Themes in A Grain of Wheat | A Novel by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Themes in A Grain of Wheat

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is one of the best novelists from Kenya. He wrote “A Grain of Wheat” in which he explores themes related to Kenya’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule. He wanted to give voice to the experiences and perspectives of Kenyan people. The novel was published in 1867. Thus, the author wrote about the impacts of British rule on individuals and society. The novel sheds light on this climacteric moment in history. The writer also examined the complexities of the struggles of his people for independence, their sacrifices, betrayals as well as moral dilemmas that they continually faced for years.

So far as universality in the themes is concerned, the author highlights the importance of memory and history in shaping the present and the actions that can be taken to create a better future.

Themes in A Grain of Wheat | A Novel by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

It is necessary to understand a brief summary and the historical background of the novel before analysing its importance and to see the world from the perspective of the author.

Short Summary of the Novel

The writer has divided the book into different sections. Let’s know the story of the book section by section.

In the first section, the writer introduces us to the character Mugo. He has been suffering mentally for years because of a secret. The story then jumps back in time to the period just before Kenya’s independence. In the past, there were many considerable characters. Gikonyo and Mumbi are prominent in this regard. Both of these are in a relationship. However, their relationship is strained due to Gikonyo’s past infidelity.

The story progresses further and readers learn more about some of the other characters. Many of them struggle and lead Kenya to independence. One of the characters named Kihika becomes a hero of the freedom movement. He also becomes an inspiration for others and motivates them to fight for their independence. 

The novelist puts characters in difficult situations and lets them make moral choices. Many betray their own beliefs and the people around them. The novel shows how the struggle for independence affects different people in different ways. Ultimately, the hard choices of characters cause divisions within families and communities.

Finally, the characters gain the output of their struggles. They celebrate Kenya’s independence. The new nation is not well settled. It has many challenges to face in the future. However, everything is good as the nation would certainly rise as an independent nation. 

In short, the writer shows the struggle of people in gaining independence in his novel “A Grain of Wheat ” as well as the consequences that they face.

Historical Background of “A Grain of Wheat”

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was also a political activist besides a writer. Hence, the book talks about things like patriotism, self-identification, betrayal and making sacrifices for others and for a better future. The Mau Mau rebellion was a movement that wanted to overthrow the British rulers of Kenya and the novel “A Grain of Wheat” follows the lives of several characters who were part of that movement. 

There were differences between the opinions of people. The writer shows how Kenyan society was divided during this time while making hard choices against their own people for the purpose of making the country a better place to live.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o grew up in Kenya. He witnessed everything with the naked eye. The people of Kenya were under British rule. The writer illustrates his own experiences in the novel. Thus, the novel can also be considered as a documentary with a plot. The novel gained fame because it is the finest example of African literature that represents the fight for freedom and independence in Africa.

A Grain of Wheat Themes

There is no denying the fact that the novel explores African history, culture and politics through a story. Thus, the themes of “A Grain of Wheat” are related to a nation, its sacrifices, struggles and patriotism. Some important themes that the writer illustrates in the novel are:

Nationalism: The writer tells the story of those people who fought for independence in Kenya. He also mentioned the reasons that motivated them to do so.

Identity: Each character in the novel struggles to find his place in the world. They want to know who they are and how they fit into the world around them.

Betrayal: On several occasions, people make decisions based on their beliefs. As a result, they betray each other. There are many other different reasons why they betray each other.

Sacrifice: The tough decisions of characters lead them to success in achieving independence.

Colonialism: It is one of the most portrayed themes in African literature.  The writer demonstrates how colonialism affected Africa and changed the people and their culture in the book.

Memory and History: The book emphasises the importance of understanding and remembering the past in order to learn from it.

Theme of Nationalism

One of the main themes of “A Grain of Wheat” is nationalism. It describes the love and loyalty to a country and the desire for it to be free and independent. In the book, almost all the characters fight to free Kenya from British colonialism. Nationalism is the reason they desperately do not give up on their struggles. They are motivated by their love for their country.

There are many examples from the novel that prove this theme. For example, Mugo is a freedom fighter. He sacrifices his own safety to help the movement gain independence. Similarly, Kihika is also worth mentioning in this regard. He is a charismatic leader. He inspires people to join the good cause and fight for the country’s freedom. 

In short, the novelist sketches many different scenes to show that nationalism can be a powerful force that drives people to risk their lives for their beliefs as well as for their country’s independence.

The theme of Self Identity

The second most important theme in the list is finding an identity. The people are well aware of the fact that they are also civilised. They have their own cultural background, beliefs and values. 

Many characters in the book struggle with their identity. They merge their past with the present. It is very difficult for them to blend their traditional culture with the changing world around them. 

In order to explain further. Let’s quote an example from the book. Gikonyo cannot make a decision as he has to choose either loyalty to his culture or his love for his wife. His wife has adopted some Western customs. However, he cannot do so like his wife. Thus, he wants to identify his place among his own people as some of them have accepted change whereas others like him continuously resist it.

Apart from that, Mumbi feels conflicted about her role as a woman in a traditional society. At the same time, she has a desire for getting higher education. She also wants to be a free woman who does not want to depend on others.

In this way, the novel shows how people are caught between different identities, customs and beliefs.

Theme of Betrayal

The characters in the novel often break trust. It is because they have to undergo difficult moral choices. Hence, sometimes they betray not only their own beliefs but also the people around them.

In order to exemplify that Betrayal is also one of the prominent themes of “A Grain of Wheat”, Karanja’s character is mentionable. He reveals to the British authorities his involvement in the independence movement and betrays his friend Gikonyo.

Likewise, Mugo is another character who struggles with guilt and shame over a secret he has been keeping from his fellow freedom fighters. 

The novel demonstrates the impact of betrayal and the serious consequences that individuals and society may face. It also shows how difficult it is to make the right choice in a complex situation.

Theme of Sacrifice

The reason this theme is not on the top of the list is that nationalism always demands sacrifices. Thus, it is linked with nationalism. However, sacrifice does not always mean giving life to the country. It means to give up on something important for a greater cause or belief.

In the novel, characters willingly make sacrifices; whether it is fighting for independence, protecting their families, or helping others. For instance, Kihika sacrifices his own life to inspire others to join the freedom movement. Mumbi puts herself in danger to help her husband escape from prison. 

This writer shows sacrifice as a human sentiment in the novel. It is demonstrated as a powerful expression of love and commitment. 

Theme of Colonialism

The theme of colonialism is universal in nature so far as universality in African literature is concerned. The novelist tells us the story of a country which is controlled politically, economically and culturally by another. 

Many significant characters in the novel experience the impact of British colonial rule on Kenya. There are many incidents in the novel that support one of the significant themes of colonialism in the book “A Grain of Wheat”. 

The British colonists take land from the Kenyan farmers and force them to work on their own farms for little pay. The colonisers also create laws that favour them. They do not care even if any law conflicts with traditional African customs and values. Apparently, the colonisation was being done for the welfare of the country but the writer proves through historical incidents that colonialism can have devastating effects on a society. The major loss in this regard is of culture and identity.

The Theme of Memory and History

The author of “A Grain of Wheat” wants us to learn from the past and create a better future while demonstrating two major themes memory and history. Let’s come straight towards examples to know what the writer wants to articulate.

Mugo carries a painful secret from the past that haunts him and affects his actions in the present. Kihika inspires people while quoting incidents from the history of his people and their struggle for independence. 

The writer proves that decisions are always based on experiences. If someone has experienced the good, he may make good decisions but if someone’s past is dark, his decisions are subject to risks. Thus, a better future can only be created if we remember the past. The writer does not say that we must stick to the past. He just talks about learning from it.


To put it briefly, “A Grain of Wheat” is a novel by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o that explores themes of nationalism, identity, betrayal, sacrifice, colonialism, memory as well as history. In other words, the author wrote this book to give voice to Kenyan people during their struggle for independence from British colonialism. 

The novelist combines these themes to highlight the historical events in Kenya. It is a powerful and thought-provoking book that gives insights into the complexities of Kenya’s struggle for independence and the impact of colonialism on the people and their culture.