This work of art is set in pre-independent Kenya as the struggle between the colonizers and the Africans escalate. It gives a clear picture of colonial Kenya as it were and as the Africans tried to resist British rule through the Mau Mau guerillas.
A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a novel that illustrates the people of Kenya and each of their personal journeys as they all struggled for independence through the use of a few characters. According to Nadine Gordimer, ‘it is an extremely interesting piece of work because it brings a new theme to African literature-the effects on a people of the changes brought about in themselves by the demands of a bloody and bitter struggle for independence’ p 226
Mugo is depicted in the novel as one of the major characters. He is seen as an introvert and mostly keeps to himself. In the British reserve camps where the Africans lived and worked. He is seen as a hero as he led a hunger strike and came to the defence of a pregnant woman who was to be beaten to death by a village guard. Ironically Mugo is the one who betrayed Kihika to the British and because of this, he is now the introvert he is and broods a lot.
Apparently Mugo is also jealous of Kihika; this is evident when he thinks to himself ‘what right has such a boy …to talk like that? What arrogance?…I hate him, he heard himself say’. He resents Kihika that he should be able to command such respect from everyone as he does, including his elders who all listen when he talks. ‘their eyes were fixed on Kihika; their lives seemed dependent on his falling words.
Kihika who is undoubtedly the hero in the novel is portrayed as a martyr. This is because he is seen to sacrifice himself for the good of the country. On the other hand, he alludes himself to Christ in the sense that he died for the good of the people. ‘Watch ye and pray…calling on his audience to remember the great Swahili proverb kikulacho kiko nguoni mwako. Meaning, those who betray you are usually your closest allies. This further alludes to him as Jesus and Mugo as Judas Iscariot.
Mumbi is Kihika’s sister and Gikonyo’s wife. She is said to be the most beautiful woman in the area. Although not voluntary, she betrays her husband with his rival Karanja when he forces her to sleep with him. This causes great resentment from her husband when he returns from prison. Mumbi sees herself as the biblical Ester in trying to bring in justice for the people.
Karanja although an African, is a collaborator. In this sense, he betrays his people by siding with the white man and betraying his people. He is suspected by the people as being the one who sold out Kihika but ironically it wasn’t him. He is jealous of gikonyo but at the same time refuses to consider him a serious rival for Mumbi.