“The coward lived to see his mother while the brave was left dead in the battlefield. And to ward off a blow is not cowardice.”

A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o is one of the books I picked for my Kenyan readathon TBR in September. It’s almost embarrassing how many years I have had this book sitting on my shelf waiting to be read. But it’s read now and that is what matters. I should probably stop buying new books and just read all the unread books I have collected over the years but that’s impracticable for a bookie like me so it is what it is. I shall read them when I read them!

A Grain of Wheat is a book rich in Kenyan history. It is set in Kenya just after independence when the transition from British rule to Kenyan rule was taking place. It portrays the excitement that the Kenyans who had fought and spoke for freedom throughout the colonial period felt when uhuru finally dawned. In contrast, it also paints a picture of the fear and anxiety that shone through the collaborators as their masters packed their bags to leave the country for the rightful owners.

The story intricately oscillates between its present setting and the past through the lives of the main characters: Mugo, Kihika, Gikonyo, Mumbi, and Karanja. Mugo, a reclusive and resolute man who moves like one in fear of being found out is at the heart of the narration. Kihika is the hero of the book, the face of colonial resistance, referenced throughout the book as the one who truly fought selfishly and fearlessly. Gikonyo is a product of circumstances, his character reveals the thin line between collaboration and resistance while Mumbi revealed the troubles of the neutrals- those who did not dare pick a side. Karanja, on the other hand, is an embodiment of choice and how it affects the course of an individual’s life.

At the meeting! Remember? Many of us talked like that because we wanted to deceive ourselves.  It lessens your shame. We talked of loyalty to the movement and love of our country. You know a time came when I did not care about uhuru for the country anymore. I just wanted to come home. And I would have sold Kenya to the Whiteman to buy my own freedom. I admire people like Kihika. They are strong enough to die for the truth. I have no such strength. That’s why in detention, we were proud of you, resented you and hated you – all in the same breath. You see, people like you, who refused to betray your manhood, showed us what we ought to be like- but we lacked true bones in the flesh. We were cowards.

Ngugi starts off the narration lightly by introducing the characters and as the plot develops, the layered nature of their personalities is complexly unveiled as they live through the consequences of the decisions they made or were forced to make throughout the colonial years. As some fought colonialism to their death, others bowed before the colonial masters and happily cleaned after them. As their lives untangled, friendships are built, enmity is brewed, marriages are shaken and secrets are exposed.  

It is interesting to note that A Grain of Wheat was first published just four years after independence. Ngugi writes not as one looking in from the outside but as someone whose family took part in the MauMau resistance. He humanizes the journey to independence beyond the collaborators and resistance divide curated in history books by uncovering the nuanced reality of that very choice. I enjoyed reading the book and would highly recommend it for anyone interested in understanding the realness of how colonialism shook the personal lives of individual Kenyans.

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