A Grain of Wheat Summary and Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 30-page guide for “A Grain of Wheat” by Ngugi wa Thiong’o includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 14 chapters as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 10 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Communal Good vs. Individual Good and Harambee (working together for a common purpose).
A Grain of Wheat takes place in Kenya on the brink of its Uhuru (independence from British colonial rule) in December 1963. Although historical events anchor the story in real life, Ngũgĩ’s preface to the book tells us that the characters themselves are fictional – except when reference is made to national historic leaders (such as Kenya’s first president after Uhuru, Jomo Kenyatta).
Over a period of four days leading up to independence, the people of the village of Thabai ready themselves for the celebration of freedom. However, the troubling events of a not-too-distant past continue to affect the book’s characters. Many of the Kikuyu people (the largest ethnic group in Kenya) were somehow affected by the Mau uprising (beginning in 1952). As a response to this uprising, the British government responded by declaring a state of emergency (referred to as the Emergency), during which time any of the people in Thabai or surrounding villages could be forcibly detained, imprisoned and tortured as suspected conspirators.
Although the narrative generally moves forward to the Uhuru celebration, these issues from the past continue to haunt the story’s characters. A Grain of Wheat has a unique narrative style, which shifts its point of view from one character to another, often within the space of a single page. Occasionally, the narrative slips into a first person plural “we” as the voice of the village is heard when recalling important events. Each character has a present-day crisis, but each has a history as well, so the novel frequently shifts from the present-day happenings to the past and back again, allowing characters to reveal their experiences and innermost thoughts.
The story revolves around a few central characters, whose experiences during the Emergency have altered their present-day lives. Some were detained; some tortured in detention. Others turned against their countrymen, working for the British administration or betraying members of the Rebellion to save themselves. For the villagers of Thabai, one loss in particular – that of Kihika, a man known for his heroic actions against the British during the Emergency – has united them. Although he has been dead for several years, it is Kihika’s story that provides a backdrop for the narrative as well as a framing device for the story. The new sections of the book are introduced by passages underlined in Kihika’s Bible.
Much of the present-day narrative revolves around various people of Thabai trying to convince Mugo, a quiet man regarded as a hero for his actions during the Emergency, to speak at the Uhuru celebration. Mugo seems strangely reluctant – in fact, he is hiding a dark secret that will emerge only much later in the narrative. Gikonyo and Mumbi, an estranged husband and wife, both seek out Mugo to persuade him to participate and in the process end up revealing their own secrets of life during the Emergency to Mugo.
While the native Kenyans are preparing for their independence, the British administrators are preparing to leave Kenya once the government has been transferred to black power. John Thompson, once a perpetrator of cruel acts against detainees and now a disgraced official, is depressed at the thought of the British abandoning their progress – his life’s work – in Kenya. Karanja, a Kikuyu who worked for the British as a member of the homeguard during the Emergency, is also distressed at the thought of the transfer to black power, as he will lose his favored status among the white administrators and the respect and fear of his own people. However, Karanja hopes to remain in Thabai to be close to Mumbi, who he has long loved and whose child he fathered while Gikonyo was in detention. It is Karanja who is suspected by most of the villagers of Thabai as the person who betrayed the heroic Kihika, Karanja’s boyhood friend.
As more and more secrets and desperate acts from the Emergency are revealed through the narration, it becomes clear that Mugo, regarded by many as a hero to rival Kihika, was in fact responsible for Kihika’s death. Mugo finally confesses as much to Mumbi, although she keeps his secret. At the Uhuru celebration, the traitor is asked to come forward, and many look at Karanja. However, it is Mugo who confesses and is later led away by the soldiers of the new regime. Karanja, having lost his place in the new society and any hope of Mumbi’s love, leaves Thabai. In the book’s final scene, Gikonyo realizes his love for Mumbi still stands and plans to reconcile with her.