Directed and produced by Stuart Nash; written by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ngugi wa Mirii
Play by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ngugi wa Mirii I will get married when I want (Ngaahika Ndeenda in its original Kikuyu), first produced in 1977, has finally returned to Kenya. Performed in May this year, the production was relaunched this month due to huge popular demand, underscoring its importance and relevance.
Performed in Kikuyu and, for the first time, in English, under the direction of Stuart Nash, the Kenya National Theater production features some of the country’s best-known actors, including Nice Githinji, Mwaura Bilal, Martin Githinji, Angel Waruinge and Martin Kigondu.
The play depicts the betrayal of the independence struggle against British imperialism by a post-independence comprador bourgeois regime that ruthlessly plundered the country and opened it further to Western business while acting as the main proxy for imperialism. in the Horn of Africa.
The land is at the heart of the play: it has been stripped of peasants, many of whom had heroically fought against British imperialism during the Mau Mau Rebellion of 1952-1959. Tens of thousands of people were killed and a million held in concentration camps.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o explored this betrayal throughout his work, in novels like blood petals (1977), Matigari(1986) and raven magician (2004). An important author, he therefore remains marginalized in Kenya. (Wa Mirii, a social worker and teacher, co-wrote two plays with wa Thiong’o, one of the most important African writers of the last half-century. I will get married when I want clearly belongs to wa Thiong’o’s other work exploring post-independence Kenya.)
At its inception, the play was banned by the Western-backed regime of President Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first post-independence president, for fear it would spark a revolution. The playwrights were arrested and held without charge for a year in the notorious Kamiti maximum security prison in Nairobi. Wa Thiong’o’s detention order was signed by then-Vice President Daniel arap Moi, who succeeded Kenyatta in 1978. The perpetrators then had to flee. Wa Thiong’o now lives in self-imposed exile in the United States after a brief return in 2004, when he and his wife were assaulted by armed robbers in a politically motivated attack. Wa Mirii died in 2008.
The authorities were so threatened that in 1982 government bulldozers and armed police demolished the venue for the premiere, the Kamirithu Community and Cultural Center in Limuru, Africa’s largest open-air theater, built by workmen and peasants. The play was banned again in 1990.
Set in post-independence Kenya, it opens in the home of a poor peasant couple. Kĩgũũnda, a Mau Mau veteran, and Wangeci prepare to receive the wealthy Mũhũũni family. They chat with their beautiful daughter, Gathoni, who is dating the Mũhũũnis’ son, John. On the wall hangs a title deed for an acre and a half of land. This, says Kĩgũũnda, “is worth more to me than all the thousands that belong to Kĩoi Mũhũũni”, his wealthy visitor.
Before the Mũhũũnis arrive, Gĩcaamba, a factory worker, and his wife, Njooki, a tea plantation worker, show up uninvited. They represent militant workers, conscious of their class, dissatisfied with the post-independence situation and warn against the bad intentions of the Mũhũũnis. “Since when have rich men been known to visit their servants? asks Njooki.
Gĩcaamba, another Mau Mau veteran, criticizes capitalism, using gesture, impersonation and song to convey his political message. He explains to Kĩgũũnda, who thinks he is in a better social position because he gets paid fortnightly, how the workers never get everything they work for. Wa Thiong’o, who frequently quoted Marx, explains the extraction of surplus value.
In physical gestures imitating those of Charlie Chaplin Modern timesGĩcaamba speaks of the long routine hours at the factory, and denounces the indifference of the capitalist towards the workers: “Since I was employed at the factory, twenty-one people have died.
He tells Kĩgũũnda that if the wealth created by the workers remained in their hands, they would have access to good schools, hospitals and homes, but this will feed the “imperialists abroad”. This export is overseen by a wealthy Kenyan elite who, among other things, use religion to demand that the poor be satisfied with their lot in life and expect heaven after death.
(Just a few weeks ago Kenya’s new millionaire president William Ruto invited 40 preachers to sanctify State House as he promised a wave of IMF-backed austerity attacks on the working class, telling them “I want you to pray for our economy”.)
The wealthy guests arrive. Kĩoi Mũhũũni, accompanied by his snobby wife Jezebel, played by Angel Waruinge, wants to buy the Kĩgũũnda land to build a factory for Western companies. Another wealthy couple is with them. This man, a born-again Christian, served in the Home Guard which helped the British Army suppress the Mau Mau.
Jezebel insists that Kĩgũũnda should marry Wangeci in a Christian ceremony to legitimize their marriage. Although upset, they agree, in order to remove Kĩoi’s objections to John marrying Gathoni.
Kĩgũũnda and Wangeci are treated like animals among the Mũhũũnis until they announce their intention to marry as Christians, but they are mistreated again when Kĩgũũnda asks for a loan for wedding expenses. Kĩoi refuses, but suggests he can secure them a loan in exchange for an acre and a half as collateral. They agree.
They spend the loan on wedding arrangements, but Gathoni announces that John left her upon learning that she is pregnant with him. Kĩoi calls her a “bitch” and insists that John has nothing to do with her. When Kĩgũũnda threatens Kĩoi, Jezebel shoots him.
The final scene is extremely powerful, with Martin Kigondu excelling as Gĩcaamba. Kĩgũũnda drinks desperately, after Kĩoi uses his connections to apply for the loan early. Kĩgũũnda lost his cherished land, which Kĩoi bought cheaply for a factory for Western companies. Gathoni was forced into prostitution.
Wangeci expresses her exasperation to Gĩcaamba and Njooki when Kĩgũũnda drunkenly starts fighting with her. Gĩcaamba calls on them to channel their anger not against each other but against the Kenyan elite and their Western backers. They sing together about workers coming together to organize and fight back.
They announce that the poor have reached the breaking point. The “horn of the masses has been blown”, they say, and the next revolution will be for social equality, not independence. When this revolution breaks out, Gĩcaamba asks the audience “Which side will you be on?”
It could hardly be more timely. While imposing budget cuts, privatizations and subsidy cuts, Ruto met with US delegations eight times in six weeks, seeking to consolidate Washington’s control over the Horn of Africa.
Inequality in Kenya is among the highest in the world. According to Oxfam, less than 0.1% of the population (8,300 people), including Ruto, own more wealth than the bottom 99.9% (over 44 million people). A total of 7,500 new millionaires are expected to be created over the next decade.
Nash relaunched the coin mindful of this broader growth in inequality. He said Kenyabuzz its themes “are universal. They reflect what was and is happening in the world in 1977 and today. He cited reports of the growing gap between rich and poor in the UK as further evidence of the coin’s continued relevance. When an audience member asked what themes were introduced “to make it more modern”, Nash replied “None, they’re all in the original piece”.
Nash said he was hesitant to produce the play, given the contemporaneity of its review. He deserves credit for not being bullied, even as the ruling class internationally escalates its attacks on democratic rights amid the promotion of identity politics, communalism and racism, and a frenzied campaign of war.
However, in trying to update the piece, Nash raised political issues that should have been left untouched or explored in more detail. Gĩcaamba says workers’ money goes to the United States, Europe, Japan and China, equating Western imperialism with Chinese “imperialism.”
The original text did not mention China. Wa Thiong’o was influenced by Maoism, an offshoot of Stalinism. In Inmate: A Writer’s Prison Diary (1982), describing his illegal incarceration, he describes Kenyatta as “a tragic figure of the twentieth century: he could have been a Lenin, a Mao Tse-Tung or a Ho Chi Minh; but he ended up being a Chiang Kai-shek, a Park Chung Hee or a Pinochet.
Calling China “imperialist” serves a definite function, which Nash may not realize. Against the backdrop of imperialist diatribes on the “traps of Chinese debt”, it serves to relativize the counter-revolutionary role of American, European and Japanese imperialism, and to sanction regime change operations under the banner of “the ‘self-determination’.
The designation has no basis in economic or historical analysis. The Chinese regime has nothing progressive to offer, oscillating between appeals to Washington for a deal, escalating an arms race and stoking Chinese nationalism and chauvinism.
The legacy of Maoism can also be seen in wa Thiong’o’s uncritical glorification of the Mau Mau. Heroic as their struggle was, pitting ill-armed Kenyan peasants against British imperialism and its local collaborators, their political perspective, based on petty-bourgeois conceptions of “armed struggle” peasant nationalism, ultimately failed. Kenyatta, himself imprisoned as an alleged Mau Mau supporter, struck a deal with British imperialism, which saw him as a reliable defender of imperialist interests.
The working class, the leading force against colonialism after World War II, was subordinated by the Stalinist and “left” nationalist leaderships to the bourgeois nationalists like Kenyatta and the more radical petty-bourgeois forces of the Mau Mau.
This straitjacket led to the Lancaster House conferences where independence was negotiated, followed by the ruthless repression of the working class and peasantry by Kenya’s new ruling classes. The illusions generated by independence quickly disappeared, as evidenced by Ngugi’s writings.
Nash’s production is welcome. It is to be hoped that his Nairobi Performing Arts Studio will continue with other projects, including other pieces by wa Thiong’o.