A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Originally published in 1967, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s third novel, A Grain of Wheat, is his best-known and most ambitious work. A Grain of Wheat is a complex novel. The novel is set in Thabai, an imaginary Gikuyu village of Kenya’s White Highlands, in the days preceding and following 12 December 1963, the day Kenya got its Independence.
Summary of A Grain of Wheat
Plot is the sequence of events that unfolds in a narrative. The story opens with an inciting incident that reveals the main character’s primary conflict. As the action rises, the conflict escalates and the character faces increased obstacles in his quest to restore order. At the climax, the conflict reaches its most intense point, followed by falling action when the conflict is solved and the story’s world is restored to order. The resolution is where characters are left at the story’s conclusion.
Ngugi’s third novel, A Grain of Wheat has multi-narrative lines and multi-view point’s unfolding at different times and spaces replacing the linear temporal unfolding of the plot from a single viewpoint.
A Grain of Wheat depicts Kenya’s struggle with colonialism. The novel is made up of one main plot and two intertwining subplots- one being the role of Mumbi and her relation with Gikonyo and Karanja and the other is the relationship between Mugo and Kihika which are presented in the form of flashbacks.
The main plot of the novel takes place in December 1963. The present-time of A Grain of Wheat is the four days leading up to Kenya’s independence, from British colonial rule, on 12 December 1963. The village of Thabai is preparing for Uhuru (Independence) celebration. Warui and Wambui, along with Gikonyo, the local party leader, visit Mugo (their new chosen hero) in his hut on Sunday night. They are the spokespersons of the village and communicate to him that, “We have therefore thought that on the important day, you should lead in the sacrifice and ceremonies to honour those who died that we might live”. They attribute to him many heroic deeds. Mugo had sheltered Kihika on the night he had shot dead the D.O. Robson; he had also prevented a home guard from beating a pregnant woman in the trenches; further, he had lead a hunger strike at the Rira detention camp and had been beaten severely by the authorities. Gikonyo puts it this way,
“You did for Thabai out here and in detention what Kihika did in the forest.”
However, Mugo is slow in taking a decision and giving them a reply; they leave him expecting a positive reply from him the next day. Mugo is self-centric and is apprehensive of their intentions; he moreover has a secret to hide. Hence, he is reluctant to accept their proposal. Nevertheless, on Monday night, Mugo dreams that men like Githua and Gikonyo are pleading with him to save them from being shot by John Thompson; he believes himself to be their savior. In his dream, he even forgives John Thompson who had spat on his face and had detained him. He is revered in Thabai and people look up to him as their new hero and savior. Githua, the lame man, salutes him and address him as “Chief”. Meanwhile, both Gikonyo and Mumbi have made him their sounding board and have confided, on different occasions, about their plights, anguishes and the strained relationship with their spouses. All these events boost his confidence, Mugo is almost ready to yield to popular demand when he learns that on this occasion he will have to denounce Karanja, the Home guard, as the one who betrayed Kihika. He also learns that Githua had not become lame by being shot by the white police as he always claims, but had met with an accident. General R gives him the reason for this:
“It makes his life more interesting to himself. He invents a meaning for his life…. And to die fighting for freedom sounds more heroic than to die by accident.”
Mugo feels let down by Githua. He informs Mumbi and General R that he would not lead the gathering for the Uhuru celebration Moreover, Mugo does not feel the same as before after having heard Mumbi’s story about the life in Thabai when he was in detention; he had imprisoned his sin and guilt of having betrayed Kihika to the white authorities. He ponders, “How was it that Mumbi’s story had cracked open his dulled inside and released imprisoned thoughts and feelings?” Mugo wanted to escape from these thoughts, “He wanted to resume that state, a limbo, in which he was before he heard Mumbi’s story and looked into her eyes”.
The same day, Mugo learns from Warui that the lonely old woman, Gitogo’s mother, had died suddenly. He had felt a special bondage to her, as he too was lonely. The woman who had not spoken a word after her son’s death had suddenly spoken. She spoke of seeing her son twice. Mugo is disturbed when Warui comments, “Those buried in the earth should remain in the earth. Things of yesterday should remain with yesterday.” Mugo fears of meeting a dead apparition. Suddenly, for him “Life itself seemed a meaningless wandering”. He decides to confess his guilt.
The next day, on Thursday, at the Uhuru celebrations, General R. asks for the person who betrayed Kihika to come forward and confess in public. General R. is expecting Karanja to come and confess. However, Mugo himself comes forward and confesses that he was the person who had betrayed Kihika.
The narrative line ends with Mugo’s confession, trial by the village elders and his supposed death.
The two intertwining sub-plots which unravel through flashbacks are-
1) Mumbi’s role in the novel and her relation with two men competing for her love-Gikonyo and Karanja and
2) The second sub-plot includes the relationship between two main characters, Mugo and Kihika.
Mumbi’s role in the novel and her relation with two men competing for her love_Gikongo and Karanja
Both Gikonyo and Karanja are in love with Mumbi; in the race to the railway station to see the train, Karanja out beats Gikonyo, but the day becomes memorable to Gikonyo as he wins over Mumbi.
Gikonyo becomes Mumbi’s husband, but while Gikonyo is in detention, Karanja, who is the local Chief by this time working under the jurisdiction of the British, helps Mumbi find a secondary school place for Mumbi’s brother Kariuki.
When Karanja tells Mumbi that Gikonyo is to be set free, the overstressed Mumbi forgets herself and allows Karanja to make love to her.
When Gikonyo arrives home from prison, he discovers that Mumbi is mother to Karanja’s child.
By the end of the novel, the dejected Karanja, who had betrayed his oath and many Mau Mau members from his village, goes off to a life in exile at Githima.
Gikonyo while still convalescing in Timoro hospital reconciles himself to the fact that Mumbi is innocent and that the severely difficult circumstances during Emergency had driven her to mother Karanja’s child. He begins to reestablish his marriage with Mumbi.
Relationship between Mugo and Kihika
The second sub-plot includes the relationship between two main characters, Mugo and Kihika. Both men are considered good speakers against colonialism. They are considered leaders who have sacrificed themselves for the community. But, as the novel progresses, it is evident that Mugo harbours hatred and jealousy for Kihika. Mugo has suffered as he is an orphan and envies Kihika whose family showers love, care and support on him. Mugo resents Kihika for speaking vehemently “of the great sacrifice. A day comes when brother shall give up brother, a mother her son, when you and I have heard the call of a nation in turmoil”. (AGOW: 15). He is unable to “clap for words that did not touch him.” (AGOW:15)
Kihika came to Mugo’s hut on a Friday night, a crucial night it was as he had shot dead the D.O. Robson and had sought shelter from the police hunting for the murderer. Mugo had become very nervous; he feared that, “He would be caught red-handed, housing a terrorist.” Kihika had spoken of the need to fight united against oppression of the British, “To strike terror in the heart of the oppressor”. In addition, if they have to choose between freedom and slavery, “it is fitting that a man should grab at freedom and die for it”. Mugo had thought that the man was mad, “Kihika was mad, mad, he reflected, and the thought only increased his terror”
Kihika had told Mugo: You are a self-made man…you have suffered. We need such a man to organize an underground movement in the new village.
Mugo tried to shirk the task by reminding him that he had not taken the oath. However, Kihika arranges a rendezvous in Kigenie Forest to discuss the matter. Mugo’s carefully protected peaceful life is about to be shattered; he is bitter and frustrated. To preserve the tranquility Kihika’s intrusion threatens to destroy Mugo decides to betray the Mau Mau leader by revealing the planned meeting:
“For a week, he had wrestled with demons, alone in an endless nightmare. This confession was his first contact with another man. He felt deep gratitude to the white man … who has lifted his burden from his heart, who has extricated him from his nightmare.” (AGOW: 199).
Thus, he had been instrumental in the white man’s success in capturing Kihika.
Kihika is captured and his dead body is hung outside Thabai village. Mugo suffers of guilt and finally confesses in public.
By confining the action of the novel to the four days preceding the Uhuru celebrations- with one main plot in the present and two sub-plots which are reflections of past events depicted in flashback –Ngugi depicts the effects of British colonialism on rural life and the sacrifices made by the Gikuyu peasant communities – both the men and the women – as they struggled for their freedom and independence.
Analysis of A Grain of Wheat
The novel, A Grain of Wheat portrays several characters in a village whose intertwined lives are transformed by the 1952-1960 Emergency in Kenya. Here, five characters-Kihika, Mugo, Karanja, Gikonyo and Mumbi- are presented in similar circumstances at similar times but in different spaces and each character experiences the similar situation from a different perspective and in a different way; five friends and age mates make different choices when the Mau Mau rebellion erupts in colonial Kenya.
The villagers of Thabai are busy preparing for their “Uhuru” (Independence Day) celebrations. To celebrate this significant day that signals Kenya’s “freedom,” the villagers of Thabai decide to prepare a public honoring of their village hero, Kihika, a Mau Mau rebel who sacrificed his life to fight for Kenya’s freedom during the Mau Mau rebellion. The village elders and the people of Thabai decide that Mugo, the “hermit” is their choice to lead the gathering and address them. Therefore, the elders Warui, Wambui and Gikonyo (the local secretary of the party) meet Mugo on Sunday night and apprise him of their decision for the celebration on Thursday and request him to accept the responsibility. Mugo is about to become the new village hero after Kihika. They fabricate heroic deeds which are not intended by Mugo (they told with varying degrees of exaggeration how he organized the hunger-strike in Rira detention camp: how he saved a pregnant woman from being beaten by the home guards and got arrested for it; how he sheltered Kihika the night he murdered the D.O Robson.)
As the novel, gradually moves towards the day of independence, a series of buried anguishes are meanwhile being dug out by the protagonists’ reflections occasioned by this event. Gikonyo betrayed the consolidating oath of the Mau Mau rebellion in the detention camp in exchange for a reunion with his wife Mumbi. However, Gikonyo is in for a shock as Mumbi has given birth to his “competitor” Karanja’s child, during his absence. Karanja abandoned his friends to collaborate with the colonizers during the Mau Mau rebellion, became the chief of Thabai during emergency, and worked for colonial administration. However, he suffers the same fate and is “abandoned” by his white bosses, on the eve of independence. He is the main suspect of betraying Kihika to the white rulers, General R a Mau Mau leader and Kihika’s close loyalist would like to avenge the betrayal. Hence, Mugo is expected in his speech to eulogize Kihika’s sacrifice and expose Karanja’s role in Kihika’s death.
Mugo, however, finds the responsibility unbearable as he is weighed down by his guilt of having betrayed Kihika. He refuses to lead the gathering. All these entangled life stories of the protagonists eventually converge on the day of independence-with Mugo’s final public confession of his betrayal of Kihika as the climactic event to bring them together.
Even though the actual time in the novel lasts for only seven days, with the techniques of flashback and retrospection, the novel covers the period of Kenyan decolonization between the 1950s and 1963, the year, which saw official Kenyan independence. Ngugi deploys a narrative in which stories are successively intertwined: the first story from the past that the real cause of Kihika’s death is a betrayal by a defector during the Mau Mau rebellion-is told on Sunday (Chapter Three), the commencement of the novel’s present moment, Gikonyo confides in Mugo on Monday (Chapter Six and Seven), Mumbi to Mugo on Tuesday (Chapter Nine), and finally on Wednesday, the foremost secret of the novel-Mugo’s betrayal of Kihika-is revealed to Mumbi through his confession (Chapter Thirteen). With such a sophisticated handling of narrative structure.
Ngugi allows the reader to delve more deeply into the complicated psychology of the main characters as both individual subjects and community members who are profoundly affected by colonialism in different ways. Ngugi depicts the effects of British colonialism on rural life and the sacrifices made by the Gikuyu peasant communities – both the men and the women – as they struggled for their freedom and independence. The novel can be said to be Ngugi’s project to speak for the Mau Mau movement as he tries to contest the history of the Mau Mau as written by the British.