A Grain of Wheat – Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

I have recently been very lax on my reading; it has taken me over a three weeks to finish this novel, and not because it was difficult to read, or boring, or any of the other reasons I normally take ages to read a book. A Grain of Wheat is actually a fantastic novel which, when I found time to read, I truly enjoyed. I read this novel as I once read an amazingly interesting article (that now I am unable to track down) that mentioned Thiong’o as a must-read author. Wa Thiong’o is a Kenyan writer who has served time as a political prisoner, after producing a controversial play during the time of Kenya’s authoritarian regime, wa Thiong’o has studied in the UK and lived in exile in the USA.

A Grain of WheatA Grain of Wheat is a novel set in the last days of British rule in Kenya, and the Mau Mau uprising. As ‘Uhuru’, Kenyan independence day, approaches a number of characters interact in a number of intertwining stories about the people of a single village. Most of the story revolves around the life of Mugo, who has been on hunger strike in a concentration camp, and has resisted the British in various ways, throughout the novel Mugo is seen as a hero of the village. The main plot of the novel concerns the betrayal of a resistance fighter, Kihika, to the British and the mystery surrounding who actually betrayed him. Kihika was hanged by the British and as revenge the resistance leaders wish to hang the traitor.

Meanwhile there is a subplot involving the Kihika’s sister, Mumbi. Her husband Gikonyo, the village carpenter, has been in prison for a number of years but returns to the village to take her back into his life. On his return he finds that she has had a child to the new British-appointed chief of the village, Karanja, who is later suspected by the villagers to be the traitor. Gikonyo and Mumbi are unable to reconnect due to her relationship with Karanja, and this is a key aspect of the humanity of this novel. Through these personal relationships he portrays human suffering, and human strength.

Wa Thiong’o’s novel is a novel which treats a significant period of time in a hugely human way. I feel the novel cannot be read without an understanding of the contemporary Kenyan history; it was published just four years after independence. The village wa Thiong’o presents to us is a microcosm of pre-independence Kenya; the betrayals rife during the final years of British rule and the factions within Kenya’s independence movement. We as readers eventually come to terms with the betrayals that have taken place as we understand that they are necessary for the survival of the characters. This novel is immensely powerful as both a historical novel, but also as a human novel; how we as humans cope with adversity and change.


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