction/Colonial Literature
Publishers: Heinemann (AWS Classics)
Pages: 267
Year of First Publication: 1967
Country: Kenya

A Grain of Wheat has been noted as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's best novel. It was voted as one of the Best 100 African Books in the Twentieth Century by the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. As the third published novel, A Grain of Wheat embodies distillates from Ngũgĩ's two previous novels: Weep Not Child (1964) and The River Between (1965). In this story, the fight for independence, started in Weep not Child and The River Between converges and hints of elitism, greed, and discrimination against the independence fighters that blossomed into the novel Matigari had just begun. 

Mugo wa Kibiro's prophecy (in TRB) that 'there shall come a people with clothes like butterflies' had come to pass and Waiyaki - the protagonist in TRB - is reported to have been 'buried alive at Kibwezi with his head facing into the centre of the earth' to serve as a 'living warning to those, who, in after years, might challenge the had of the Christian woman whose protecting shadow now bestrode both land and sea.' The natives have fought the colonial government and the Queen had agreed to independence. With few days to Uhuru - independence - the people of Thabai and Rung'ei areas are making all the necessary preparations to make the day a memorable one whereas party leaders and freedom fighters are looking for speakers to mark the occasion. This is the setting and period - December 10 and 12, 1963 - within which A Grain of Wheat placed.

To make the celebration memorable, the leaders of Thabai are impressing upon Mugo to be the main speaker. Mugo through his actions and, mostly, inactions have climbed to a certain status that he himself is afraid of. He is scared of accepting the appellations women shower on him. Something is bothering him. He does not see himself worthy enough to lead the people. He asks himself
Yes, could they really have asked him to carve his place in society by singing tributes to the man he had so treacherously betrayed?
But women continued to sing Mugo's praises at the market, in their homes. His queerness and taciturnity increased his popularity. Something he did not expect. He was regarded as the equal of Kihika, achieving hero-status when several beating after days of hunger-strike, to confess the oath, left eleven detainees at Yala Camp dead leaving him.

However, behind this openly mirthful - seemingly impeccable - preparations for Uhuru lies the search for the ultimate traitor; the individual behind the betrayal of the Movement's leader, Kihika, by General R. and Lt. Koina. Kihika had ran into the forest to fight the colonial government and natives who worked for colonial government, like Teacher Muniu and Rev. Jackson both of whom - using the bible - spoke against the struggle for independence. Reverend Jackson Kigondu - a native pastor - had
called on Christians to fight side by side with the whiteman, their brother in Christ, to restore order and the rule of the spirit.
And with such lines, Ngũgĩ showed the role Christianity - through some native pastors - played in dividing the natives and subjecting them to colonial rule. After several search, analyses, and elimination, Lt. Koina and General R settled on Karanja as the perpetrator of this unforgivable crime. 

Using a back and forth narrative style, Ngũgĩ provided the reader the background of most of the characters involved and their role for or against the uhuru struggle. And through this we get to know that most of the so-called freedom fighters had at one point in time betrayed the Uhuru cause. They had denounced their oath in detention and quietly come home to their family or had denounced the oath and openly joined forces with the colonial government in its fight against the natives. The motivating factor amongst the latter group of people was that Uhuru does not imply the end of white rule. And Karanja belonged to this group. 

Karanja loved Mumbi but before he could open his mouth, Mumbi had accepted Gikonyo's. Years later, after the two had married, Gikonyo was taken to detention, Karanja capitalised on this opportunity to win Mumbi. He denounced his oath, became a homeguard - killing people natives at will - and later a political chief drawing his power directly from the District Officer John Thompson. And it was during Karanja's position as a political chief that Mumbi begot him a child. Coming from detention after six years, and seeing his wife with a child, Gikonyo shut himself up: working hard to raise his economic status.

As preparation towards Uhuru gathered pace, people began asking questions. People, in their minds, wanted to know if after the departure of the whiteman and the introduction of black rule:
would the government become less stringent on those who could not pay tax? Would there be more jobs? Would there be more land? The well-to-do shopkeepers and traders and landowners discussed prospects for business now that we had political power; would something be done about the Indians?
Gikonyo was to discover, painfully, that nothing much had changed. Having planned, together with his friends, to obtain a government loan through their MP to purchase Burton's farm, and the MP having promised them, they were later to find when they visited the farm that the MP had acquired the property. And this was before the uhuru celebrations. During the uhuru celebration itself, General R observed that
those now marching in the streets of Nairobi were not the soldiers of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army but the King's African Rifles, the very colonial forces who had been doing on the battlefield what Jackson was doing in the churches.
Early on, Gikonyo had remarked:
You have a great heart. It is people like you who ought to have been the first to taste the fruits of independence. But now, whom do we see riding in long cars and changing them daily as if motor cars were clothes? It is those who did not take part in the Movement, the same who ran to the shelter of schools and universities and administration. And even some who were outright traitors and collaborators.
In the end, as a sign of resignation and helplessness, Mumbi reminded her visitors that they '... have got to live', to which Warui - an elderly woman in the village - responded 'Yes, we have the village to build'. And again, just like the fight for Uhuru, the building of the country became the burden of the ordinary people and not the elites who had inherited everything.
How dirt can so quickly collect in a clean hut!
The title 'A Grain of Wheat' is symbolic. A verse underlined in black in Kihika's Bible reads:
Verily, verily I say unto, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit (St. John 12:24)
According to bible.cc, a corn is the same as 'a grain'. Thus, Kihika knew that the struggle for independence, or uhuru, would require the utmost sacrifice on the fighters' part. And that except they are prepared to fight and die, their situation would not change. He was therefore the 'grain of wheat' that died and brought forth much freedom. Using Christian analogies, Ngũgĩ compared colonialism to the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt. And several biblical pages were quoted to support this.

Though Ngũgĩ used an omniscient narrator, there were several places where the use of 'we', 'us' and 'you' pointed to a narrator who is one with the natives' cause. This hidden character was there at independence and was there when the struggle started; he or she seems to be the spirit of the Kenyans identifying himself with the people whenever he or she addresses the reader.

This is a story filled with symbolisms, metaphors and analogies. It shows hope, hopelessness, and hopefulness in a stochastic distribution. It also gives voice to the unknown soldiers of Kenya's past and present; those who have made it their aim to fight the war until the end is attained. It is recommended.
For a biography of the author, click here.


  1. It's great to read this review of Ngugi - he is obviously a big hole in my reading.

    I did not know that the early novels were so closely connected with each other.

  2. @AR... you're a voracious reader and I aspire to be like you. I know you can easily plug this hole.

    Yes, all four of Ngugi's novel - those I have read - are somewhat related.

  3. What a symbolical title. I thought Ngugi was brilliant at using bible verses to support the growth of the story without losing track of events.

  4. @Geosi, yes Ngugi did. References to Christianity in this story were of two angles: using it to suppress the people and using it to fight for freedom.


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