In 1967, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s novel A Grain of Wheat was published. The book tells the story of hope, betrayal, love, and friendship that all play out against a backdrop of the struggle for independence, or Uhuru, in Kenya. Although falling squarely within the fiction genre, the tales that he creates in his masterpiece appear to be entirely believable. When he wrote the novel, the author seemed to be targeting no group in particular. Instead, he writes for the whole community; those who existed before and after independence. His purpose was to enlighten and entertain. The title itself is an apt and symbolic depiction of how grains of wheat must die for others to grow in their place. Similarly, several characters in the novel have to die for peace to prevail.
The book has several significant plots and numerous subplots that the author carefully interweaves to create a magnificent story. The love and subsequent betrayal between two lovebirds, Mumbi and Gikonyo, is an overarching storyline, and so is Mugo’s betrayal of Kihika, who is seen by many as a local hero. Beyond that, however, there is a fierce and intense rivalry for dominance over the village. Mugo and Kihika’s rivalry evidences this. There is also a deep-seated competition between Gikonyo and Karanja, both of who want to conquer Mumbi’s love. This plays out against a backdrop of an intense struggle for independence in Kenya and the emergence of the Mau Mau Rebellion. The villagers of Thabai yearn for a hero to deliver them to Uhuru and set them free from the clutches of the Europeans.
The author uses the characters to show that human beings are prone to making mistakes. Wa Thiong’o does this by showing that all people, no matter how virtuous they might seem, have committed one form of betrayal or another. What makes the book an interesting read, however, is that the deeper one delves, the less critical and more understanding they become of the characters and all the flaws they possess. It becomes easier to empathize with the characters and their actions. Further, the reader becomes so immersed in the book and how the author slowly blurs the line between “good” and “bad.” “The coward lived to see his mother while the brave was left dead on the battlefield. And to ward off a blow is not cowardice” (Wa Thiong’o 168) In the end, we have no choice but to understand the mistakes that the characters make all happen to protect themselves and, to a lesser extent, who they love.
Through the characters, the reader also gets immersed in the struggle for independence. It becomes painfully clear that the fight was excruciatingly violent and tumultuous. It was also a very human fight where individuals fought externally with the colonizers and internally with a myriad of emotions. The people are so hard on themselves for making decisions that any other human would make. Perhaps their internal struggles are because the circumstances that they are surrounded with have corrupted them. They have internalized the struggle and the conditions around them until they can no longer separate themselves from the situation. Some of them are so intertwined with what they go through that their political and personal lives are indistinguishable. The book is an exciting read and is available on Amazon for about 18 dollars.