Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Githae Mugo’s historical play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, published for the first time in 1976, attempts a reconstruction of the events surrounding the trial and death of historical figure and Kenyan freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi. Kimathi, who in the eyes of the imperial British government was a terrorist, a threat to the imperial power, is given a new identity by Thiong’o and Mugo – one that rehabilitates his image and depicts him as an advocate of freedom, liberty, a voice of the Kenyan people.
In the preface of the play, the two playwrights surmise their mission saying, “We agreed that the most important thing was for us to construct imaginatively our History, envisioning the world of the Mau-Mau and Kimathi in terms of the peasants and workers struggle before and after independence.” The playwrights also insist that although the play is titled “trial”, it is not in any way “a reproduction of the farcical trial at Nyeri,” but rather, “an imaginative recreation and interpretation of the collective will of the Kenyan peasants and workers, in their refusal to break over sixty years of colonial and ruthless oppression by the British ruling class.”
Before Thiong’o and Mugo’s reconstruction of the events, various perceptions of Kimathi’s leadership and the Mau Mau struggle in general had been shaped by distorted narratives and British propaganda. And, as critic Sharon Ongaro notes, most information on Kimathi’s life came from the British imperial archives, documents like school reports, his arrest report, the court proceedings following his arrest, and British newspaper clippings that posited him as an antagonist figure.
Therefore, exploring ideas about Dedan Kimathi, the person and the hero, is another way of confronting the tension between Eurocentric conceptions of history and its counterpart, a localized, imaginative version of history.
The play is not a factual representation of Kimathi’s trial; it in fact a creative reconstruction written in three movements, incorporating Gikuyu songs and dances to bring in the Kenyan perspective. Over the course of the four trials, the Priest, the Business Executive, the Politician and the Banker all try to tempt Kimathi away from the cause and attempt to bribe him to give up the struggle and name his partners in crime, representing the capitalist domination of Kenya. The Banker says to Kimathi – “Confess. Repent. Plead guilty. Co-operate – like the surrendered generals.
Tell your people to come out of the forest. We need stability. There never can be progress without stability. Then we can finance big Hotels … International Hotels … Seaside resorts … Night Clubs … Casinos … Tarmac roads … oil refineries and pipelines … Then tourists from USA, Germany, France, Switzerland, Japan will flock in. Investment, my friend, development, prosperity, happiness…” The resemblance this scene bears to the Biblical story of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert cannot be overlooked.
Just as Jesus forgoes Satan’s temptations, abiding by the righteous path, Kimathi in a similar manner defends his own cause and counters the bourgeois theory of development saying, “It is not true that it was your money that built this country. It was our sweat. It was our hands.” Kimathi is, unequivocally, the messiah of the oppressed Kenyans – an unafraid representative of the people who will fight and die for their cause and usher in the hope of a brighter future for the nation.
Critic Chidi Amuta is therefore right pointing out that “it is the dialectics of these exchanges between Kimathi and the agencies of imperialism that constitute the essence of the ‘trial’.” The support and faith that the people of Kenya harbour for Kimathi can be seen in the monologue of the Woman in the play – “Kimathi was never alone… will never be alone. No bullet can kill him for as long as women continue to bear children.
Let a thousand bullets be shot through our heads, but this I believe: one day, the soil will be restored to the people. Our land shall one day be truly ours.” Kimathi’s image as the messiah or the rescuer is further emphasised through the Woman’s words – “He, Great commander that he was, Great organizer that he was, Great fearless fighter that he was, he was human! Too human at times.”
Thiong’o and Mugo’s reconstruction of Kenyan history in order to remedy the vision of the Orient or “other” nations left behind by colonialists is similar to Achebe’s re-examination of traditional African society and culture in his novel Things Fall Apart (1958), written in response to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899).
Conrad’s novella depicts the African continent as a dark wilderness, a “metaphysical battlefield” that brims with savagery and barbarism. Further, the natives of the land are exoticised, faceless, voiceless presences in the narrative with absolutely no political agency. They are also presented as credulous and dim-witted people who easily fall into the European ivory-traders’ ruse and come to view the light-skinned Europeans as God-like figures meant to be worshipped.
Achebe, in response to this distorted representation of Africa, presented the native tribal communities in Things Fall Apart as dignified, with their own culture, languages, myth and legends, customs and traditions. With a focus on the Igbo community of Nigeria, Achebe asserts that African civilisation and culture was not one long night of savagery from which the Europeans delivered them. In his essay, The Role of the Writer in a New Nation (1964), he foregrounds the idea that knowledge is always understood from the perspective of the oppressor and hence it is the coloniser that monopolises all narratives of history. He writes, “African people did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans, […] their societies were no mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value of beauty, […] they had poetry and, above all, they had dignity.
It is this dignity that African people had but lost during the colonial period and it is this that they must now regain.” Thiong’o and Mugo make a similar attempt in The Trial of Dedan Kimathi. They reconstruct a narrative from the native perspective and give back dignity to the Kenyan freedom fighters who were condemned as terrorists by the British.
The power/knowledge relationship that determines historical events as examined by post-modernist critic and philosopher Michel Foucault can also be seen played out in the trial of Kimathi. Foucault posits that those who have power determine knowledge and one can therefore deduce that it was the coloniser’s view of Kimathi as a terrorist that carried more weight than the natives’ view of him as a leader of the people.
“Truth”, as Foucault explains, manifests through the various power relations and so, the discourses of one group may become truer than another’s, which is why the colonial masters’ pronouncement was accepted by the world as the truth. It is this power/knowledge relationship that creates the need in the first place for Thiong’o and Mugo to recreate a narrative to absolve Kimathi of his supposed crime and vindicate him.
The play gives to the Kenyan natives what was denied to them by the imperial masters – agency. The blacks in the play are not passive robots who stand in waiting for commands from their oppressor. They actively participate in the creation of history. Kimathi’s defiant resistance in the court illustrates the desire of African natives to reclaim their own lives and be their own masters.
Kimathi refuses to acknowledge a white judge in the court because he will not observe a law he had no part in making. In the second movement of the play, he asks the pertinent question – “By what right do you, a colonial judge sit in judgement over me?”.
The representation of Kimathi as a freedom fighter, a leader of the Mau Mau movement and a voice of the people is thus a dismissal of the colonial narrative by Thiong’o and Mugo and celebrates the ability and liberty of Kenyan natives to sculpt their own future and define their own history.
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND WORKS CITED
Thiong’o, N. & Mugo, M. (1976). The Trial of Dedan Kimathi. Wordview Publications.
Outa, G. (2001). ‘The Dramaturgy of Power and Politics in Post-colonial Kenya: A Comparative Rereading of “Forms”, in Texts by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Francis Imbuga’. Nordic Journal of African Studies. University of Witwatersrand, South Africa.
Chukwu-Okoronkwo, S. (2011). ‘Art and societal dialectics in sub-Saharan Africa: A critique of Wa Thiong’o and Osofisan as dramatists’. Journal of African Studies and Development. Vol. 3(4). Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Nigeria.
Ongaro, S. (2004). The Historical Power of the Imagination: Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and the Production of Place.
Montana State University Bozeman, Montana Amuta, C. (1989) ‘Drama and Revolution in Africa’ from The Theory of African Literature: Implication and Practical Criticism. Zed Publishers, London.
Achebe, C. (1958). Things Fall Apart. Penguin Publications.
Achebe, C. (1964). The Role of the Writer in a New Nation. Online
Conrad, J. (1899). Heart of Darkness. Worldview Publications.
Foucault, M. (1972-77) ‘Truth and Power’ from Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings. Online.
Main Pic: Kenyan and African nationalist: Dedan Kimathi
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