Kenya was colonized by the British in 1895 and was not independent until 1963. In the subsequent years the country struggled to negotiate a post-colonial reality in which the divisions caused by political and economic oppression, the Emergency, violence, racism, exploitation of rivalry and competition amongst Kenyans, and psychological trauma endured and deepened. Even though Ngugi does not take his readers into the days after colonialism, he hints at the difficulties the characters will face. Thompson's claim that Africa will always need Europe may not be true in the sense he wishes it to be, but it is prescient in that Europe's involvement in the region can never fully be erased. Finally, on a more personal level, all of the characters' lives are affected by colonialism, whether they are in detention camps or the Movement or losing their homes and land or trying to repair their fractured families or dealing with paternalistic colonial administrators. Colonialism is an inescapable reality, even after it is ostensibly over.
Individuals and the Community
The novel's narrative focuses on the individual, with time given to Mugo, Mumbi, Gikonyo, Karanja, Kihika, and even minor characters like General R and Koina. Individual stories are significant, especially Mumbi's, as they facilitate greater growth for the self and for the community. As for that community, it is also Ngugi's focus, and one that has attracted a large amount of critical writing discussing whether or not he successfully managed to convey the struggles of the masses at the same time as he relayed the individuals' tales. Indeed, some of the individual characters seem as if they are thinly drawn in order to promote the understanding that they are merely part of the Kenyan people as a whole, and when individuals do make choices for themselves those choices reverberate back through the community.
Betrayal, Guilt, and Redemption
Almost every character feels guilty about something in this novel, and those sources of guilt tend to derive from a betrayal of another character or of the Kenyan people. Mumbi has betrayed her husband, Karanja has betrayed his people by becoming a homeguard and Chief, and Mugo has betrayed Kihika. These characters manifest their guilt differently, with both Mumbi and Mugo eventually taking the path toward redemption while Karanja can only choose that of exile. Mumbi and Mugo's redemption comes from open confession of their sin and a willingness to accept the consequences. Mumbi's also comes from being true to herself and regaining control of her life; she will be able to live out those choices, whereas Mugo's fate is death. Nevertheless, Mugo's death offers redemption to the community as a whole.
Many of the characters in this novel do reprehensible things: they betray loved ones and their community and the Movement, they commit acts of violence, they engage in selfishness and bitterness, and they compete and fight with each other. Some characters ask for forgiveness (either directly or subtly), while others do not. Forgiveness is important on both a personal and communal level, and those levels are related to each other. Individuals must work to forgive those who have wronged them in order to work together to build a stronger community. In the vacuum left by British rule, it will be more important than ever for Kenyans to trust each other, work together, and create a mutually sustaining and fulfilling community. Mugo's public confession, an act of asking for forgiveness, is significant, and indicates a model for the future.
Power of Nature
Kenya has extremes of temperature, weather, and landscape; nature has a thematic as well as literal importance in the novel. Fertile land of one's own (the shambas) signifies autonomy, independence, and fulfillment. The detention camp located in the hot, barren sandy desert signifies monotony, despair, emptiness, and estrangement. The sun can be warm and life-giving or burning-hot and oppressive. Rain can be cleansing or a gloomy omen of troubles to come. The forest is a place to hide safely as well as a place to commit acts of violence. Digging in the earth can be sustaining or it can be traumatic (the trench). Ngugi's weaving of nature into his story is not surprising given its prominence in Kenya's history and society, and also serves as a useful literary tool to suggest, signify, and convey.
Violence is an undeniable part of the Movement. Many characters carry out violent acts, speak positively of violence, or ignore it when it happens in front of them. Others decry and excoriate it, but usually this happens when the British or their African loyalists do it. Ngugi's view of violence is thus complex. He understands that violence is necessary to the Mau Mau because occasionally it is the only tool they have in their quest to throw off their colonial oppressor. That oppressor uses violence with abandon, so why should the oppressed not rise up and use violence for their own ends? Ngugi isn't unequivocally supportive of violence, though, and several of his scenes (such as the scene between Koina and Dr. Lynd) make the reader uncomfortable and hint at some of the problems of using violence in promoting human rights.
Silence and Confession
Silence in this novel rarely leads to redemption, whereas confession does. Mugo's silence about his role in Kihika's death is poisonous, disturbing his own psyche and polluting the health of the community. It is mistaken for courage and helps create the mythic reputation he has in the village, but it is false. Silence can also lead to death, as it does for the deaf and mute Gitogo. Real healing only happens when someone speaks up, confesses, and reveals secrets. Mumbi's story and the resulting confession from Mugo tear away the facade of unity and allow a more authentic (albeit painful) reality to emerge; this reality allows for an honest assessment of the community's divisions and needs, and facilitates a move toward a better future.
A Grain of Wheat Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for A Grain of Wheat is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.