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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: A Grain of Wheat

Ngugi wrote this novel while studying at Leeds University. The title comes from the Gospel According to St. John, 12:24 and is cited as one of the Bible passages marked by Kihika, a Kenyan guerilla leader, in his own Bible. The book is divided into three sections. The novel starts in the village of Thabai, just a few days before Kenyan independence in December, 1963 (Uhuru Day). However, things do not seem to be too happy. Mugo is generally recognised as being the hero of independence of the village and has been selected as a speaker for Uhuru Day, where the heroes of the Mau Mau movement will be honoured, in particular Kihika, who was betrayed and hanged. Mugo remains a solitary and moody person and we eventually learn why – it was he who betrayed Kihika. Another key character is Mumbi, Kihika’s sister. She had been courted by both Gikonyo and by Karanja. She married Gikonyo. However, he had been arrested and imprisoned but in his eagerness to return to his wife, betrays his oath and returns home, only to find Mumbi nursing a child which cannot possibly be his. The child is actually Karanja’s. Karanja was a home-guard chief and Mumbi had only succumbed to him when she heard Gikonyo had been released. As a result, Gikonyo ignores her and focuses on money-making activities. Meanwhile, Karanja fears for his life, not least because he is suspected of having betrayed Kihika. There is also a white district officer, John Thompson, who is having trouble talking to his wife, Margery, particularly about an incident involving a woman colleague’s treatment of Karanja.

Ngugi fills in the background of many of these episodes later. We learn why Mugo is recognised as a hero and why he betrayed Kihika. We learn about John Thompson’s feeling of failure as an administrator and how he was involved in the Kihika betrayal. And we learn about the background to the behaviour of Mumbi, Karanja and Gikonyo. Ngugi’s final section brings us to the denouement, specifically what happens at the Uhuru Day celebrations, particularly as regards Mugo and Karanja. It ends up with everyone rethinking their respective roles and how they saw the others, a new beginning, if you will, for Uhuru.

This book is very different from its predecessor. There is no one main character, but several. Though they interact, they each have their own issues and deal with them in different ways. And, though the African/British divide is still there, it is not key. Rather the key theme, which is certainly suggested in his two previous novels, is how the past affects the main characters and how they can move on to a new future. It is clearly a much superior novel to its rather simple predecessors and has become a classic of African literature.

Publishing history

First published 1967 by Heinemann