A Grain of Wheat tells the story of indigenous Kenyans' resistance to British colonial control. The novel centers on a handful of individuals and their motivations for participating in the independence movement, or Mau Mau.
In a village called Thabai, the carpenter Gikonyo and his wife, Mumbi, are two individuals caught up in the struggle. Another villager Kihika is an outspoken revolutionary who constantly incites anti-British violence and sabotage. Two other men, Mugo and Karanja, take an oppositional stance: they believe that British rule is unshakeable and they aim to maximize their own benefit.
Kihika and other ardent rebels conduct their campaigns from the safety of the forest. They capture a remote police station, but the British retaliate with an indiscriminate roundup of all local youth—which includes Gikonyo. Mugo, compelled to intervene when a British policeman hits a pregnant woman, is also arrested. As the violence escalates, the rebels assassinate a British official named Robson.
In a prison camp, Mugo's experience of repression change his views, and his defiant stance earns his fellow prisoners' respect. However, the situation worsens when the warden, Thompson, fiercely crushes an uprising by having some twenty inmates killed.
Kihika returns to Thabai, where he confesses to the newly-freed Mugo that he is the wanted assassin. Fearful for his own safety, Mugo betrays him to Thompson, now the area's district officer. This results in Kihika's execution.
Gikonyo's prison term is much longer, almost seven years. In the interval, the pragmatic but unethical Karanja seduces Mumbi; she becomes pregnant with their child, which she must confess to her husband when he is finally freed. To make matters worse, Karanja's collaboration has elevated him to a British-appointed chief. A broken man, Gikonyo never fully recovers.
Overall, however, the resistance movement is successful, and England finally agrees to independence. Some people resent the execution of Kihika, and a number of Thabai rebels determine to ferret out whoever betrayed him. They believe this traitor to be Karanja. Yielding to pressure, he resigns as chief. They make it clear to Mugo that he must play a role in publicly exposing the culprit. Instead, he confesses to the act, which leads them to have him killed. Mumbi returns to Gikonyo, and they resolve to make a new life together.
When the British colonizers come to Kenya, they strengthen their hold on the territory by building a great railroad. Waiyaki and other warrior leaders took up arms against this imposition, but they were defeated. Most Kenyans gradually learn to make accommodations with the new regime, though the seeds of revolution spread underground in “the Movement,” known to the British as Mau Mau.
Among the younger generation are Gikonyo, a well-known carpenter in the village of Thabai, and Mumbi, his wife and one of the most beautiful women in the area. They listen as one of their peers, Kihika, speaks before a large crowd and encourages guerrilla warfare against the British. Mugo also listens, but, unlike Gikonyo and Mumbi, he hates what Kihika says. Mugo thinks native Kenyans have no chance of successfully opposing the British, and he decides to do his job quietly and succeed in the new order of things. Karanja, who unsuccessfully sought the hand of Mumbi, feels even more strongly that the best policy is to accept the British as invincible.
Before long, Kihika disappears into the forest with many other young men who arm themselves. A year later, their most successful raid is the capture of the Mahee police post; this infuriates the British. They declare a state of emergency and imprison many of the young men of Thabai, including Gikonyo. Even Mugo is arrested for intervening when a woman is being beaten. Despite the efforts by the British to quell the Kenyan resistance, the violence continues, and District Officer Thomas Robson is assassinated.
Mugo is taken to Rira camp, where John Thompson is...
(The entire section is 1,257 words.)