I read today that Kenya’s Mau Mau veterans are to sue the UK for their treatment during the insurgency in the 1950s – and was instantly reminded of reading Ngugi Wa Thiong???o’s A Grain of Wheat at university and all the compelling contextual material that we read alongside the novel.The case is being brought by five now elderly Mau Mau veterans – their lawyers have documented 40 incidents of torture, and a spokesman has said they are confident of success. Meanwhile the UK government says their claim is invalid because it has been so long since the alleged abuses took place. I can’t tell the story of the Kenyan conflict or Mau Mau here – I don’t want to trivialise this shameful chapter in British history or do injustice to those who died or suffered. However, as an illustration of what happened, the Kenya Human Rights Commission relates that 90,000 Kenyans were executed, tortured or maimed and 160,000 were detained in concentration camp-like conditions. Noted texts on the subject include Histories of the Hanged: Testimonies from the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya
– I haven’t read either.It is against this backdrop that A Grain of Wheat is set. Originally published in 1967, it is centered around Mugo and the other inhabitant of his village, whose live are transformed by the conflict in the run-up to Uhuru or independence. The text weaves together myth and history – Ngugi is an uncompromising and deeply political author and reading the novel for me was like an explosion – I had no idea about this chapter of history and this ambitious and passionate text was such a stirring depiction. When I first read it, I looked at newspaper articles and Mau Mau sings from the period that really enriched the experience for me. This is not the first time that Kenya’s former independence fighters have brought a claim against the British government, and if this new claim is successful, thousands of other people could come forward to build a huge class action suit. I don’t think compensation equals justice, but it would be an expression of remorse and a significant admission of culpability.