Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, “A Grain of Wheat” (1967) – Few people really know what to do with Kenya’s decolonization struggle. No one looks good. The British “won,” but did so through the application of mass internment and terror- years after a British judge sat in judgment at Nuremberg and sent the leaders of a rival empire to the gallows for similar crimes. They covered it up well, largely by publicizing the bloodier Mau Mau killings, but these things reemerge. The Kenyan government, which was essentially handed power by the British a few years later in exchange for major concessions, doesn’t like its people to think too much about Mau Mau. The international Left doesn’t really know to process an uprising by an autochtonous, secretive, semi-religious group with few links to any of the established strands of thought or organizing- “The Kenyan Revolution” isn’t even a phrase, as I’ve seen. The Mau Mau themselves and the Kikuyu people they emerged from were, of course, brutally suppressed and terrorized and then lived under dictatorship of Kenyan leaders unfriendly to the memory of the uprising, and didn’t have the best avenues to tell their stories.
One who found a way to tell some of the story is the great Kikuyu writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and he paid for his impertinence- he was jailed by the Kenyan government and exiled after that for twenty years. In “A Grain of Wheat,” Ngũgĩ tells the story of several members of a rural Kikuyu community on the eve of the formal handover of power. The Union Jack is going to come down, the red, green, and black of Kenya is going to come up, and presumably everyone should be happy.
Of course, people are actually unhappy. One of the great strengths of this book is getting across the sheer trauma of going through a brutal insurgency war like the Mau Mau Uprising. There’s the trauma of having fought, having seen friends die, being interned and tortured, and there’s the terrorizing of the community as a whole. Counterinsurgency works by turning communities against themselves, and the British were viciously effective at this, across much of the world but especially in Kenya. You get flashbacks to the war, but more affecting to me was the description of the aftermath. Ngũgĩ masterfully takes you into the experience of characters like Mugo, hailed as a martyr for having gone through the camps, who wants to be left alone in his hut, and Karanja, who experiences the terror of having collaborated with the British — this overwhelming source of power and terror — only to have them leave without so much as a goodbye.
Most of all, Ngũgĩ depicts the ways in which insurgent struggle renders any sort of life we would normally choose to live impossible. Mugo is defined by two choices that would be completely ordinary under normal circumstances. A man came into his house with a gun after having shot somebody and made him an accomplice in hiding him, so he alerted the authorities; a soldier was abusing an old woman, so he spoke up. One of those actions made him a traitor, the other made him a martyr, and between the two they tear his life apart. Everyone in “A Grain of Wheat” is riven by similar experiences.
And what’s worse, there’s the sinking feeling throughout the book that independence will not be all its cracked up to be. The British cut their deals with moderates and sharp dealers to keep the rich agricultural land they stole from being redistributed to the people as a whole. The old guerrillas, with their odd noms de guerre and comparative lack of interiority, still mouth the old slogans but are clearly trying to clean house, get their revenge on traitors, before a new regime acceptable to the superpowers comes in and forecloses both on their possibilities (and likely freedom) and on the promise of decolonization. Kenya doesn’t offer easy answers, and neither does Ngũgĩ. *****