Craig White's Literature Courses

Critical Sources

Ngugi wa Thiong'o

A Grain of Wheat (1967)

Settings: Kenya, British colony 1888-1963, Republic of Kenya 1964-

Rung’ei, local ridge or region

Thabai, village near Rung'ai Market in rural Kenya (After attack on Mahee Police Post, Thabai is destroyed and replaced by "New Thabai.")

Githima, area in Kenyan forest with British forestry research station

Nyeri (211) town in central Kenyan highlands, founded by British early 1900s, trading center for white settlers

Rira, concentration camp where Mugo starts a hunger strike, when he refuses to confess taking an oath for the Mau-Mau.

Time: December 1963, during preparations for the celebration of Uhuru (Independence), but with flashbacks over previous ten years including the Mau Mau uprising, independence movements, and British repression.

Tribe: Kikuyu or Gikuyu, the largest ethnic group in Kenya; the Luo tribe of Barack Obama Sr. is also mentioned.

British Detention Camps: Rira, Yala, Wamumu, others.

Leading Characters

Gikonyo, carpenter and businessman married to Mumbi.

Karanja, collaborator with the British and widely suspected to be the traitor who betrayed Kihika

Kihika, resistance fighter who led successful attack on the colonial Mahee Police Post in the Rift Valley (western Kenya) and killed District Officer Robson before being caught and hanged

Mugo, survivor-hero and leader of hunger strike in British concentration camps; stopped a village guard from beating a pregnant woman to death

Mumbi, the wife of Gikonyo; sister of Kihika and Kariuki; daughter of Warui and ; she is compared to Wangu Makeri, the last of the great Gikuyu queens. "Mumbi" is also used in the novel as a Kikuyu name for the land or earth.

John Thompson, idealistic British colonial officer

Margery Thompson, wife of John Thompson;

Secondary Kenyan characters

Warui, village elder

General R. (20)

Lieutenant Koina (20)

Kariuki, bookish brother of Kihika and Mumbi

Mbugua (75): father of Kihika, Kariuki, Mumbi; husband to Wanjiku

Wanjiku (75): mother of Kihika, Kariuki, Mumbi; wife to Mbugua

Old woman with deaf son Gitogo killed by soldiers;
she later thinks Mugo is her son returned from dead

Reverend Jackson; son Richard

Wambuku (89): Mumbi’s friend, Kihika’s girlfriend in Rung’ei

Njeri (89): Mumbi’s friend, later joins Kihika in forest

Other Kenyan characters: Waitherero (6); Nyamu (65); Gatu of Nyeri (105);
Githua (126); Irimu (138); Mwangi Matemo (in Nyeri) (140); Chief Muruithia (147);
Nyamu (217)

Secondary Colonial characters

Dr. Van Dyke

Mr. Rogers (33) (forestry)

Mrs. Dickinson (36)

Dr. Lynd (41)

Thomas Robson (125, 141, 186)









Terms (term in bold followed by page number on which it first appears?)

 sufuria (1) flat-based, deep-sided, lipped and handleless cooking pot or container in Kenya and surrounding nations

jembe or djembe = skin-covered drum played with bare hands?

Panga or tapanga = machete, hacking tool like cleaver

Shamba: Swahili term for area of cultivated ground; plot of land; small subsistence farm

pyrethrum: Old World ornamental plant of daisy or aster families; sometimes used for insecticide

baraza (141) (Swahili) = place where public meetings are held

wangu (141) = queen?

Historic figures and references (name or term in bold followed by page number on which it first appears)

Mau Mau (5) general term for Kikuyu societies opposing British colonial rule; the term may have been more British than Kikuyu

Jomo Kenyatta (13, 132) a.k.a. Burning Spear (14) (ca. 1899-1978): independence leader, first prime minister and first president of independent Kenya; "the founding father of Kenya"

Harry Thuku (12, 83): 1895-1970. 1922: founded Young Kikuyu Organization. 1923: founded multi-ethnic East African Association against pass-system and forced women’s labor. Protests over Thuku’s imprisonment led to protests, on which colonial forces fired. Became coffee farmer and opposed Mau Mau.

Nairobi (13) capital and largest city of Kenya

Wangu wa Makeri (14; also p. 10): born later nineteenth century into traditional Gikuyu society; underwent customary rites and married. In 1901, she was appointed the first and only female headman of the entire colonial period at Weithaga Location.

Mumbi (14): mythological figure regarded as mother of the Gikuyu people. “Mumbi” can be translated as "one who shapes." Wife of Gikuyu and ancestor to all Agikuyu people

“Uhuru”: Swahili word for freedom > slogan for national independence in Kenya and other African nations

Masai (21): properly “Maasai”: ethnic group of semi-nomadic people in Kenya and Northern Tanzania; well-known for “jumping dance”

Governor Baring: Evelyn Baring, 1st Baron Howick of Glendale (1903-73), Governor of Kenya 1952-59 (during Mau Mau uprising)

Uganda, Obote’s kingdom, Makerere College (135): Uganda, African nation bordering Kenya; Milton Obote (1925-2005), active in Kenya Independence Movement 1950s, Prime Minister or President of Uganda, 1962-1971 (overthrown by Idi Amin), 1980-85, overthrown & eventually replaced by Yoweri Museveni, 1986-present; Makerere College / University in Kampala, Uganda

Bren-gun (186): Bren light machine gun, used by British forces 1930-91

Maxim-Gun (191): first self-powered machine gun, invented 1884, used extensively by British colonial forces 1880s-1910s.

Style of novel: (adapted from

  • multiple narrative lines

  • non-linear in structure

  • numerous flashbacks or shifts in time frames

  • story lines sometimes run parallel with each other, or coincide and cross each other, or fuse together.

  • Different characters appear in similar circumstances at similar times but in different places, and each character experiences the similar situation from a different perspective and in a different way.

  • The principle narrative story-line is the question of who betrayed Kihika and the traitor's exposure at the Uhuru celebration

  • The second most important narrative line is the competition between Gikonyo and Karanja for Mumbi.

  • The novel's attitudes towards the Mau Mau struggle against British colonialism appear complex and ambivalent. Motivations of freedom-fighters may appear less than heroic, while Kenyans who side with the British are not simple cowards or opportunists but romantics in their own right. The resulting portrait of a decolonizing nation shows little true solidarity, and that resistance to British domination was confused and poorly organized.

Psalm 72 (p.22)

 1Give the king thy judgments, O God, and thy righteousness unto the king's son.

 2He shall judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with judgment.

 3The mountains shall bring peace to the people, and the little hills, by righteousness.

 4He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor. . . .

 7In his days shall the righteous flourish; and abundance of peace so long as the moon endureth.

 8He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.

 9They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him . . . .

 11Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him.

 12For he shall deliver the needy when he crieth; the poor also, and him that hath no helper.

 13He shall spare the poor and needy, and shall save the souls of the needy.

 14He shall redeem their soul from deceit and violence: and precious shall their blood be in his sight. . . .

 16 There shall be an handful of corn [i.e., a grain of wheat] in the earth upon the top of the mountains; the fruit thereof shall shake like Lebanon: and they of the city shall flourish like grass of the earth. . . .