Published in 1967 by Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (who also published under the name James Ngugi), A Grain of Wheat takes place in Kenya on the brink of its Uhuru (independence from British colonial rule) in December 1963. The novel considers the effects of British rule on several residents of the fictional village of Thabai, many of whom suffered enormously after the real life rebellion by the Mau Mau, or the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, led the British to crack down extremely harshly on the populace in a ten-year period called the Emergency. A Grain of Wheat has a unique narrative style, which shifts its point of view from one character to another, often within the space of a single page. Occasionally, the narrative slips into a first person plural “we” as the voice of the village is heard when recalling important events.
This summary uses the African Writers Series edition of the novel.
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Over a period of four days leading up to independence, the people of the village of Thabai ready themselves for the celebration of freedom. However, the troubling events of a not-too-distant past continue to affect the book’s characters, who are still reeling from the Emergency, when any of the people in Thabai or surrounding villages could be forcibly detained, imprisoned and tortured as suspected Mau Mau conspirators. The novel frequently shifts from the present to the past and back again, because each character has a present-day crisis that stems from their Emergency experiences.
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The story revolves around a few central characters, whose experiences during the Emergency have altered their present-day lives. Some were detained; some tortured in detention. Others turned against their countrymen, working for the British administration or betraying members of the Rebellion to save themselves. The villagers of Thabai united around one loss in particular—that of Kihika, a man known for his heroic actions against the British during the Emergency. Although he has been dead for several years, Kihika’s story frames the plot—at times, literally, since passages underlined in Kihika’s Bible introduce the sections of the book.
In the present, many people in Thabai try to convince Mugo, a quiet man regarded as a hero for his actions during the Emergency, to speak at the Uhuru celebration. Mugo seems strangely reluctant—in fact, he is hiding a dark secret that will emerge only much later in the narrative. Gikonyo and Mumbi, an estranged husband and wife, both seek out Mugo to persuade him to participate and, in the process, reveal their own secrets from the Emergency.
While the native Kenyans are preparing for their independence, the British administrators are preparing to hand over power and leave. John Thompson, once a perpetrator of cruel acts against detainees and now a disgraced official, is depressed at the thought of the British abandoning their progress—his life’s work—in Kenya. Karanja, a Kikuyu who worked for the British as a member of the homeguard during the Emergency, is also distressed at the thought of the transfer to home rule, as he will lose his favored status among the white administrators and the respect and fear of his own people. However, Karanja hopes to remain in Thabai to be close to Mumbi, whom he has long loved and whose child he fathered while Gikonyo was in detention. Most of the villagers suspect Karanja of having betrayed the heroic Kihika, Karanja’s boyhood friend.
As the novel reveals more and more secrets and desperate acts from the Emergency, it becomes clear that Mugo, regarded by many as a hero to rival Kihika, was in fact responsible for Kihika’s death. Mugo confesses to Mumbi, but she keeps his secret to prevent further loss of life. At the Uhuru celebration, villagers ask the traitor to come forward, and many look at Karanja. However, Mugo steps forward, admits his guilt, and feels relieved and unburdened. Soldiers of the new regime lead him away for trial. Karanja, having lost his place in the new society and any hope of Mumbi’s love, leaves Thabai. In the book’s final scene, Gikonyo realizes his love for Mumbi still stands and plans to reconcile with her.
By Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o