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Last Updated on July 23, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 379

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.

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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 changes 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.

Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 879

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 warden. Though Mugo respects the British, in these circumstances he feels unjustly accused and refuses to cooperate. He begins to get a reputation among the other detainees as an inspiration to courage. Mugo does nothing to justify their hopes, but he does feel vague and grandiose religious impulses and begins to see himself as a possible messiah for his people. Finally, there is an uprising in which Mugo plays no part, and twenty-one prisoners are killed. This episode places a blot on Thompson’s career, the British believing he overreacted; nevertheless, he is named as Robson’s replacement as district officer.

Before long, Mugo is released. After his return to the village, he receives an unexpected—and unwelcome—visit from Kihika, a hunted man. Kihika reveals that he, disguised as an old man, killed Robson, the district officer. This news terrifies Mugo. Oblivious to Mugo’s cowardice, Kihika encourages him to lead an underground movement in the village and asks him to think about it and to meet him the next evening. Mugo resents the ethical choice that Kihika thrusts upon him. He decides to betray him and secretly tells Thompson where Kihika will be the next night. The soldiers arrest Kihika and murder him.

Gikonyo is moved from one detention camp to another—seven in all—and finally, after six years, has most of his revolutionary zeal drained from him. He thinks only of Mumbi. He signs a confession and is released. There are rumors that freedom is coming to the country. When Gikonyo returns to the village, however, he receives two unwelcome surprises. The first is that Karanja, whom he has never respected, has risen from leader of the homeguards (who report to the British) to village chief. The second is that his wife, Mumbi, gave birth to a son in his absence, and the father is Karanja. Gikonyo becomes embittered and disillusioned.

Kenya regains its independence (uhuru) on December 12, 1963. Thabai, like the other towns, celebrates with a large rally that all villagers attend. Warui, Wambui, General R., and Lieutenant Koina, who worked in the Movement for many years, are planning to use the occasion to unmask Kihika’s betrayer. All their suspicions fall upon Karanja, who is the most notorious collaborator in the village. When independence approaches, Karanja resigns as chief and goes to work in the library. He also serves, however, as a messenger for John Thompson, his mistress, and his wife.

Their plan is to have Mugo, whose reputation as a hero has by now grown by leaps and bounds, present a speech that will climax with the naming of Karanja. Mugo, burdened with guilt, refuses and asks to be left alone. Mumbi tries to change his mind, so he tells her the truth. She warns Karanja not to attend the rally, but he ignores her advice. Then the people dispatch a delegation that drags Mugo into their midst, where they await his triumphant speech. They call him “Kihika-born-again.” Instead, he stands before them all and reveals himself as the traitor.

Mugo’s aged aunt dies, and he is left totally alone in the world. Wambui, General R., and Lieutenant Koina visit him, confirm his guilt, and execute him. Karanja, who placed all his hopes on the British, recognizes how dangerous his situation is when Thompson leaves the country. Karanja flees, but he knows he has nowhere to go. Warui and Wambui, who were with the Movement for such a long time, now feel empty, wondering whether things have improved or whether they have simply exchanged one corrupt government for another. Gikonyo and Mumbi, on the other hand, reconcile and look forward to the future.

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