Kenya’s most famous coin comes home after 45 years of waiting
Nairobi (AFP) – It was banned for years and its authors – including the famous Ngugi wa Thiong’o – imprisoned, but after more than four decades, Kenya’s most famous play is finally back.
As the lights dim and a hush settles over the Nairobi audience, the theater erupts into song and actors dance down the aisle.
It’s a scene few could have imagined.
Although “Ngaahika Ndeenda” (“I’ll Get Married Whenever I Want”) holds a special place in the Kenyan scene, the drama’s tumultuous history means it hasn’t seen the light of day since 1977, when it was performed by peasants and factory workers in the central town of Limuru.
His withering view of the exploitation of ordinary Kenyans by the country’s elite hit home and the government was quick to shut down the show, ban Ngugi’s books and jail him and the co-author of the piece, Ngugi wa Mirii.
After a year in Kamiti maximum security prison, Ngugi was released but “virtually barred from getting a job”, he told AFP in an interview from California, where he lives in self-imposed exile. .
After Kenya embraced democratic reforms, he returned home in 2004 and was mobbed by fans at the airport.
But the visit soon turned sour, when he was beaten by gunmen and his wife raped in their Nairobi apartment. It was never established whether the theft was the sole motive for the attack.
“The play had all these consequences on my life…my life wouldn’t let me forget it even if I tried,” the 84-year-old said.
Born into a large peasant family in 1938, Kenya’s most beloved novelist and perennial Nobel Prize contender launched his writing career in English.
But it was a decision in the 1970s to abandon English in favor of his native Kikuyu that cemented his reputation as a writer willing to risk his literary future to preserve African languages.
It is therefore not surprising that the play, which tells the story of a poor Kenyan family struggling against land grabbing by their wealthy compatriots, is also staged in Kikuyu, with some performances in English.
“It was a spiritual experience for me to be on this stage,” said Mwaura Bilal, who plays the protagonist Kiguunda, a farmer who struggles to keep his crop and his small plot of land.
“There is an intrinsic human need to connect with who you are, especially in Africa, where we were taught that English, French, German are marks of superiority, of intelligence,” he told AFP the 34-year-old Kikuyu actor.
The production, which runs until the end of May, relied heavily on collaboration, British director Stuart Nash told AFP.
The process involved him directing the actors in English who would then apply the instructions to their Kikuyu performance as well.
“It wasn’t so much the language that was difficult, but as someone who’s not Kenyan or Kikuyu, there’s a cultural subtext that’s not always clear,” Nash said.
The team strove to make the production as authentic as possible, peppering the English version with Swahili and including traditional Kikuyu songs in both performances.
Many of the problems highlighted by the playwrights persist in Kenya and beyond, from deepening economic inequality to the lingering trauma of racism.
The unsettling relevance of the play, decades later, is not lost on the cast, director or its creator.
“I am an activist, I want to see change,” Ngugi said.
Almost 60 years after gaining independence from Britain in 1963, Kenya has struggled to bridge the inequality divide and is now bracing for a presidential election that will pit two multi-millionaires against each other.
“Nothing has changed,” said Nice Githinji, who plays Wangeci, the show’s female lead, in search of a better life for her daughter.
“Maybe that’s why the play was banned, so that nothing would change,” Githinji, 36, told AFP.
Nevertheless, the piece’s triumphant return to the country which forced its creators to choose between silence or exile is itself a source of optimism.
More than four decades after Ngugi made the fateful decision to stop writing fiction in English, overturning “the hierarchy of language” remains at the heart of his efforts to tackle inequality.
Even today, Kenyan children are sometimes bullied by teachers for speaking their mother tongue instead of English in school, in a disturbing echo of the pre-independence era.
“It’s very important to inspire pride in your language,” Ngugi said.
“I hope we can keep fighting for this world. We can’t give up.”
© 2022 AFP