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Grain of Wheat Classic Edition (Heinemann African Writers Series: Classics) Paperback – January 1, 2008
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historical and philosophical weight.
Ngũgĩ deftly winds through flashbacks and current events to reveal how the seeds of future dischord are already sown in the struggle for independence through characters who all seem to show equal parts weakness and courage. The great national leader, Jomo Kenyatta, is mentioned only in reverent tones in this novel. But in its present form, Ngũgĩ lightly reworked the masterwork of East African fiction a decade after his year long detention by Kenyatta's government. In fact, all of this novel lies both close to the life of its author, who write Grain of Wheat just a few years after independence came to his country, while he studied in England. And the author creating sympathy in the reader for the betrayals we each can make along the way is not insignificant.
The problems of colonialism are seen in the idealistic John Thompson who writes his work "Prospero in Africa" full of moral authority. He ends up an even more cruel oppressor that the man he followed and dashing his hopes for rising in the ranks of British service in the process.
This is a work worthy of its considerable reputation.
This is human nature at its best, its most raw, its purest.
Despite the extreme differences in culture and lifestyle, the reader is left with knowing and empathizing with the characters - at heart we are all the same - our breed of animal, we humans, experience the same basic emotions - love, hate, guilt, anger, fear, resentment, despair, hope.
For most people, the term ‘emergency’ reminds them of an extraordinary situation in their life that cannot be forgotten. For the people of Kenya however, ‘emergency’ reminds them of a time they hope to forget. ‘The Emergency’ was a dark time in the history of Kenya, and is the main point of emphasis in the novel A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o.
The novel takes place during the time of Uhuru, or freedom, in Kenya. Throughout the course of the book Ngũgĩ describes the lives and experiences of the characters through stories and internal anecdotes. He focuses his story mainly on a man named Mugo, an only child who had lost his parents at a young age. Mugo is an isolated man that did great things for The Movement during the time of the emergency, but wishes to forget what he had gone through. As the story progresses Ngũgĩ reveals more details about Mugo that unravel his character. After helping shelter a freedom fighter, he is taken away to an internment camp at Thika (127). For the next few years he bounces from camp to camp eventually ending up in Rira. Once he comes to Rira is when he starts to become a hero to the other men in the camps.
Through years of screenings and torture he had yet to confess anything about the Mau Mau and had become broken. Mugo’s ability to take beatings and torture without showing any emotion drew him a reputation amongst the men in the camp. A reputation that spread back to his home after the emergency is over. Once he is home he begins to personify the theme of internal strife that came with a united Kenyan front under the Mau Mau. Because while the Mau Mau did unite Kenya towards Uhuru through guerilla tactics, the punishment fell on to the Kenyan People. Mugo’s internal strife is his need to forget the emergency, but he cannot escape it because of his new status amongst his village. Throughout the rest of the book Ngũgĩ describes the lives of others and how they were affected by the emergency. He uses other characters stories to illustrate more underlying problems that occurred as a result of the emergency; the changing role of women, anti-Christian sentiment, and the abundance of racism during colonization.
Even though Ngũgĩ’s book is fiction, I believe that the book needs to be valued historically based on the events and people he chose to write about. It is very clear to what Ngũgĩ’s purpose was when he wrote this book. The purpose was to show what happened during the emergency from the perspective of the Kenyan people. By using real events and people through his book he can show what the Kenyan people experienced to the rest of the world. The way Ngũgĩ depicted events throughout the book also were very accurate and should be valued. He describes the screenings in the most brutal, ungodly way he possibly can in order to prove a point. The screenings, or torture, were used to try and get men to confess their Mau Mau oath and to get any information they knew about the movement. In the book he describes some of the methods used to pry information from men, in some instances the ‘game’ was “to bury a man, naked, in the hot sands, sometimes leaving him there overnight” (128). All of this effort was to discover the oath the people had taken, an oath which was taken to the death by many. The fourth line of one oath taken by a girl named Wambui Otieno describes the dedication to the oath, “Never reveal what just happended or any other information disclosed to me as a member of the movement, but always do the utmost to strengthen the movement; and if didn’t keep my words, may the oath kill me.” The dedication to this oath is exemplified Ngũgĩ’s description of the Rira disaster.
Rira was a camp reserved for the hardcore men that “had sworn never to co-operate with the government as long as Kenyatta was in prison” (127). Ngũgĩ describes the disaster in the book by using the experiences of Mugo. His refusal to talk and ability to take punishment encouraged the other men to follow him in silence. This is historically accurate because the camp was for men who were the most uncooperative. The dedication to the oath exemplified by these men is what lead to the disaster. As in real life, the men in the novel refused to participate in the rehab process the British had planned for them unless they were treated like political prisoners amongst other demands. As a result of this stand the men were lined up in their cells and beaten, resulting in 11 men dying. This event is historically relevant to the big picture of Uhuru because of the timing (1959, a year before Uhuru) and because it showed the cruelty of colonial powers. Based on these examples of real life events described in the novel, A Grain of Wheat should be considered historically valued because Ngũgĩ sheds light on the internal strife of a nation during the emergency.
The book A Grain of Wheat is indeed a historical artifact and a primary source regarding the time period of the emergency and Uhuru. Even though the book is fiction and structured around historical events/figures, he is writing about the experiences of his life. Ngũgĩ was born in Kenya and grew up during the Mau Mau rebellion. He is highly educated with a history of writing about the experiences of the Kenyan people during his life time. It is also important to look at what was happening during this time period in Kenya. During this time period there were atrocities and oppression throughout the entire nation because of the British desire to keep power in her colonies.
The fiction story does the time period justice by going into the detail of human experiences during this time. Some of the character and events may be imaginary, but they serve a bigger purpose in the novel. By using these characters and events Ngũgĩ is able to show the rest of the world what it was like to live during the time of the emergency. Having this novel available breaks the theme Mugo struggles with during the story. The internal strife of the nation is to forget about what happened due to the atrocious nature of the events. But Ngũgĩ uses his experiences during the emergency to paint a picture through his writing as to the life of the Kenyan people during the emergency period.
I believe this book holds historical value as a primary source, and I would recommend this book be read by anyone interested in freedom efforts made by colonized nations. Ngũgĩ’s vivid an picturesque writing style makes this book a must read.
Elkins, Caroline. “The Struggle for Mau Mau Rehabilitation in Late Colonial Kenya.” The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 33, no. 1 (2000): 54. http://www.jstor.org/stable/220257.
Freeman, John. “The language of liberation; Ngugi wa Thiong'o has been jailed, banned and attacked in Kenya. Now in exile in America, the novelist tells John Freeman his epic story of struggle and survival.” The Independent (London), August 11, 2006, 20.
I found the central character, Mugo, very interesting. His dream, the extent to which he defends it, his guilt, his bravery. The difference between how people percieve you and how you percieve yourself.
I did not know anything about Kenya or the Mau Mau rebellion before reading this book and it made my world grow. But also I was left thinking about the evil of colonialism and more generally about the lies we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our world.
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A Grain of Wheat Book Review
Thiongʼo, Ngũgĩ Wa. A Grain of Wheat. London: Heinemann, 1967. Print.Read more
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