Marxist Strategy in Contemporary East African Play: A Deconstructive Reading of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo’s the Trial of Dedan Kimathi

This article is published by the Zamfara International Journal of Humanities.

 Felix E. Gbenoba, PhD

Department of Languages
National Open University of Nigerian (NOUN)- Abuja

Abstract: The relevance of drama to the society since its invention in classical time has never been in doubt. In contemporary times however, drama has been instrumental to numerous transformations in society some of which include social, cultural, religious and political conscientisation and mobilisation of the masses against oppressive class in society, including imperial domination in Africa. The aim of this paper is to discuss the application of Marxism to the discussion of contemporary issues of relevance in Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo’s The Trial of Dedan Kimathi. The main finding of this paper is, while not ignoring the traditional role of the Neo ne gritituditionist philosophers of the 1930s, the playwrights have correctly applied Marxism as creative strategy in the recreation/reconstruction of imperialists domination of Kenya of the 15th and 16th centuries. We conclude that the play is successful in its autistic representation of Kenya in colonial situation.

Keywords: Kenya, Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Micere Mugo, Marxist theory, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi


Drama as an important social institution emerged in classical time as a purely religious affair in ancient Greek. It performed social services, by way of entertainment at social engagements including church and the society. (Obafemi, 2008), (Umukoro, 2002). In modern times, however, drama has continued to grow in influence and relevance. The contemporary experience of drama in Africa to be more precise, reveal how drama has often been used to conscientize and mobilize societal peasants and/or masses for the purpose of challenging and confronting their social, economic and political deprivations. These include tyranny and exploitation by foreigners in colonial Africa as elsewhere around the world.


While not ignoring how drama has been used to transform society at the beginning of the collapse of socialism and the domination of world economy by globalization phenomenon at the end of the 1990s, our aim in this paper is to discuss the strategic implications of Marxist philosophy in the African literary drama especially that of East Africa. Also, a brief attention will be given to the Negritude ideology to fortify our background introduction to the paper.


Background to the Study


Marxism as an Ideology

Marxism is concerned with the issue of ideology in literature.


Kerrey (2018) indicates that:

For scholars like Terry Eagleton (2011) it signifies the socially constructed ideas, images, values and norms that bind us to particular roles which underpin our relations as individual sexes or social classes. Marxists therefore argue that ideology creates blind spots in our vision. In a capitalist society, workers are being alienated from the products they work hard for (p. 34).


Alienation of workers


King M.L. (1960, p.114) says that according to Marx, human beings are alienated from the products of their work. What workers produce does not belong to them; it belongs to their employers. The employee puts his/her effort into the product, he/she has created it, but it belongs to another.


Rauna Mwetulundila (2016) quotes Marx as stating that labour is external to the worker for example it does not belong to his essential being; that he therefore not confirm to himself in his work but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy.


Exploitation of workers


In a capitalist economy workers are being exploited. Gugelberger (1985) points out that exploitation in a very general sense, refers to taking unfair advantage of people. Marx and Engels thought of exploitation in a more specific term and describe it as any situation where some people work for others without suitable compensation. They consider class exploitation as an unequal exchange between the workers and the owner of the workplace.


Ngugi deploys Marxism as tool in his literary works Starting from his undergraduate days at Makerere University Kampala Uganda, where he received a Bachelor's degree in 1963 and where he was when he published his first novel and wrote his first play, Ngugi has used Marxist ideology to tell the East African people that there is no equality and justice in Africa generally and Kenya in particular. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, original name James Thiong’o Ngugi, (born January 5, 1938, in Limuru, Kenya) was considered East Africa’s leading novelist. Petals of Blood (1977) deals with social and economic problems in East Africa after independence, particularly the continued exploitation of peasants and workers by foreign business interests and a greedy indigenous bourgeoisie.


Ngugi presented his ideas on literature, culture, and politics in


Gunpoints, and Dreams (1998). In Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), Ngugi argued for African-language literature as the only authentic voice for Africans and stated his own intention of writing only in Kikuyu or Kiswahili from that point on. Such works earned him a reputation as one of Africa’s most articulate social critics.

After a long exile from Kenya, Ngugi returned in 2004 with his wife to promote Mũrogi wa Kagogo. Several weeks later they were brutally assaulted in their home; the attack was believed by some to be politically motivated. After their recovery, the couple continued to publicize the book abroad. Ngugi later published the memoirs Dreams in a Time of War (2010), about his childhood; In the House of the Interpreter (2012), which was largely set in the 1950s, during the Mau Mau rebellion against British control in Kenya; and Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer’s Awakening (2016), a chronicle of his years at Makerere University. (Tikkanen. Encyclopaedia Britannica)


Ngugi as a playwright appeared in The Black Hermit (1968; produced 1962) his first of several plays, of which The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976; produced 1974), cowritten with Micere Githae Mugo, is considered by some critics to be his best. He was also coauthor, with Ngugi wa Mirii, of a play first written in Kikuyu, Ngaahika Ndeenda (1977; I Will Marry When I Want), the performance of which led to his detention for a year without trial by the Kenyan government.The play attacks capitalism, religious hypocrisy, and corruption among the new economic elite of Kenya.


It could seem strange to refer to Kimathi as a character, since he was also a real person. The Kimathi character is based on the actual life of Kimathi.


Dedan Kimathi in history


Dedan Kimathi was a rebel field marshal fighting the British colonial authorities in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s. The violent rebellion remains a controversial part of Kenyan and British history.

Kimathi was born at Kanyinya in the Nyeri District of Central Province. In 1941, he enlisted as a sweeper with the King’s African Rifles (KAR) only to desert the role soon after learning of the terrible conditions African soldiers were subjected to.


After a laborious and intricate trial, on November 19th 1956, Chief Justice Kenneth O’Connor found Kimathi guilty of unlawful possession of a firearm and ammunition, actions made illegal by the Emergency Regulations put in place by the British Government in an attempt to quell the violence of the rebellion. On November 19, 1956, at the Supreme Court of Kenya at Nyeri, the colonial government sentenced Kimathi to death. In the early hours of 18th February 1957, Kimathi was hanged to death at Kamiti prison and according to documentation, buried within its grounds. The exact location of his grave has never been found.


The British Government’s decision to execute Kimathi for such a minor charge, was fueled by their desperation to eradicate the Mau Mau rebellion. Since Kimathi was such a fervent, famous anti-colonialist, his death could stand as a warning. To this day, Kimathi remains an icon of the Mau Mau rebellion. (Brown, Lauren, Blackpast, 2020)


Literature Review


On the continued relevance of Marxist approaches within African literary studies. Alexander Fyfe (2020) aptly present the arguements of the trio of Jeyifo, Onoge and Amuta thus: For Biodun Jeyifo (1984, p. 1)


A rigorous act of materialist literary interpretation is now needed to recover “real meaning from the metaphysical fogs and abstracted empirical details which enshroud the accumulating exegeses on the major dramatic works of Soyinka


Omafume Onoge asserts that Marxist criticism goes beyond a content and form analysis of artistic works, to a consideration of the very institutional processes of art creation and art criticism. Marxist critics are concerned to struggle for a democratization of the structures of artistic production and criticism. (Onoge,1985, p. 60).


Contemporary literary-critical perspective held by Alexander Fyfe who paraphrasing Chidi Amuta opines that African literature and its criticism testify to the historical contradictions that define the African situation. In order to resolve these contradictions in the direction of progressive change, literary criticism must be predicated on a theoretical outlook that couples cultural theory back to social practice. Giving vent to this Fyfe reinforces Chidi Amuta's postulation spanning two decades:


"In this respect, literary theory and practice must form part of the anti-imperialist struggle, thus demystifying literary criticism and reintegrating it into the social experience and practice of which literature itself is very much part. (Amuta,1989/2017, p. 7).In approaching the location of Marxism within African literary criticism today, it is necessary to note that materialist perspectives, in the broadest terms, are a major feature of the field. (Fyfe, 2020 p.2)


Yet although the critical readings undertaken by many scholars today deploy terms that recall Marxist discourses, and while they may adopt a highly critical posture vis-à-vis ‘global capitalism’ and its cognates, this is often not accompanied by any robust engagement with Marxist theories and methodologies. (Adejunmobi & Coetzee, 2019, p. 1)


The present study of The Trial of Dedan Kimathi corroborates the continued relevance of the Marxist approach to literary studies since the relations of production remains largely unchanged in most of post-colonial Africa despite change of the personnel in government from the colonial foreigners to indigenous Africans generally and Kenyans in particular.


An English lecturer in the Department of Languages and Communication at the International University of Management in Namibia, Rauna Mwetulundila asserts: "Africans have gone through inhuman conditions because of colonialism." In a Marxist analysis of Ngugi's writings Mwetulundila states that "African writers like Ngugi Wa Thiong’o have tackled the social issues with literary language to inform the(ir) fellow beings that what they are going through is totally not acceptable. Ngugi has consistently used Marxist ideology to tell the post colonial African nations that there is no equality and justice particularly in his country Kenya.


The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (herein after referred to as The Trial...)


The Trial... highlights key aspects of the play, the trial of Kimathi and the progress of Mau-Mau rebellion movement and its contribution in the freedom of Kenya from imperialism.


Dedan Kimathi was a legendary hero of Mau-Mau liberation movement against British rule in Kenya and their cultural, political and economic aspirations. Pratibha Nagpal (2016; p.23) in her critical analysis says “the play wishes to depict the heroic struggle of the African people. The play is written in three movements that symbolically merge past, present and future. The play opens and ends with the trial of Dedan Kimathi”

Characterization in the play


The main character in The Trial... is Dedan Kimathi. The Kimathi character is based on the actual life of Kimathi.


An array of other characters populate the play. There's a fruit seller, a clerk, nameless white soldiers, nameless boys, girls, and women, a solider named Johnny, and a settler.


The woman came on stage when she is dealing with Johnny the white soldier who sees woman as a sexual object while talking to her. He says “nice legs, eh? Nice pretty face, eh”. However, as a freedom fighter, the woman reveals an an act of defiance and protest as she does not carry passbook. Because of the voyeuristic activity of the officer, she becomes an object of male gaze and the image becomes a Petrarchan image. The woman is rather clever as she manages to save the “rather heavy bread” from the officer. The woman seems a threat to the colonial power but she is actually on the mission to rescue the real hero of African anti-colonial movement Dedan Kimathi. Why is Dedan Kimathi the real hero? In the play all the dramatic action is initiated by the woman and Dedan Kimathi is only a verbal hero, so why is Kimathi the only hero? (Deepali Yadav; 2016)


Basu (2016; p.3) states that “there is presence of motherly figure in form of woman in the play.“ The boy wishes to work for her but she tells him not to be a slave and gives him the bread which he should hand over to the man selling oranges. Since the man is not traceable, the woman disguises herself. The boy then encounters the girl again. The girl says “I am tired of running”, she tells the boy of how she has been on the run all her life; she ran from school because the headmaster would physically abuse her then when she went to work in tea plantation.


The woman asks the boy and the girl to follow her to a corner where they can talk. It is symbolic as “the woman now represents all the working mothers talking to their children”.


She tells them how the plan changed but despite that the task must be completed. The boy and girl become excited to be part of great freedom struggle, they realize the importance of rescuing Kimathi.


The woman had earlier cleared the doubts Kimathi haboured like she did now of boy and girl. Finally the boy and girl who have taken over the leadership of freedom struggle sing “a thunderous freedom song” along with a crowd of freedom fighters including the reluctant KAR soldier. All this was inspired by the brave woman and her brave deeds. The woman thus plays a pivotal role in the play; she is source of strength and courage to the masses all doubts are rested by the woman’s actions. She also gets the second line of leadership ready through the boy and the girl.


The narrative focuses on four trials through the three movements, the structural unity is maintained by the woman, the boy and the girl who join hands to rescue Dedan Kimathi and finally occupy the center stage action. Through the girl, boy and woman the play acquires an identity, expression and solidarity.


Negritude and Marxism in African literature


In most works by African writers and critics, and in relation with this literary effort, Chukuezi, (as cited in Ikwubuzo, 2006) identified with the Negritude philosophy that is meant to promote the essence of blackness and remove all the denigration associated with Africans by the imperialist. Leopld Sedar Senghor, Aime Cesaire and Leon Gotran Damas in the 1930s propagated the Negritude ideology with aim to reduce and/or end the negative effects of the widespread western propaganda against Africans. The relevance of the propagation of Negro culture and defense of the culture against anything and any group that tend to humiliate black and black culture find expressions in the plays written by most African playwrights. These include Soyinka, Wa Thiong’o, J.P. Clark, and Ama Ata Aidoo.

 Writers who have drawn inspiration from this philosophy we may say belong to two schools of thought. To paraphrase, Taiwo (1967) the first which is from the Francophone Africa believe that any African literary work must be committed to the liberation of Africa – social, cultural and political. The English- speaking part of Africa, which is the second school insists that African writers should be influenced by the uniqueness of their own experience and desire to be integrated with the African environment and propagate the continent's own culture rather than western philosophy. It appears that what both schools of thought demand from a work of art, is that our consciences as Africans should be raised. This can be justified from the content of the East African play under consideration. While the Negritude movement may be rated high in our attempt to reconcile the identified schools of thought, attempt will be made in this paper to also reveal the Marxist strategies employed by the contemporary East African playwrights under study to solve African problems arising from the consequences of imperialism in particular. 

In brief, however, the main concern of Ngugi;Wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo in the play, The Trial... is the Mau Mau struggle against the British force of occupation in Kenya. The work appears to re-write or document the heroes and heroines of the Kenyans' struggle against foreign forces of exploitation and domination in Africa generally and Kenya in particular.


These include Kimathi, Koitatel, Nyanjiru, Me Kitilili and Waiyaki. The history of the resistance movement goes back to the 15th and 16th centuries when Kenyans and East African people first took up arms against European colonial power and or Portuguese forces of conquests, in the form of murder and plunder of the native soil. In what appears an imaginative reconstruction of the Kenyan history, or the people’s determination to resist oppression and exploitation as new forms of enslavement, the playwrights believe that it’s not just their hero, Dedan Kimathi, who is being tried but the whole of the writers and masses of Africa that are on trial. For instance, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Micere Githeae Mugo (as cited in Blacky 1998:44) believe:


…that good theatre is that which is on the side of the people, that which, without making mistakes and weakness guides people and urges them to higher resolves in their struggle for total liberation.


The play emphasizes the role of the writer (playwright) in fighting every common enemy of the masses just as the historical envisioning of the world of the Mau Mau in the dual authored play under study. Afterall Freire (1982: 98) said that:Dialogue with the people is radically necessary to every authentic revolution. This is what makes it a revolution.' Perhaps, “revolution” in the critic’s sense of usage here implies what we may describe as ‘constructive violence’ to achieving a desired end.


We agree with the critic's form of pedagogy to achieving a desired change in the society, though Freier’s transformational agenda in the passage from his Pedagogy of the oppressed (1982) even if applied may not produce the desired effect always say, for instance in a situation where the imperial ‘ego’ is in forceful dominance as was the case in Kenya during the period in perspective. In retrospect but with respect top history, the British in 1886 and 1895 had an agreement with Germany that delineated a boundary between British teritory in Kenya and German territory in Tanzania in 1985. The British government formally took over the territory which was consequently renamed East African Protectorate (Umaru, 1988). The play reveals the dehumanization of Kenyans in their own soil, as the result of boundary ‘reconciliation’. The colonialists needed the land to control the natives and every other thing. The natives therefore, must be suppressed forcefully to allow foreign control in that part of Africa. The land is thus an important issue in the fictive Kenya of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo. The Rift valley had been cleared for white occupation and the pastoral Massai have also been forced out of the land for British occupation while the white highland is reserved for British ex-servicemen. It is the desire of the foreigners to maintain their stronghold in the land. In the symbolic characterization of the East African experience observed in the playwrights' fictive Kenya, the three divisions of the play “(First movement, Second movement and Third movement particularly the trials) are very revealing about the people’s denigration including murder. The playwrights explain:


Leader: Away with oppression!

Unchain the people!

Crowd:           Away with oppression!

Unchain the people!

Song: Tutan yakwa Mashamba yetu!


Tutakomboa Afrika yetu!

Tutanyakwa Viwanda Vyetu!

Leader: Away with exploitation!

Unchain the people!

Leader: Away with human slaughter!

Crowd: Unchain the people!


Leader: Brothers’ we shall break-

Crowd: Exploiters' chains!

Leader: Rally round the gun! (p.5)


We read how the masses react angrily against the oppressive landscape of the Kenya masses. The masses raise voices against British exploitation, of the land and people in all guises. In a paraphrase of Soyinka (2003) theirs is great example of retrieved stolen voices despite apparent humiliation by the oppressors. Indeed, Fanon (1980:67) clarifies:


For the native, this violence represents the absolute line of action.

The militant is also a man who works…. In

Algeria for example….

Almost all the men who called on the


people to join in the national struggle

were condemned to death.


Fanon in his profiling of The Wretched of the Earth supports the historical experience of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo in the play and at the same time reveals that in every colonial situation dictatorial instincts exist.


The masses in Kenyan colonial society represented in the play express absolute belief in their leaders and the struggle for self-liberation no matter how bad. As the Mau Mau is blackmailed and arrests of its major leaders including Kimathi are effected, the white leaders collaborate with the natives who are on their payrolls to negotiate the right of ownership of the land with Kimathi but he rejected the offer to betray the masses and remain in colonial chains, and endured colonial battering in the torture room created for that purpose. He rejects the proposition to buy back their land from the white men as a means of recovering their right to the land. He is of the view that it is impossible to buy back the property that was stolen from them. To the proposal that he considers irritating, Kimathi replies:

What new song is this?


Buy back our land from those who stole it from us?


Our land?. Have we not bought it with streams of blood?

Rivers of sweat? (p. 45)


The hero of the masses, Kimathi sees the enemies of the land not only as illegal occupants but thieves, usurpers and murderers who forced their ways into where they do not belong. Some of the natives who betray the masses and their native land for the worthless favour they get from the foreign ambassadors of depravity are also derided in the play. This development is synonymous to unequal partnership, the partnership of a horse and its rider, the colonialists are the rider and Kenyans, the horse. The Senegalese, Rodney, (1972:36) confirms our position:


The presence of a group of

African sell-outs is part of


The definition of underdevelopment.


This is the exact position of Dedan Kimathi in the present study. The playwright recalls “… Kimathi’s teachings is unite, drive out the enemy and control your own riches….” (p.18). in other

words, problem of unity may have deprived many African countries of development, and development crusade. Even in post colonial African, the problem persists and is still a hindrance to growth of most African states.


In the text, Kimathi’s trial continued up to the end of the Third movement. The heroic character may be charged for unlawful possession of firearm and treason, he stood his grounds. He refused to succumb to colonial antics, even in death. He consistently questioned the moral right of his British interrogators and accusers whom he criticized publicly:


Kimathi: Save your life. A colonialist my Saviour?. Saved into new-slavery. Listen to that my people!


Kimathi of Iregi generation I was blessed by a blind

grand mother,

A peasant, a toiler.


She imparted her strength, the strength of our people into me.


I felt her blind faith, blind strength enter my bone.


Fire and light, save my life?... (p. 36)


This reflects the hero's belief in his people, culture and ancestors. He believes in his ancestral spirits than any foreign tutelage and or imported ideology that the British may attempt to impose on the Kenyan masses. Kimathi cautions his people against the “dance of humiliation”. (p. 37). He is determined to fight till the end. Kimathi’s trial continued, he encouraged the masses while pouring invectives on the colonial oppressors: Kimathi: “In the court of imperialism!


There has never and will


Never be justice for the people under imperialism Justice is created

Through a revolutionary struggle

Against the forces of imperialism


Our struggle must therefore continue

(p. 82)


The hero of the people, Kimathi may have been sentenced to die by hanging for fighting imperial domination in Kenya but his soul, the people believe will join the ancestors to continue the fight that will bring a true end to imperialism and or colonialism as well as neo-colonialism everywhere in Africa.


Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo, no doubt have employed Marxism which emphasizes the relations of production as strategy to engaging colonial issues in Kenya in the famous play. The Trial... portrays the lopsidedness in relationship between the colonialists and the colonized people who owned the land. Marxism views a literary text as the product of an ideology relevant to a particular period and as the product of individual consciousness. The theory reveals that a text may be judged on the basis of its portrayal of societal relations of actions. It adds that literature must be understood in relation to its historical and social reality. Central to Marxist position is that the economic base of the society determines the nature of its ideology, institutions and practices including literature that is the superstructure of the society. Thus, foremost Marxist critics including Christopher Claudwell, George Lukacs and Walter Benjamin see literature as a reflection of societal economy. Marx and Engel, the proponents of Marxist ideology add that literature plays an important role in developing a revolutionary consciousness in the common people, so a good artist is he who represents the totality of human experience, revealing through the narrative an underlining movement of history To the Marxists, history is the history of conflict between classes, and politics cannot be separated from art. Marxists hold that any theory that treats literature in isolation as pure aesthetics or as the product of the writer's ingenuity divorcing it from the society and its history is deficient. Indeed. Marxists view literature as an ideology like the parliament, judiciary, education, religion, politics, philosophy and law which can be used for the needs of the proletariat and or capitalist. Marxism gave rise to the doctrine of socialist realism, that is seeing literature as the criticism and analysis of the artist who translates social facts into literary facts.


This is why a writer is often said to be socially committed in the attempt to interpret his time. This could be the reason Ngugi (“as cited in Amuzu, 2007: 184) explains “African literature does not espouse the theory of art for the sake of art.” We believes in the complementary function of the artist and his society.


In conclusion, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo’s play examined in this paper, applies not only to Negritude philosophy but Marxism in response to African social, cultural, and racial problems. The work, as viewed may be said to be a creative re-configuration of the Kenyan situation under the British. In a blunt condemnation of the evils of colonial subjugation and resistance, the play reveals how ‘accurate’ literature can represent the society of its time.





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