Following the shocked response in Britain to the author’s two first novels, Weep Not, Child (1964) and The River Between (1965), and in response to what he considered distorting revisions, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (then writing as James Ngugi) abandoned his master’s thesis on Caribbean literature at the University of Leeds, England, and returned to his homeland, Kenya. With only his baccalaureate from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, Ngugi became the first African lecturer for the English Department at the University of Nairobi. He then worked to change the name (and focus) of his department from English to Literature, eventually accomplishing this goal the year following the publication of his third novel, A Grain of Wheat, in 1967. Ngugi would write only one more novel in English, Petals of Blood (1977), before abandoning this language to write in his mother tongue of Gikuyu, in his own pursuit of decolonized literary expression and dissemination.
A Grain of Wheat is a spiraling, multivoiced account of the years of Kenya’s state of emergency (1952–60) during its struggle for independence from Britain (which was achieved on December 12, 1963). Villagers caught up in rebuilding their lives and pursuing late and ill-defined justice in the bitter aftermath of their entangled pursuit of Uhuru (liberation or freedom) reflect on their poisonous memories of jealousy, meanspiritedness, betrayal, and disillusionment. Regarding the legacy of the fictional martyr Waiyaki, the opening of the book gives the biblical explanation of sacrifice: “That which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die” (1 Corinthians 15:36). This quote has led to various optimistic efforts to read the book’s multilayered betrayals, guilts, and secrets in a positive light.
The heroic hermit Mugo is burdened by the festering secret that his envy of the idealistic rebel Kihika led him to fatally betray this true hero of the liberation movement to effect his own escape. Kihika’s sister Mumbi has betrayed her imprisoned husband, Gikonyo, with the opportunistic new regional chief, Gikonyo’s former friend, Karanja. But this is not sycophantic Karanja’s only foray into betraying the man who most trusts him, for he has an affair with the English commander Thompson’s emotionally starved wife as well. But is Karanja, the officially recognized Kenyan traitor to the cause of liberation, the only antipatriot? The reader eventually learns that Gikonyo, the imprisoned freedom fighter, also nurses memories of betraying Kenya in order to reclaim his life.
As the intricately intertwined disillusionments of A Grain of Wheat spiral to their point of closure, the villagers pass judgment on their former hero, Mugo. Ironically, the aging, maddened mother of Mugo’s victim, Wambui, hears her son’s voice for the first time since his death in the voice of the man who brought about his death, and Mugo in turn sees the face of the aunt who tortured his childhood in the ravaged face of the woman whom he has driven insane with grief. In short, not only the struggle for liberation but even its follow-up pursuit of tardy and imperfect restitutions is distorted by each individual’s immersion in his own suffering rather than recognizing the impact of his or her interaction with others. Only Gikonyo and Mumbi’s discovery that they will have a child of their own, following the child she bore for Karanja, seems to present an opportunity for reading optimism into A Grain of Wheat’s bleak questions about the ultimate fitness for national reconstruction in a country left morally annihilated after generations of psychosocial colonialist assault.
The novel’s ending tends to elicit critical optimism that sacrificial suffering will, in the long run, purify, nourish, and eventually strengthen what has been depleted by colonialism or destroyed in the war for independence. This analysis of the book’s title certainly reflects Ngugi’s traditional Gikuyu interweaving of myth into the literal stories of people searching out truths in the enmeshment of lies that their lives have become. Notably, wheat is a European grain not indigenous to East Africa. Therefore the necessity of bloody sacrifice to grow a grain of wheat in Kenya emphasizes Ngugi’s inescapably bitter point that all the bloodletting may purify but can never reconstruct the original indigenous societies and the moral and spiritual traditions they upheld, destroyed by colonization. In short, perhaps Ngugi’s choice of title invites the reading that the sacrifices that melded the ancient independent nations of tribes such as the Kikuyu, Luo, and Swahili into the modern creation of Kenya can at best only produce a European import that ensures the body’s survival.
Jussawalla, Feroza, and Reed Way Dasenbrock, eds. Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World. Jackson and London: University of Mississippi Press, 1992.
Makoni, Sinfree. Black Linguistics: Language, Society and Politics in Africa and the Americas. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.
Ngugi wa Thiong. Matigari. Translated by Waugui wa Goro. Oxford: Heinemann, 1989.
———. Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedom. London: J. Currey, 1993.
———. Writers in Politics: A Re-engagement with the Issues of Literature and Society. Oxford: Heinemann, 1997.
Sander, Reinhard, and Bernth Lindfors. Ngugi wa Thiong Speaks: Interviews with the Kenyan Writer. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2006.