Mugo lies in his bed, dreaming. He thinks a drop of water is slowly preparing to fall into his eye. This dream haunts him as he wakes up and makes breakfast. He muses on how one day is just like the other, both in detention camp at Maguita and outside.
He walks toward his strip of land and encounters Warui, a village elder who had given him the plot of land after his was taken during his detention.
The village of Thabai is large, and has an “unbroken orderliness” (3).
Mugo also encounters Githua, who seems very enthusiastic to see him until he bitterly comments on how the Emergency destroyed them all. Mugo continues, wondering what is wrong with him. He sees the hut of the old woman who once had a son named Gitogo. Gitogo was deaf and dumb but had many lovers. One day white men thinking they had got another Mau Mau terrorist killed Gitogo. When Mugo walks by the hut he thinks the old woman with the wrinkled face and eyes that occasionally flashed with life would recognize him. One evening he had felt bad for her loneliness and brought supplies to her hut, but then became afraid she would touch him and ran away, revolted. Today he wonders if he ought to talk to her.
In his shamba (his land) he feels hollow. He thinks about how people behaved strangely to him today. He reflects on his childhood and how a distant aunt raised him. He hated this drunken aunt and wished he could kill her. After she died of ill health and overdrinking, he actually realized he missed her.
After working the soil he returns home. Warui, a woman named Wambui, and a man named Gikonyo arrive at his hut but he is not happy to see them.
Almost everyone is a member of the Movement, which has existed for a long time and evolved and changed over the years. Its origins were when the white man came, claiming he was from the Lord. The white man built a house of God and talked of a woman on the throne in his homeland. Here there were women in charge once too, including a beautiful one who ruled in Muranga but was removed once she danced naked and inflamed the lust of men beyond all bounds.
Some people were converted and spoke the language of the whites. The whites gathered more land and built permanent buildings. There was resistance, and Waiyaki was killed; it was then that people saw “Waiyaki’s blood contained within it a seed, a grain, which gave birth to a movement whose main strength thereafter sprang from a bond” (12). Harry Thuku also worked to grow the Movement, but he was thrown in jail. Warui remembered leading a processional to free him in 1923 in which the police fired on the crowd. The revolt failed, but was revived when “the man with the flaming eyes came to the scene” (13).
Mugo had attended a meeting once because he heard Kenyatta would be there. He never showed up but other people spoke. One man, Kihika, was viewed as a hero since he spoke of the need for sacrifice. Mugo wondered how a boy could say these things, and felt revolted by him. Terror and hatred filled him.
Kihika did what he said, though, leading a capture of Mahee, the police garrison in the White Highlands were men and women waited before being taken to concentration camps. Kihika and his men broke in and released the prisoners. He was then known as the “terror of the whiteman” (16) and was wanted dead or alive. He was captured alone and tortured before he was hanged in public. The Movement continued to grow.
Gikonyo is married to Mumbi, one of the most beautiful women in the village. He has done very well for himself and is respected and admired.
Warui speaks of the dance, of the need to participate and to honor. Wambui is not that old but she does not have all her teeth. People speak of the time when she fooled the policeman and hid something near her groin.
Mugo is nervous and asks what they want. A knock sounds, and it is two Freedom Fighters, General R. and Koina. They enter and Mugo starts to feel strange. They speak of sacrifice and sing, and then silence descends. Warui insults the young people of today for not being able to handle a cold, but the freedom fighters think privately that they have spent years in the jungle and it was not easy.
They speak of Kihika, and the fact that maybe there was a trap laid for him; he always took his Bible places but not that day. General R. adds that Kihika was never the same after he killed DO Robson. He turns to Mugo and states that he thinks he is the one that sheltered Kihika that night, and asks if he said anything about anyone he was to meet. Mugo shakes his head.
Gikonyo says that the reason they came to Mugo’s is that they are planning a ceremony to honor the dead and the Movement. They want Mugo to give a speech at Uhuru, the independence celebration, since he helped Kihika.
Mugo is silent. He muses on how it is hard for him to make decisions and how he is always carried along. Gikonyo says he knows Mugo wants to be left alone but that it is important.
After they leave, Mugo wonders what they actually want.
Koina and General R. speculate about Mugo after they walk away. Koina thinks of how he and the General don’t actually have that much in common, as he never rose very high but the general did. They talk about the possible guilt of a man named Karanja in relation to Kihika’s betrayal.
The other three also walk away, Gikonyo saying detention is difficult. He walks home, but becomes scared when he thinks he hears footprints behind him. He goes back to Mugo’s place to talk, but thinks better of it and goes home.
Mumbi is waiting up for him and prepares him food, but he is curt with her. She asks about Mugo and he tells her he does not share secrets with her. She humbly says she knows she is a nobody. Before she goes to bed she asks if he wants to talk about the child, but he is bitter and says there is nothing to talk about. She goes to her room and he goes to his.
Some time ago a European named Mr. Rogers, an agricultural officer, thought opening a Forestry Research Station in the forest of Githima would be useful. No one liked the idea at the time, but it later came to fruition after his death by being hit by a train. Legend says the train will always claim a human sacrifice, and this year it was Dr. Henry Van Dyke, a fat and dissolute meteorological official.
Karanja remembers Van Dyke with disgust; the man used to touch the Africans’ buttocks and laugh. He felt sick when he heard of his death, though.
He is working in the Library at the Research Station when Mwaura enters. They quarrel and insult each other, and Mwaura tells him Thompson wants to see him. Karanja obeys and goes to Thompson, who tells him to drop a letter off with his wife. Thompson loves to write letters of all sorts.
Karanja is annoyed, hoping Thompson will respond to his inquiry for a pay increase. He thinks of how Thompson and Mrs. Dickinson, the young librarian who lived with her boyfriend, use him as their errand boy. He feels like his standing with other Africans is poor, and he is resentful.
He arrives at the house of Margery Thompson. She invites him in, intrigued by the way he avoids looking at her breasts. She remembers once when Van Dyke seduced her. Karanja wishes he could ask her if she and her husband are really going back to England as he’d heard.
The two sit down and Margery asks her favorite question of how many wives he had; she tries to ask all African men. He says he is not married and only loved one woman. He hurriedly departs and heads to the eating-house at Githima.
He finds Mwaura and apologizes for their altercation earlier.
Thompson is tall with leathery skin. He works during lunch and picks up the paper, reading of Uhuru preparations. He is sad because of the recent internal self-government in Kenya and that the Duke’s flag will not rise again on this shore.
Outside he passes by the laboratories. He sees Dr. Lynd, a plant pathologist, and a group of Africans under the trees. It is very quiet and a feeling of tension suffuses the air. Suddenly he sees Lynd’s dog rush toward the Africans and attack one. Dr. Lynd rushes out just as one prepares to throw a stone at the dog. She admonishes him until Thompson walks over. All he can say in Swahili is that he would handle it, and immediately feels like it was too much of an apology.
He sits with Lynd and tells her that the dog attacked the boy. He remembers how once he had run over a dog on accident and felt terrible. Lynd begins to cry and states how much she hates the Africans. She tells a story of living alone during the time of the Emergency and enjoying her life. She felt she never treated her houseboy poorly, and was not much involved in politics. One night, men came and tied her up, and her houseboy participated. They murdered her dog right in front of her and she could not understand why.
Thompson is revolted by her voice and her presence, and they walk away from each other. He sees the men’s eyes on him, stubborn, silent, and hostile. He has always had a good reputation for working with the “natives,” and he assuredly had a good career ahead of him. Unfortunately, at Rira a hunger strike and the death of detainees occurred, and since he was the man in charge he was shipped off here as a veritable exile.
Karanja is waiting for him and thanks him. Thompson is uncomfortable and says again that he will take care of it. He then feels absurd for apologizing to an African.
A Grain of Wheat is indelibly infused with the realities of colonialism and its impact on the economy, society, and psyche of Kenya at the midpoint of the 20th century. Taking place on the eve of Uhuru, independence from Britain, it mixes historical figures like Jomo Kenyatta and Harry Thuku with fictional ones in order to create a novel that resonates in a profound and unsettling ways. It moves between past and present and the individual and the communal in order to probe the difficulties Kenyans do and will face as they contemplate life beyond colonialism.
A bit of background may be necessary to fully understand the novel (see “Other” section of this guide as well). The British colonized the area in the late 1880s during the infamous “Scramble for Africa,” growing rich off the region’s cotton, reducing its people to squatters, and instituting oppressive colonial government. The Mau Mau uprising, in which freedom fighters led raids on white settlers’ and “disloyal” Africans’ land, led to the enactment of a State of Emergency lasting from 1952-1960. During this time Jomo Kenyatta, the beloved leader of the Kenya African Union, lost at a trial in which he was accused of being a Mau Mau terrorist, and was thrown into jail. He remained there until 1961, and then became prime minister in 1963 when Kenya received its independence. The Emergency saw many thousands of Kenyans thrown into concentration camps where they suffered from miserable conditions and often died. The Mau Mau’s violent tactics and impassioned rhetoric incurred hostility from other Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in Kenya and those deleteriously affected by British land policies.
Ngugi’s depiction of the Movement has garnered a lot of critical interest. He clearly and succinctly lays out the history of the whiteman’s incursion into the country, beginning with how Christians and their “faith foreign to the ways of the land” (11) eventually led to the people’s realization that “the whiteman had imperceptibly acquired more land to meet the growing needs of his position” (11). When Kenyans became concerned and rose up to fight, “The whiteman with bamboo poles that vomited fire and smoke, hit back; his menacing laughter echoing in the hearts of the people” (12). The white characters in the text are loathsome. Henry Van Dyke is a drunken fool who molests the Africans. Margery is condescending and incapable of viewing the Africans as actual human beings; they are only visible in terms of her prurient sexual interest in them and her delight in their “otherness.” DO Robson is cruel beyond measure, and DO Thompson, the main white character, is self-interested, paternalistic, and prejudiced. Dr. Lynd is grotesque as well, priding herself on being kind to the Africans but still manifesting a tremendous ignorance and condescension.
The African characters, by contrast, run the gamut in terms of likeability but are fully human, their motivations mostly comprehensible and relatable. As critic David Maughan-Brown writes, “the recourse to violence [in the novel] is endorsed here without qualification.” Harry Thuku and Kenyatta are Christ-like figures, as is Kihika. Even though Mugo also sees himself as a savior, which somewhat dilutes the “force of the Messiah motif,” overall the effect is to “credit Kihika and the movement as a whole with…[a] moral purpose.” This does not mean that Ngugi is unequivocal in his embrace of the characters’ actions. Maughan-Brown notes that even the Mau Mau leaders “are seen to be conceiving of their actions more in terms of the destruction of individual life than in terms of any political cause which could possibly justify the taking of that life.”
Finally, let us briefly look at Mugo. He is beloved by the village, but he seems an unlikely hero. He is reticent, introverted, nervous, and he seems to possess a secret (which we learn later). He is suspicious of everyone’s intentions regarding him, but his eccentric behavior only serves to endear him to the people, who so desperately need a hero in Kihika’s absence. As Abdulrazak Gurnah writes in his introduction to the book, “[Mugo] is, very deliberately, on the edges of the community, because one of the questions the novel is interested in asking is, what are our responsibilities to ourselves and what are our responsibilities to our community?” We will return to this in later analyses.