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As he lays out the dilemmas that multiple characters faced, Ngugi wa Thiong'o emphasizes that the road to independence in Kenya was not smooth for anyone. The effects of British colonization were felt in every aspect of life, not only in politics and law; it was hegemonic. Although Kenyan people of diverse ethnic groups and tribal affiliations considered independence inevitable, the official British position was slow to adopt that view. The author’s fictional presentation can be compared to his now-iconic study of literature and identity, Decolonising the Mind. The internalization of a colonized identity, when even one’s own language is judged inferior by the colonizers, takes a toll on both the individual and collective psyche. Ngugi later began writing exclusively in Gikuyu, his native language, both to help build a literature in that language and to stress the importance of rejecting the imposed language and all it symbolized.

In the novel, the indigenous African characters show a wide range of opinions about the strategies and tactics of reform and revolutionary approaches. While some may sympathize with the goals of the more radical movements, they are constitutionally non-violence or practically oppose its use for fear of reprisals. The English characters as well have different ways of understanding their position; the racist bases of colonialism, in which Kenyans are dismissed as naturally inferior and the British must impose order, are echoed in the actions of the administrators like Thompson.

The increasingly polarized situation, as Mau Mau grew in numbers and power, placed specific characters into different positions. Those who hope to stay neutral or see greater benefit from continuing to support the British now find themselves rejected as traitors. Conversely, individual such as Mugo who take a principled action for personal rather than political reasons, find themselves receiving unwelcome attention. One aspect of the book that makes it an effective novel is the author’s balancing of personal shortcomings, such as using the revolution to avenge personal grudges, with the political philosophies in the movement. In addition, he effectively shows the sometimes unintended consequences of such actions. Survival itself often depends on chance as much as intention, and the dispensation of justice is not a sure thing, even in the newly liberated nation.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 615


*Kenya. East African nation that became independent from the British Empire in 1963. While the novel embraces the whole nation of Kenya, from its “one horizon” touching the Indian Ocean to its “other,” touching the shores of the great Lake Victoria, it focuses on central Kenya’s Gikuyu (also known as Kikuyu) people, from whom British settlers took large tracts of the country’s best land for their own use. Indeed, land was central to the colonial conflict—to both the settler farmers and the agricultural Gikuyu. As a result, place in this novel is the object of struggle but also symbolic of the various betrayals that occur in the course of that struggle.


Rung’ei (roong-AY). Fictional town in which most of the novel’s action takes place that is modeled on Limuru, an important settlement twenty miles northwest of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Rung’ei stands on the edge of the so-called White Highlands, where European settlement was most dense. The Mombasa-Uganda railway line runs through the town, on its way from the coast to the interior. The railroad itself is at once an item of fascination for the villagers and an unavoidable symbol of the colonial presence. During Kenya’s independence day celebrations, a highly symbolic footrace—essentially a contest to win the heart of the new nation—takes place on Rung’ei’s main sports field.


Thabai (thah-BI). Gikuyu village near Rung’ei that is home to most of novel’s main characters. It is a fictional version of the author’s own home village of Kamiriithu. Because of the village’s proximity to Nairobi and the White Highlands, and consequently to the most intense conflict during the Mau Mau fight for independence during the 1950’s, its residents are profoundly affected by the stresses that colonialism has placed on their way of life.


*Nairobi (ni-ROH-bee). Kenya’s capital city and the seat of colonial power until independence. Entirely a colonial creation, Nairobi, as the young carpenter Gikonyo notes, “was never an African city.” It was, however, the site of important early resistance to colonial rule, and in this regard the novel highlights the work of such historical Kenyan leaders as Harry Thuku and Jomo Kenyatta. At independence, Nairobi’s street names are changed, but the actions of a newly installed Kenyan member of parliament suggest that Kenya’s new leaders will continue to exploit the people in the same way that the colonial rulers have been doing.

*Kinenie Forest

*Kinenie Forest (kee-neh-NEE-eh). Also known as the Kikuyu Escarpment Forest, a small wooded area near Limuru in which Mau Mau fighters took refuge.

Githima Forestry Research Station

Githima Forestry Research Station (gee-THEE-mah). Fictional name for Muguga, a research station northwest of Nairobi established by the colonial administration. Like Rung’ei, its location at the edge of the Kinenie Forest makes it a crucial meeting point for the colonial enterprise and the Gikuyu resistance.

Rira Detention Camp

Rira Detention Camp (REE-rah). Government holding center for captured Mau Mau fighters in a remote and inhospitable area near the coast of northeastern Kenya. During the Mau Mau uprising, the colonial administration demolished Gikuyu villages and relocated and consolidated villagers and put suspected Mau Mau collaborators in detention camps. Rira, where the protagonist Mugo and others are detained, is modeled on a real-life detention camp at Hola.

Green Hill Farm

Green Hill Farm. Prime agricultural land in the White Highlands that Thabai villagers hope to purchase and return to Gikuyu use at independence. It is a profound betrayal of the hopes of independent Kenya when the villagers’ own member of parliament uses his position to grab the choice farm land for himself.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 337

Dramé, Kandioura. The Novel as Transformation Myth: A Study of the Novels of Mongo Beti and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Foreign and Comparative Studies African Series 43. Syracuse, N.Y.: Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, 1990. Situates the novel as the second in Ngugi’s Mau Mau trilogy. Discusses use of Ngugi’s popular myths and his use of the novel to present a fictionalized history of Kenya and of the transformation of the people’s consciousness of their responsibilities as citizens.

Harrow, Kenneth. “Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat: Season of Irony.” Research in African Literatures 16, no. 2 (1985): 243-263. Describes the novel as the highest achievement in East African literature and notes that its irony is the final expression of the anarchy that has followed independence. Shows how the author utilizes techniques in a specifically non-European manner.

Jabbi, Bu-Buakei. “The Structure of Symbolism in A Grain of Wheat.” Research in African Literatures 16, no. 2 (1985): 210-242. Acknowledges the influence of D. H. Lawrence and Joseph Conrad on Ngugi’s novel and shows how he brings together various symbols almost as if they were voices in a chorus. Discusses African ritual as a dynamic influence in Ngugi’s symbol system.

Mugesera, Leon. “Guilt and Redemption in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat.” Présence Africaine: Cultural Review of the Negro World 125 (1983): 214-232. Argues that guilt and betrayal, followed by redemption, is the theme not only of this novel but of all of postindependence African literature. Ngugi typically uses the situations of marriage to weave variations on this theme. Sees this as Ngugi’s most successful novel.

Sicherman, Carol M. “Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the Writing of Kenyan History.” Research in African Literatures 20, no. 3 (1989): 347-370. Points out that in the second edition of the novel the author made certain revisions that show his increasing condemnation of the neocolonialism he sees among his fellow Kenyans, and his clear decision to use fiction to show citizens their history as a movement away from enslavement.

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