Ngugi tells Kenya village political life with deep irony, betrayal

A Grain of Wheat is a political and historical novel which portrays the Gikuyu and Mau Mau struggle against political and social disorder of imperialism and exploitation in all its evil manifestation.

A Grain of Wheat is a political and historical novel which portrays the Gikuyu and Mau Mau struggle against political and social disorder of imperialism and exploitation in all its evil manifestation.

Ngugi wa Thiongo was born in Kamiriithu, near Limuru in Kiambu district in Kenya. Ngugi was born on January 5th 1938.  A Grain of Wheat was published in 1967.

Ngugi, by using the title A Grain of Wheat alludes to the Bible with the belief that something small like a grain of wheat can give fruitful results in form of high yields. It is the people’s sacrifice of a few grains and that those grains should die, rot and bear new fruits (St. John 12:24).

Ngugi’s idea of heroism is what makes A Grain of Wheat a political and historical novel. It is a celebration of Kenya’s heroes like Waiyaki wa Hinga, Harry Thuku and Jomo Kenyatta, the founding father of Kenya. After the death of Waiyaki, political parties were born and this in effect strengthened the liberation struggle.

Kihika, Karanja, Mugo, Gikonyo and Mumbi are friends bound by a common cause to either join the struggle for Uhuru or support the status quo. Gikonyo is arrested and detained without trial for supporting the rebels. Karanja decides to support the colonial masters while Kihika joins the freedom fighters in the forest. Mumbi, who has only just married Gikonyo, stays to look after the family; she is separated from Gikonyo and after the six years of absence he finds her with Karanja’s child. The quiet and restless Mugo prefers to take a neutral position.

But amid the love and enmity from love as Kikonyo and Karanja fought for Mumbi’s affection, the village ‘hero’ is betrayed by someone he sneaked to meet one night. Kihika, Mumbi’s brother, had cut his teeth as the most daring Mau Mau fighter emulating the legendary Waiyaki.

The deep irony of the book then is played as we see the entire village of Kikuyuni, ridges rising north from the Nairobi area towards Mount Kenya, Kirinyaga to Girinyaga all revere Mugo for supposedly carrying out a daring act of valour to save Kihika’s heartbroken pregnant girlfriend who was being flogged in a trench during the emergency and forced detention in camps.

Mugo is sent to prison, tortured and returns to be worshiped by all the villages. But he is living with a badly furrowed conscience that no one can comprehend. Everyone thinks he is just too good, like Christ, that he is withdrawn and humble.

Amid all this, the village is searching for whoever betrayed Kihika, who was captured while on a rendezvous with someone in the village. Who is he?

The climax of the novel comes on the eve of Kenya’s independence when all villages organise celebrations. The ‘hero’, Mugo, is asked to speak on behalf of freedom fighters, to be the voice of all those who had suffered during the brutal British rule but he refuses until the last moment when he reveals the truth. But does anyone believe Mugo? Did he really ‘do it’?

The reviewer is an educationist and publisher

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