Places: A Grain of Wheat

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1967

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Mid-twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Kenya

*Kenya. Grain of Wheat, AEast African nation that became independent from the British Empire in 1963. While the novel embraces the whole nation of Kenya, from its “one horizon” touching the Indian Ocean to its “other,” touching the shores of the great Lake Victoria, it focuses on central Kenya’s Gikuyu (also known as Kikuyu) people, from whom British settlers took large tracts of the country’s best land for their own use. Indeed, land was central to the colonial conflict–to both the settler farmers and the agricultural Gikuyu. As a result, place in this novel is the object of struggle but also symbolic of the various betrayals that occur in the course of that struggle.


Rung’ei (roong-AY). Fictional town in which most of the novel’s action takes place that is modeled on Limuru, an important settlement twenty miles northwest of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Rung’ei stands on the edge of the so-called White Highlands, where European settlement was most dense. The Mombasa-Uganda railway line runs through the town, on its way from the coast to the interior. The railroad itself is at once an item of fascination for the villagers and an unavoidable symbol of the colonial presence. During Kenya’s independence day celebrations, a highly symbolic footrace–essentially a contest to win the heart of the new nation–takes place on Rung’ei’s main sports field.


Thabai (thah-BI). Gikuyu village near Rung’ei that is home to most of novel’s main characters. It is a fictional version of the author’s own home village of Kamiriithu. Because of the village’s proximity to Nairobi and the White Highlands, and consequently to the most intense conflict during the Mau Mau fight for independence during the 1950’s, its residents are profoundly affected by the stresses that colonialism has placed on their way of life.


*Nairobi (ni-ROH-bee). Kenya’s capital city and the seat of colonial power until independence. Entirely a colonial creation, Nairobi, as the young carpenter Gikonyo notes, “was never an African city.” It was, however, the site of important early resistance to colonial rule, and in this regard the novel highlights the work of such historical Kenyan leaders as Harry Thuku and Jomo Kenyatta. At independence, Nairobi’s street names are changed, but the actions of a newly installed Kenyan member of parliament suggest that Kenya’s new leaders will continue to exploit the people in the same way that the colonial rulers have been doing.

*Kinenie Forest

*Kinenie Forest (kee-neh-NEE-eh). Also known as the Kikuyu Escarpment Forest, a small wooded area near Limuru in which Mau Mau fighters took refuge.

Githima Forestry Research Station

Githima Forestry Research Station (gee-THEE-mah). Fictional name for Muguga, a research station northwest of Nairobi established by the colonial administration. Like Rung’ei, its location at the edge of the Kinenie Forest makes it a crucial meeting point for the colonial enterprise and the Gikuyu resistance.

Rira Detention Camp

Rira Detention Camp (REE-rah). Government holding center for captured Mau Mau fighters in a remote and inhospitable area near the coast of northeastern Kenya. During the Mau Mau uprising, the colonial administration demolished Gikuyu villages and relocated and consolidated villagers and put suspected Mau Mau collaborators in detention camps. Rira, where the protagonist Mugo and others are detained, is modeled on a real-life detention camp at Hola.

Green Hill Farm

Green Hill Farm. Prime agricultural land in the White Highlands that Thabai villagers hope to purchase and return to Gikuyu use at independence. It is a profound betrayal of the hopes of independent Kenya when the villagers’ own member of parliament uses his position to grab the choice farm land for himself.

BibliographyDramé, Kandioura. The Novel as Transformation Myth: A Study of the Novels of Mongo Beti and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Foreign and Comparative Studies African Series 43. Syracuse, N.Y.: Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, 1990. Situates the novel as the second in Ngugi’s Mau Mau trilogy. Discusses use of Ngugi’s popular myths and his use of the novel to present a fictionalized history of Kenya and of the transformation of the people’s consciousness of their responsibilities as citizens.Harrow, Kenneth. “Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat: Season of Irony.” Research in African Literatures 16, no. 2 (1985): 243-263. Describes the novel as the highest achievement in East African literature and notes that its irony is the final expression of the anarchy that has followed independence. Shows how the author utilizes techniques in a specifically non-European manner.Jabbi, Bu-Buakei. “The Structure of Symbolism in A Grain of Wheat.” Research in African Literatures 16, no. 2 (1985): 210-242. Acknowledges the influence of D. H. Lawrence and Joseph Conrad on Ngugi’s novel and shows how he brings together various symbols almost as if they were voices in a chorus. Discusses African ritual as a dynamic influence in Ngugi’s symbol system.Mugesera, Leon. “Guilt and Redemption in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat.” Présence Africaine: Cultural Review of the Negro World 125 (1983): 214-232. Argues that guilt and betrayal, followed by redemption, is the theme not only of this novel but of all of postindependence African literature. Ngugi typically uses the situations of marriage to weave variations on this theme. Sees this as Ngugi’s most successful novel.Sicherman, Carol M. “Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the Writing of Kenyan History.” Research in African Literatures 20, no. 3 (1989): 347-370. Points out that in the second edition of the novel the author made certain revisions that show his increasing condemnation of the neocolonialism he sees among his fellow Kenyans, and his clear decision to use fiction to show citizens their history as a movement away from enslavement.
Categories: Places