Saturday, 3 December 2016

A History of the World in 50 Novels: 46 - "A Grain of Wheat," by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

From the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Centuries, following the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, and the consequent disruption of the overland trade-routes connecting China and India to the markets of Europe and the Mediterranean world, the coastal cities of East Africa, including Mombasa and Zanzibar, became magnets for European, Arabic and Chinese traders. Chinese junks brought silks; Arabian dhows brought pepper and cloves; and traders from Portugal, England, and Oman, vied with one another to purchase these commodities. Few of these traders ever ventured more than a few miles from the coast. Small numbers of native Africans in the interior were involved in the procurement and trade of goods (gold, ivory, rhino horn, tortoise shell) for the European, Arabian and Chinese markets, but most made their living either as subsistence farmers or as herdsmen.

The European exploration of the African interior began in the mid-Nineteenth Century, and went hand in hand with missionary activity. Colonisation followed, the motivation for this being partly economic (diamonds, minerals, rubber), and partly geopolitical (the British seized territory in order to keep it out of German or French hands, and vice-versa). In 1870, only 10% of Africa had been under European control, but, by 1914, this had risen to 90%. Kenya became a British protectorate in 1895, and railways were built to open up the interior, and connect it to the coastal ports.

A Church of Scotland missionary service in a Kenyan village, 1905-40 (image is in the Public Domain).


The "Lunatic Express," near Mombasa, in 1899, one of the railways connecting Kenya's coast and interior (image is in the Public Domain).


The highlands of Kenya proved to be perfectly suited to the intensive cultivation of coffee, increasingly in demand across Europe and North America. Plantations were established by European settlers, but native Africans were forbidden by the colonial authorities from producing coffee, and other cash-crops.

A coffee plantation in Kenya, 1936. Photo: Library of Congress, Matpc-13872 (Public Domain).


Kenyan soldiers of the King's African Rifles fought with distinction on the British side in both World Wars, gaining military experience, but also an understanding of the world beyond their homeland. Ireland had already won her independence from the British Empire, and India would achieve hers just two years after the end of the Second World War.

The King's African Rifles, 1952-6. Photo: Imperial War Museum, MAU-345 (non-commercial license).


Whilst many returning Kenyan soldiers remained loyal to the Empire, others were inspired to take up the struggle for independence, a cause that gained increasing support among the younger generation. Village communities, and even families, were divided, as some served in the pro-British Home Guard, whilst others left to join the Mau-Mau rebels in the forest. A State of Emergency was declared in 1952, and atrocities were committed on both sides, before Kenya finally gained her independence in 1963.

A British Army patrol in Kenya, 1952-6. Photo: Imperial War Museum, MAU-587 (non-commercial license).


Ngugi wa Thiong'o's novel, A Grain of Wheat, is set in a rural community in the Kenyan highlands on either side of the Uhuru (independence) celebrations at the end of 1963. It is a powerful evocation of a divided community, struggling to make sense of its past as it moves forward towards an uncertain future, and facing the realities of personal, as well as political, betrayals.



"Mugo walked, his head slightly bowed, staring at the ground as if ashamed of looking about him ... he heard someone shout his name. He started, stopped, and stared at Githua, who was hobbling towards him on crutches. When he reached Mugo he stood to attention, lifted his torn hat, and cried out: 'In the name of blackman's freedom, I salute you.' Then he bowed several times in comic deference. 'Is it - is it well with you?' Mugo asked, not knowing how to react ... Githua did not answer at once ... 'I tell you before the Emergency I was like you; before the whiteman did this to me with bullets, I could work with both hands, man' ... Githua's voice suddenly changed: 'The Emergency destroyed us,' he said in a tearful voice and abruptly went away."

"Kihika was tortured. Some say that the neck of a bottle was wedged into his body through the anus as the white people in the Special Branch tried to wrest the secrets of the forest from him. Others say that he was offered a lot of money and a free trip to England to shake the hand of the new woman on the throne. But he would not speak. Kihika was hanged in public, one Sunday, at Rung'ei Market, not far from where he had once stood calling for blood to rain on and water the tree of freedom. A combined force of Homeguards and Police whipped and drove people from Thabei and other ridges to see the body of the rebel dangling on the tree, and learn."

"Looking at Gikonyo, you could not believe that he was the same man whose marriage to Mumbi almost thirteen years before had angered other young suitors: what did Mumbi see in him? How could a woman so beautiful walk into poverty with eyes wide open? Now four years after returning home from detention, Gikonyo was one of the richest men in Thabei. He had recently bought a five-acre farm plot; he owned a shop - Gikonyo General Stores - at Rung'ei; and only the other day he had acquired a second-hand lorry for trading. On top of this, he was elected the chairman of the local branch of the Movement, a tribute, so people said, to his man's spirit which no detention camp could break."

Mau-Mau suspects under guard(image is in the Public Domain).


A Grain of Wheat is not a comfortable read for a white Briton such as myself, whose beloved uncle and aunt fled the Mau-Mau uprising after a lifetime spent in the colonial administration of Mombasa and Zanzibar. I wish, however, that someone had pressed it into my hand when I was a younger man, and that I could have discussed it with them. It is a mark of Ngugi's accomplishment as a writer that he invests human agency and dignity in his black and white characters alike: this is no triumphalist novel of the Kenyan independence movement, but rather a generous and even-handed treatment of one of the most troubled chapters in the shared history of its author's nation, and of mine.

President Jomo Kenyatta at the Eldoret Agricultural Show in 1968. Photo: Museum of World Cultures (licensed under CCA).


Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels. 


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