A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o

A Grain of Wheat is a novel about the inhabitants of a village in Kenya in 1963 in the last few days before the celebrations for Uhuru — that is, Kenyan independence. It was originally published in 1967, so the material was completely current at the time, although after finishing it that I read in the introduction that

Ngũgĩ revised A Grain of Wheat in 1987, to make the ‘world outlook’ of his peasants more in line with his ideas of the historical triumph of the oppressed.

and that

Ngũgĩ has said of the 1967 version of A Grain of Wheat that his ‘peasant and worker characters’ had the ‘vacillating mentality of the petite bourgeoisie’.

As far as I can gather, the revisions were relatively minor, and I guess I support the author’s right to mess around with his earlier work if he wants to, but I still find it vaguely frustrating not knowing what was what. And it seems like an odd thing to do, to me. But there you go.

Incidentally, Ngũgĩ’s early work, including this book, was written in English, but for the past 30 years or so he has written in Gĩkùyũ. Rejecting the colonial language has obvious political and social significance, but to switch from a language with hundreds of millions of speakers to one which is a minority language even in Kenya is still a striking decision.

The characters in the book are all dealing with the aftermath of the Mau Mau rebellion, having lost family members or having suffered detention, forced labour and torture. There’s something slightly topical about that at the moment; not just because we recently learned that Barack Obama’s grandfather was tortured by the British at that period, but also because insurgents being detained without trial and tortured  have been in the news recently.

I didn’t read the book, though, as being principally about the relationship between colonist and colonised. Rather, it’s about the relationships between the Africans and the way they’ve been affected by events. Some of them worked for the British; others fought them. A man returns to his wife after years away in prison to find she has had a baby by another man. No one is left untouched.  All this is told in flashback, so we gradually learn how characters became the way they are.

Obviously none of this would have happened if it wasn’t for the British, so they (we) are central in that sense, but still, the novel is building up to Uhuru, when the young Duke of Edinburgh will sit in a stadium in Nairobi and watch the flags changing over, and the British part of the story will peter out. I read the novel as being about what is left behind; in that sense it reminded me of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, Saša Stanišić’s novel about Yugoslavia. A war of independence against a colonial power is I suppose a peculiar kind of civil war, and it tears apart the fabric of the country in a similar way.

Here’s an extract.

He took a jembe and a panga to repeat the daily pattern his life had now fallen into since he left Maguita, his last detention camp. To reach his new strip of shamba which lay the other side of Thabai, Mugo had to walk through the dusty village streets. And as usual Mugo found that some women had risen before him, that some were already returning from the river, their frail backs arched double with water-barrels, in time to prepare tea or porridge for their husbands and children. The sun was now up: shadows of trees and huts and men were thin and long on the ground.

‘How is it with you, this morning?’ Warui called out to him, emerging from one of the huts.
‘It is well.’ And as usual Mugo would have gone on, but Warui seemed anxious to talk.
‘Attacking the ground early?’
‘Yes.’
‘That’s what I always say. Go to it when the ground is soft. Let the sun find you already there and it’ll not be a match for you. But if he reaches the shamba before you — hm.’

Warui, a village elder, wore a new blanket which sharply relieved his wrinkled face and the grey tufts of hair on his head and on his pointed chin. It was he who had given Mugo the present strip of land on which to grow a little food. His own piece had been confiscated by the government while he was in detention. Though Warui liked talking, he had come to respect Mugo’s reticence. But today he looked at Mugo with new interest, curiosity even.

‘Like Kenyatta is telling us,’ he went on, ‘these are days of Uhuru na Kazi.’ He paused and ejected a jet of saliva on to the hedge. Mugo stood embarrassed by this encounter. ‘And how is your hut, ready for Uhuru?’ continued Warui.
‘Oh, it’s all right,’ Mugo said and excused himself. As he moved on through the village, he tried to puzzle out Warui’s last question.

 A Grain of Wheat is my book from Kenya for the Read The World challenge.

» The cigarette card from the Empire railways series is from the New York Public Library online collection. There is a train that features quite heavily in the book, so it’s not a completely random choice of image.

14 Comments

  1. 10 January 2009 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    I read A Grain of Wheat before the ’87 revisions, and in fact still own a copy of that version (and no other, I may add). If you’re still interested in what was changed, one of these days one could attempt a comparison.

    Ngũgĩ is one of the greats, IMO. Cheers.

  2. Harry
    11 January 2009 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed it, a fact which I somehow failed to mention in my post.

    I am curious to know what kind of changes he made, but I think it would take a more detailed kind of analysis than I can see myself doing… too much like homework :)

  3. 14 January 2009 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    I’m still meandering my way through Wizard of the Crow, which is his latest, and hilarious in a sprawling, almost metaphysical fashion.

    Recommended, if you have the time.

  4. Harry
    14 January 2009 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    I was originally planning to read Wizard of the Crow, not least because there’s a bird in the title (I’m quite simple like that), but a friend who has just come back from a couple of years in Kenya said he didn’t like it as much and recommended trying one of the others.

    I’ll probably read some more Ngũgĩ at some stage, but I’ve got lots of other things lined up at the moment.

  5. georgia
    25 October 2009 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    The changes, if you are still interested from what i understand where minor in relevance to the plot. Chapter fourteen; Koina rapes dr lynd whereas he kills the dog in the second edition. I have been told it was changed to make the novel more culturally accurate something I think ngugi became more aware of after writing a grain of wheat, given his change of name from james to Ngugi wa Thiong’o and also his want to write in gikuyu rather than english. He was aware of reports at the time which stated that there was never any accusations of white women being raped by kenyans at the time of the emergency and following therefore i guess he felt it was necessary to change it in the novel also, guilt of the unecessary demonisation of koina? however both acts of voilence by koina are out of frustration of white dominance so can be sympathised with… im unsure… and just rambling now sorry if ive just stated some really elementry facts you already knew, still trying to study it myself at the moment. :S

  6. Harry
    25 October 2009 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, that’s interesting, I didn’t know any of that.

  7. Tolu
    30 March 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    My Project.

  8. Bolebali
    31 March 2011 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    to be honest Ngugi Wa Thiongo is a very talented writer and i foud most of his books interesting.

  9. ralphyl
    22 March 2012 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    the story is so relevant!

  10. zalikha mecheri
    24 March 2012 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    thank you! i’m doing a comparative study between this book and another one. i lack primary documents.this can help me.

  11. Baki Adéchina Arèmou
    21 June 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    It ‘s really a fine book that i liked too much for many reasons. Firstly, because the reality of African people is shown through it. And then because it makes the young generation to think and make themselves as leaders and fight against oppressions to which their ancestors have been victims. From those reasons, i have decided to do one of the study of systemic linguistic approach on that novel in order to show how did i contribute to the evolution of the novel. Once more, Ngugi wa thiong’o , CONGRATULATIONS!

  12. ELIZABETH PRIDE
    2 January 2013 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    I NEED MORE INFORMATION OBOUT THE THEMS

  13. ELIZABETH PRIDE
    2 January 2013 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    I NEED MORE INFORMATION OBOUT THE THEMS

  14. ELIZABETH PRIDE
    2 January 2013 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    I BELIEVE THAT THIS NVEL HAS AREAL MEANING ABOUT THE REALITY OF AFRICAN PEOPLE

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