A Grain of Wheat

A Grain of Wheat Summary and Analysis of Chapters 5 and 6


Chapter 5

Thompson tries to think about the future back in Britain, but does not want to think about an African occupying his orderly office and sitting in his chair. He starts to feel like he is easily replaceable and will never leave a mark.

Margery wonders when it was that she and her husband started to live separate lives. She could not conjure the real sympathy of a wife even during the Rira debacle. She does enjoy Africa, though, because it was there that she felt a sense of freedom and release. She remembers how her affair started with Van Dyke, how exciting it was. It became unhappy, though, and she was jealous of other women he talked to.

She wished she could confess because her husband meant something to her, but Van Dyke exercised a power over her. When the train claimed him, she felt relieved but then restless. She wishes her husband would talk about Uhuru now, and touches the lobe of his ear with her lips, hoping to break their relationship open a bit.

Thompson had come to Africa during WWII, then returned to Oxford. There he studied the development of the British Empire and met two African students. He marveled at how much they loved Britain and how educated they were. He did not see the irrationality and superstition of the Oriental race in them. He began to write a treatise called “Prospero in Africa” about how being English was a state of mind. In it, he argued against the French attempt to assimilate only the educated. This was when he met Margery, who was attracted to his brilliance.

Now he looks back over his notes in the work, seeing comments about how the Negro is a child and cannot advance without authority; he is also an actor and a liar. Thompson spends time wondering what would have happened if he had actually risen, now that Uhuru is coming. This is why he resigned: so he could get away before it happened.

He thinks that Margery might help exorcize his demons, and he steps into the room. She is asleep and he is relieved. He lies down but cannot sleep.

Chapter 6

Gikonyo remembers when he returned from the detention camp. He became known for his honesty, his scrupulousness, his fair treatment of rich and poor. He and his wife and mother would buy grain and then resell it for a profit, and he eventually became wealthy. People respected him and he was a moral to village children.

Along with five other men he decided to buy the farm of Richard Burton, a white man who had settled in Kenya but recently decided to leave because power was returning to black hands. Gikonyo and his affiliates could only raise half the amount in cash, which Burton required, so he planned to visit the MP to see if he could get a loan from the bank.

He travels to Nairobi to see the MP. The city is excited, flags hoisted to celebrate the coming of Uhuru. He does wonder why there are no African shops in the central business area of the city, and hopes that someday, African businessmen like him can take over.

At the MP’s office people with various problems complain and wait for the MP. He arrives late and begins to see them, his demeanor more like a father or headmaster. Gikonyo is hopeful, thinking of possibilities in his future.

He enters the MP’s office, and the man tells him it is a difficult loan to get but he is working on it. Gikonyo is disappointed, especially when the MP says he will contact Gikonyo when he can. He asks if he really ought to expect anything, and the MP, alarmed, says it just takes time. Before he leaves the MP tells him he is too busy to come to Uhuru celebrations in the district.

Mugo’s popularity in the village stems from his eccentricity and his strong build. However, he is unhappy with it and wishes the previous night had been a dream. He does not know why people want him to participate and give a speech.

He wonders if he ought to go to his shamba, but decides against it.

He remembers the only speech he ever made. It was when he came back from detention and Thabai was introducing returning detainees. The Emergency had just ended but Kenyatta and his five compatriots were still in jail. Party leaders spoke about suffering and the Movement, adding songs as well. Mugo was pushed forward and spoke in a dry voice about how everyone in detention longed to come home. His own voice began to disgust him, though, as he reflected on how he had no one to come home to. He stopped mid-sentence and stepped down. People thought he was so moved he could not continue, and admired him.

He muses on how absurd it is that he was asked to give a speech when he was the one that betrayed Kihika.

Gikonyo arrives at Mugo’s hut and awkwardly speaks with him. He tells Mugo how brave he was in the camp and how he is ashamed that at one point he would have betrayed his own country because he wanted to come home so badly. He tells Mugo he has a great heart. Mugo asks if waiting was hard. Gikonyo responds with comments about the joy and possibility of life, but then frankly admits that even though he dreamt of Mumbi, when he came home he found she was not the same and he was bitterly disappointed.


In these two interstitial chapters, we get both unsurprising and surprising information. What is unsurprising is Thompson’s antipathy toward the Africans, his paternalistic worldview, and his desire to leave Africa before he has to suffer the indignity of seeing an African in power. This is unsurprising given that most whites in Africa during the age of imperialism felt exactly the same way. Thompson is not a particularly memorable or finely drawn character, then, but he doesn’t have to be: he is a veritable stand-in for most administrative whites in the colonies.

What is surprising (mostly) is the revelation that Mugo betrayed Kihika. Up until this point, Mugo’s reticence and awkwardness and our knowledge of his disorganized thoughts did not necessarily indicate that he was responsible for turning Kihika over to the authorities (he will reveal more about why he does this later in the novel). The dramatic irony is manifest, as the reader will possess this knowledge before most other characters in the book do. These other characters will plead for Mugo to speak at Uhuru and consider him a courageous hero at the same time as he is suffering from the knowledge of what he did.

One of the most conspicuous aspects of the criticism on this novel is its similarities with and departures from Joseph Conrad’s novel Under Western Eyes (1911). Ngugi was a Conrad scholar and it is no surprise that some of the Polish author’s themes and narrative elements were attractive to Ngugi. However, the main difference of their views on colonialism divided them irrevocably, and some critics have found fault with Ngugi for relying on Conrad because it took away from his ability to fully assert the value of a collective revolutionary movement. The critic Byron Caminero-Santangelo doesn't think it is that simple, though, and sees Ngugi’s use of the Conrad novel as a model as part of his inventiveness and originality. What makes Grain so compelling is how he appropriates what he wants from Conrad and then “[transforms] the political significance of Conrad’s story by altering its representations of national and racial identity, collective and individual progress, and revolution.”

Caminero-Santangelo notes the similarities between the main characters of Razumov and Mugo in their lack of families, reticence, private aspirations, betrayal of revolutionary heroes who confided in them, friendship with the hero’s sister, and eventual public confession. The worldviews are what is different, though, and Conrad’s is antithetical to Ngugi’s. Conrad’s is entrenched in nationalist and imperialist conceptions of Britain and its geopolitical position. There is a divide between Britain and Russia in the novel, with Russia’s national character seen as flawed and the work possessing a tie to “imperial conceptions of ‘progress’ because of its representation of national character.” The territories and people of Russia can only progress and evolve if they become like Britain.

In Ngugi’s work, however, there is a challenge to the idea of a “primordial national essence or culture.” The novel seeks to reveal the danger of British decolonization because the colonial and capitalist structures and ideology will remain and continue to shape life for Kenyans. During colonialism the only bond that mattered was between the colonizer and the colonized, and other bonds were suppressed. Mugo betrays Kihika in this milieu, and Gikonyo’s embrace of capitalist ideology as an entrepreneur is equally problematic because he exploits his own people and perpetuates the capitalist worldview. Caminero-Santangelo observes, “If Kenya accepts him as its hero, as a representative of his values, the result will be a society structured around self-interest.” Presciently, Ngugi writes that the town already views him as a positive moral lesson. Furthermore, the MP exemplifies this division of leader from people.

So what, then, is the solution? The novel, according to Caminero-Santangelo, suggests that “a truly postcolonial Kenyan nation necessitates the forging of a collective culture and consciousness through a common and evolving history, as defined by the interrelated histories of its members.” Thus, storytelling and confession are incredibly important and can enact change. Mugo’s eventual confession is an act of self-sacrifice that will be good for he community. He transforms his memories and stories of his people into “a new kind of hero embodying new values”. Because there are and will be so many false heroes, Kenya needs Mugo as a real hero. The personal self must be conflated with the collective self by the sharing of stories and secrets. This brings about reconciliation and understanding. Overall, the novel wants to represent the forging of a Kenyan culture that certainly will both integrate and transform elements of European culture (for example, Kihika uses Christianity in a way that works for him and the Movement). The oral and the written are interwoven, the western joins the Kenyan, revolutionary culture is viewed not as static but as constantly evolving. Conrad’s text is thus used for Ngugi’s own ends, and his novel “suggest that the cultures of the ‘third world’ have the strength to utilize and transform the culture of the ‘first world’.”