A Grain of Wheat

A Grain of Wheat Quotes and Analysis

Now he lay under the blanket and remained unsettled fearing, as in the dream, that a drop of cold water would suddenly pierce his eyes.

Narrator, 1

This drop of water is much more than meets the eye (pun intended!). It is ominous, and it is foreshadowing: it looks ahead to the rain on Uhuru when Mugo confesses his deep secret. It is cold and dirty, uncomfortable and shocking like betrayal, guilt, and secrets. It returns at the very end of the novel, actually ending up in Mugo's eye this time and resembling tears. It is inescapable and inexorable, just like one's fate.

As long as he did not know the truth, he could interpret the story in the only way that gave him hope: the coming of black rule would not mean, could never mean the end of white power.

Narrator, 38

Here Karanja ruminates on his possible place after Thompson leaves and white power fades away. As he is a traitor to his own people, his predilection to imagining continued white dominance makes sense; moreover, it is sadly prescient. After Uhuru, Kenya's move into a post-colonial future is all but stable and peaceful. While whites may no longer be officially in power, the capitalist structures laid down during colonialism will endure, and the societal divisions caused by turning some Kenyans against others in the quest for a modicum of financial and physical security leads to disunity and discord. We may disagree with Karanja and hope that his wishes will not be realized, but his selfish desires become reality all the same.

A man came into the office yesterday. He told me about a wanted terrorist leader. From the beginning, I was convinced the man was lying, was really acting, perhaps to trap me or hide his own part in the movement. He seemed to be laughing at me. Remember the African is a born actor, that's why he finds it so easy to lie. Suddenly I spat in his face. I don't know why, but I did it.

Thompson, 55

Thompson recounts the moment when Mugo comes to him and betrays Kihika, although the reader doesn’t know this yet; the story only becomes clear towards the end of the novel. Ngugi ably depicts the differing perspectives of the two men in this encounter, showing the tremendous gulf between them. Thompson is afflicted by prejudice, full of European assumptions regarding the superiority of the white race to the childlike, sly, and savage African. He only sees what he wants to see and can only act in a condescending, cruel manner. Mugo is not acting, of course: this is a profoundly serious moment for him, and his internal struggle is absolutely clear to the reader. His roiling emotions are real, and he does not wear a mask at all. It seems impossible for the white man and Kenyan to understand each other, as colonialism has poisoned the relationship.

They talked of suffering under the whiteman and illustrated this with episodes which revealed their deep love of Kenya. In between each speaker, people would sing: Kenya is the country of black people. These speeches were summed up by one detainee who said: 'What thing is greater than love for one's country? The love that I have for Kenya kept me alive and made me endure everything.'

Narrator, 64

The Mau Mau are controversial in Kenya even to this day. Kenyatta denounced them as "scum" after he was in power, the British government sought to portray them as uneducated terrorists, and some Kenyans objected to their violent behavior and persecution of "loyalists." However, this passage of the novel provides insight into just why the Mau Mau was successful for a time, why they endured, and what they meant to Kenya in a time of imperial oppression. The Mau Mau celebrated Kenya and the Kenyan people; they used violence because it was their only option. They celebrated community, history, culture, and self-determination. They provided what was often the only bulwark against the complete subjugation of the people, and a sense of meaning in a time of hopelessness. Ngugi isn't entirely uncritical of their tactics, but he gets to the heart of what made the Mau Mau respected by so many Kenyans then and now.

I die for you, you die for me, we become a sacrifice for one another. So I can say that you, Karanja, are Christ. I am Christ. Everybody who takes the Oath of Unity to change things in Kenya is Christ.

Kihika, 93

Christianity is woven throughout the text. Kihika is Christian and uses the language of that religion here to stress sacrifice and how one's shedding of blood leads to redemption for all. Mugo also thinks in terms of Christianity, believing himself to be a savior of the people. Multiple allusions to Old Testament figures like Esther and Abraham populate the text. The Reverend at Uhuru uses prayer to God as a centerpiece. While the religion offers hope and a useful framework for conceiving of struggle and salvation, Christianity is a European import, and was one of the tools by which Europeans solidified their grasp on African soil; this makes for a complex and occasionally problematic situation.

Life had no colour. It was one endless blank sheet, so flat. There were no valleys, streams, no trees–nothing.

Gikonyo, 112

Gikonyo and Mugo conceive of hell in terms of nature and time. For the former, a blank, flat, and featureless landscape of a life, like the one he had at the desert detention camp and the emotionally empty one he has now, are utterly repulsive. For Mugo, the repetitive soullessness of life at camp has extended into his post-detention life, and the similarity of one day to another is stultifying. Ngugi associates a meaningful life with the verdant Kenyan forest and fields, a life full of color and vibrancy and variety. Both Gikonyo and Mugo must find ways to break out of their monotonous and bleak existences; Gikonyo will do this through returning to Mumbi, and Mugo will do this through public confession.

Something gave way in my heart, something in me cracked when I saw our home fall.

Mumbi, 135

Here Mumbi recounts how the colonial forces burned down her and Wangari's huts, destroying their precious shelters and reinforcing the lack of security and comfort Kenyans faced under the Emergency. The character's huts are precious to them; they contain their material possessions, and they are where they have a modicum of autonomy. Mugo himself states that his hut was an extension of himself: it was his whole world. Since Kenyans under colonialism do not have much power in the wider world, their huts are their own spheres of influence. It is thus understandable that Mumbi and Wangari are so distressed, and that Mumbi works so assiduously to construct another one.

How was it that Mumbi's story had cracked open his dulled inside and released imprisoned thoughts and feelings?

Mugo, 167

Mugo spends much of the novel concerned with his own thoughts and his own survival. He does not want to go to Uhuru at first because it would be difficult for him, but then he decides that speaking there would bring him satisfaction because he would get to be a savior to his people. This, of course, would come at the expense of honesty and authenticity: Mugo would be selfishly concealing his own deleterious role to play in Kihika's death, and Karanja may have even been put to death in his stead. However, Mumbi's painful, open, and emotional story of her life changes this. Her use of her voice, her own personal narrative, and her own "confession" allows Mugo to see the value in that very thing for himself. Only through honesty and authenticity can the community endure and grow stronger. This is what Mugo reluctantly learns from Mumbi.

He felt low. He had been like that for two days now. He could not understand it.

Koina, 208

Koina, while a relatively minor character, gives voice here to the immense weight one's guilt has on one's psyche, even if the actions taken are somewhat understandable. It makes sense that in the context of colonialism, when faced with the condescending ignorance of a Dr. Lynd, one may be pushed to the breaking point where only violence is possible. However, Koina's killing of her dog, whom he liked, and the suggested rape of Dr. Lynd (only present in the extended text) are difficult to endorse. These actions are personal, are uncomfortably cruel. Mau Mau violence is complicated, then, for while it is understandable it may not always be justifiable. This is seen in the way Ngugi depicts Koina's guilt, which crushes his spirit and haunts him.

Something went wrong...It was not what I had waited for, these many years.

Wambui, 237

The end of the novel is unsettling, mixed in its message. There may be the reconciliation of Gikonyo and Mumbi, the departure of Thompson, and the confession of Mugo, but as Wambui indicates here, there is also something wrong. Things did not turn out as they had hoped. There is something confusing in the air, something that alludes to a future of uncertainty and conflict and suffering. Of course, Ngugi was writing this novel many decades after Uhuru and was making a comment on how post-independence Kenya had many tumultuous political, economic, and social issues and the legacy of colonialism and the presence of capitalism would not be easy to negotiate. Wambui's words are sad for the reader, since we know she is right to feel uneasy and disappointed.