Corporeality as ideological trope in Ngugi's dramas, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi and I will marry when I want

George Nyamndi, Department of English, University of Buea, Cameroon

There can be no end to the discussion of the African encounter with Europe, because the wounds inflicted touched the very springs of life and have remained unhealed because they are constantly being gashed open again with more subtle, more lethal weapons. — Homecoming, xii.


Ngugi wa Thiong'o has caught the attention and the imagination of the literary world for his achievements as a novelist. Beginning with his novels of the 1960s, notably The River Between, A Grain of Wheat, Weep Not, Child, to his last known prose fiction, Petals of Blood, there is hardly any respite from the concern with human relations, especially as they are played out on the field of politics, money, and land. Ngugi's creative steam invariably seems provided by the different classes into which men group themselves and the ways in which these classes impact one another. In the prototypical Ngugian world, men are locked in a relationship of oppression and resistance, of exploitation and denouncement — situations in which liberation struggle by the oppressed peoples, mainly the African masses, comes across as the dominant motif. This liberation effort assumes a triangular dynamics of other, self, and again other, resolved into colonialism, self-rule, and neo-colonialism. The author's African characters therefore appear wedged between different shades of colonial domination by white settlers.

The prime source of conflict in Ngugi's fiction, it seems, is land and the wealth generated by it. On the one hand, the settler, attracted and even fascinated by the enormous potentials of the black man's land, swoops in and takes possession in a defiant act of substitution and estrangement. This originating transgression sparks a cycle of repression and resistance in which the psychology of human guile comes under creative scrutiny. This is to say that the existential tensions that characterize land /man relations constitute the dominant discourse in the Ngugian novel, land being pretext and man the primary focus.

These tensions are also observed in Ngugi's drama where the conflicts are actualized. The two plays The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976) and I will marry when I want (1982) both constitute two sides of the same (colonial) coin, the former depicting the struggle to free Kenya from colonial occupation and the latter to free the Kenyan man from neo-colonial oppression. In both plays ideology is mediated by reference to the human body: its parts, products, whether waste or useful, and its abstract attributes. This approach permits the playwright and his associates to free the colonial question of any time or spatial constraints, concerned as they are not only with the contextual specifications of the plays but more especially with their symbolic dimension. As he and Mugo say in the Preface to The Trial, "one of the main spurs to writing this play was the realization that the war Kimathi was leading was being waged with even greater vigour all over Africa and in all the other parts of the world where imperialism still enslaved the people and stole their wealth." Kimathi's war thus takes on a symbolic status to become not only struggle for freedom from colonial oppression but struggle for liberation from all forms of oppression.

For Ngugi, therefore, like for Marx, the central category of analysis is humankind, objectified in the human body. Fanon sharpens the focus further when he says the whole question of imperialism is buried in the bones of the native (The Wretched, 40). The plays therefore lend themselves admirably to the language of anatomy in which different parts of the body are raised to vectors of ideology, made to keep alive the consciousness of an experience whose effects continue to be felt even today across the continent. Indeed, there can be no end to the discussion of the African encounter with Europe, for its legacy is too deeply burned into the African skin. First it was colonialism, then came a fleeting game of nominal independence that neo-colonial resurgence had no difficulty brushing aside. Today it is globalization, a euphemistic appellation for global capitalism which, like all the other forms of exploitation before it, has only bad news for Africa.

It is fashionable in these post-colonialist times to expend academic effort on theoretical niceties iced with glamorous twists of phrase. But just below the glamour lurks a hideous monster that does not serve us theories but hard facts which by their blazing actuality command all our attention. The name of that monster, according to Ngugi, is capitalism, and it is this that he has employed all his creative energy to neutralize.

Kimathi, the central personage in The Trial views colonialism as a "jungle of exploitation where one will find creatures of prey feeding on the blood and bodies of those who toil: those who make the earth yield" (26). The same Kimathi calls Shaw Henderson, the British Prosecutor, an imperialist cannibal (35). Whether creatures of prey feeding on the blood and bodies of those who toil, or man-eating imperialists, the colonial man is viewed by the native in essentially destructive terms. But this is not how the colonialist views himself. Henderson tells Kimathi: "Nations live by strength and self-interest" (34). This contradiction refers us back to Fanon's concept of a world divided into compartments, a motionless, Manichaeistic world (The Wretched, 4O), a concept which receives epistemological warrant in the Marxian dialectics that sees all matter in motion and development based on internal contradictions (Funderburk, 23). Reality by the terms of this dialectic vision is not just perceived event but the coexistence of incompatible forces verifiable in such oppositional dualities as master/slave, lord/serf, bourgeois/proletariat.

What Henderson calls strength and self interest, Kimathi calls cannibalistic exploitation. The latter's recourse to predatory imagery only fixes the colonial question more firmly within the anatomical matrix: the settlers do not just stop at seizing the land of the natives. They do a lot worse than that, for they eat up the native as well, body and all. This nice stereotypical boomerang shatters the very moralistic pretensions of colonialism and places it on view in all its barbaric nakedness.

In both their dialectical intentions, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi and I will marry when I want are not so much concerned with colonialism as with the struggle to end it. It is for this reason that in both plays white characters assume only marginal roles in the development of action. The dominant characters in both plays, Kimathi (The Trial) and Kiguunda (I will marry) are all Kenyans, and even when they interact with white men, as in the case of Kimathi and Henderson, initiative is exercised predominantly by the African. It is as if the authors were telling the African masses through these heroes that the antidote to their plight was in their own hands.

This paper argues that by dismantling the human body and then using its constituent parts to deliver messages of ideological import, Ngugi and his co-authors intimate that the effects of colonialism were felt most strongly in the flesh of each human individual. The emphasis on the human consequences of imperialism, rather than on the material, accentuates the pressure on the need for greater human solidarity where in the past stress has been on national — that is to say western — strength and self interest.

A matter of blood

Ngugi's dramatic universe is washed in blood. In fact, this liquid seems to be a cherished metaphor in his entire artistic design and a privileged vehicle for the articulation of his universal humanism. Everywhere in his writing the colour of the liquid is uniform, its quantity plentiful, and its connotative functions varied. We have seen in The Trial (26) that colonialism is nothing but a jungle of exploitation where creatures of prey feed on the blood and bodies of those who toil. In the neo-colonial situation of I will marry, the permanence of this evil is conveyed still in blood imagery: "The rich only want to find ways of continuing to drink people's blood" (56). This bizarre milieu where human blood is a sought-after delicacy smacks of Swift's 18th-century England portrayed with such mouth-watering sarcasm in "A Modest Proposal".

Interestingly enough, Smith calls the English savages in this same piece, and the editor in his footnote says: "The whole is an elaboration of a rather trite metaphor: 'The English are devouring the Irish'", then shows Swift expressing pity for the oppressed, ignorant, populous and hungry Catholic peasants and lashing out at the rapacious English absentee landlords, who were bleeding the country white with the silent approbation of Parliament, ministers, and the crown (Norton, 2181). In "I will marry", the protagonist Kiguunda and his wife Wangeci get into a scuffle in the course of which she cries out: "Let him now kill me so he can have meat for supper" (110). Although Wangeci's outrage is apparently levelled at her husband, the real monster in the picture is Kioi and his American, German and Japanese capitalist accomplices who have transformed Kiguunda into a wretched, dejected and now monstrous cannibalistic alcoholic. He has been thrown out of his poorly-paid job as labourer on Kioi's farm and his one and a half acres land seized by the bank headed by the very same Kioi.

As synecdochic tool, blood is effective in a way that no other part of the human body is. That is why the ideological battle is steeped primarily in it. The capitalist venture may be — and certainly is — driven by material quests and in the search for and acquisition of these material trappings the settlers all too readily overlook the blood(y)-dimension of their act. But then, recognizing the importance of blood also means acknowledging the humanity of those creatures in whom the blood in question runs. The evidence on the ground points clearly to the fact that blood was not central to the concerns of the imperialists; at least as far as the natives were concerned. In The Trial, for instance, the white police officer, Waitina, calls Kimathi a black bastard (7), and the Old White Dame calls Kimathi and his fellow fighters wild savages (29). These insults are not particular; they are racial. To Waitina and the old white lady, Kimathi and his ilk are vexatious accidents in history, just good enough to till the white man's soil. And just in case these white ones thought they were alone in their disdain, Fanon steps in to provide greater relief to the picture: "Over against (the settler) torpid creatures, wasted by fever, obsessed by ancestral customs, form an almost inorganic (our emphasis) background for the innovating dynamism of colonial mercantilism (The Wretched, 40).

The above apocalyptic painting, though modelled on colonial Kenya, is still too vividly familiar in today's Africa. A journey through most African countries, even as their flags of independence flap proudly in the dry winds, brings home the unremitting permanence of suffering and disease and a gnawing sense of exploitation. This continued consciousness of a malignant foe informs Ngugi's dramatic thrust and validates his ideological stance. The feeling, really, is that nothing much has changed between the colonial times and the neo-colonial present. In fact one finds it difficult at times to fight back the realization that if things have changed, they have only done so for the worse.

From thing to man

Ngugi's is not only a drama of combativeness. It is also a drama of didacticism, the basic tenet of which is objective identification. The dramatist allies with the people, identifies with them, in their fight for recognition. In the Preface to The Trial he and Mugo say: "We believe that good theatre is that which is on the side of the people, that which, without masking mistakes and weaknesses, gives people courage and urges them to higher resolves in their struggle for total liberation."

It has just been seen that colonialism did not allow the natives any regard as human beings. To Ngugi, Africa's encounter with Europe inflicted wounds that touched the very springs of life. Marx saw alienated, fragmented human beings and sought, through his theory of alienation, to show the destructive physical and psychological effects of capitalism on human beings. (Funderburk, 24). But it is Fanon who best profiles the colonial psychology in matters of race:

At times this Manichaeism goes to its logical conclusion and dehumanizes the native, or to speak plainly it turns him into an animal. In fact, the terms the settler uses when he mentions the native are zoological terms. He speaks of the yellow man's reptilian motions, of the stink of the native quarter, of breeding swarms, of foulness, of spawn, of gesticulations. . . . Those hordes of vital statistics, those hysterical masses, those faces bereft of all humanity, those distended bodies which are like nothing on earth, that mob without beginning or end, those children who seem to belong to nobody, that laziness stretched out in the sun, that vegetative rhythm of life — all this forms part of the colonial vocabulary (The Wretched, 32-33).

Here is the African reduced to an almost inorganic — that is to say lifeless — backdrop to imperialist action, or a stinking animal whose real place is in the zoo. This basic injustice must be corrected, the native de-alienated first, before the liberation struggle proper can be launched. Once his blood has been put back in his veins, the native becomes a principal actor in the dynamics of change. To cite Fanon, the thing which has been colonized becomes man during the same process by which it frees itself (The Wretched, 27); for, as the saying goes, "a man brags about his own penis, however tiny (I will marry, 4). And yet man had not always been thing. There were times when, as Kiguunda tells his wife Wangeci, "breasts were full and pointed" (I will marry, 22), times of cultural and ritual integrity when the native's humanity was not called in question. The damage of colonialism has put paid to the cultural continuity. "Breasts have fallen (I will marry, 29). And so too has the native. This is the intervening point of Ngugi's dramatic mission. It is here that he employs the invigorating power of drama to open the eyes of the natives to the bad effects of colonialism.

The native thing, now transformed into a full-blooded African man thanks to the education and encouragement of the playwright, discovers how bloodied he has been by the "colonial jaws of death (The Trial, 73). Wives and daughters have been raped before his own eyes, natives have been crippled through beating, and men have been castrated (I will marry, 28). Backs have been flayed by whips (The Wretched, 40), and poverty has dug trenches on his face (I will marry, 29), poverty that is like poison in the body (I will marry, 41).

Fanon reminds the African that "colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state" (The Wretched, 48). That is why the Mau-mau guerrillas make blood the central symbol of their struggle. Their entry into the cause is marked by a blood oath and they are encouraged to shed their blood for their country so that when victory is achieved, they can proudly say "we were not given freedom. We bought it with our blood" (I will marry, 72).

In this picture, independence is only a fleeting transition to neo-colonialism. As Gicaamba muses rhetorically, "The same colonial church survives even today. Did a leopard ever change its spots?" (I will marry, 59). It is here that Ngugi's drama assumes the other of its dual functions, namely to rescue the African from colonialism and its surrogate structures: "It was crucial that all this be put together as one vision stretching from the pre-colonial wars of resistance against European intrusion and European slavery, through the anti-colonial struggle for independence and democracy, to post-independence struggle against neo-colonialism" (Preface, The Trial). This resolve wins Ngugi's dramaturgical intention its badge of topicality, for it shows colonialism to be a ramping evil that cannot be held within any specific temporal or spatial boundaries and that, like good wine, it gains in refinement the older it gets. That is why the colonial man and his neo-colonial successor are treated with the same spite by the playwright. "The Trial of Dedan Kimathi" thus becomes "an imaginative recreation and interpretation of the collective will of the Kenyan peasants and workers in their refusal to break under sixty years of colonial torture and ruthless oppression by the British ruling classes and their continued determination to resist exploitation, oppression and new forms of enslavement" (Preface, The Trial).

The Lesson

One of the questions Njooki asks amidst the ethical aridity overwhelming his native Kenya is; "What happens to the herd when the leader has broken legs?" (I will marry, 63). This question raises another urgent one of progress. Broken legs negate the dynamism required to move forward. The leader is not absent. He is there, visible, but unable to surge forward and spur the flock in his wake. His inability to provide inspiring leadership is symbolic in more ways than one, and prompts us to ask a basic question: Is he living with his time? Kimathi tells Henderson: "If you are a fighter, unfetter me now. Let us face each other. Man to man. Let us see which wrestler fells the other, you coward" (The Trial, 4O). One cannot suppress an ironic chuckle at Kimathi's clumsy backwardness. That he should term Henderson a coward is revealing of how thoroughly ignorant he is of who calls the shots. By all indications he has mistaken his society for one still governed by the likes of Okonkwo and Amalinze the cat in Things Fall Apart. It is certain that he will throw Henderson in a wrestling bout, but such a victory will be utterly ridiculous at a time and age that admits only of scientific and technological wrestling. "Every attempt to break colonial oppression by force," Fanon says, "is a hopeless effort, an attempt at suicide, because in the innermost recesses of their brains the settler's tanks and aeroplanes occupy a huge place" (49).

Fanon cautions further that colonialism is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence. Whatever colonialism is, therefore, it can only be defeated by its venom. If it is capitalism, it can only be defeated by a higher degree of capitalism. If it is technology, only a more refined technological culture can overcome it. Gicaamba provides the winning formula when he says: "The blood of the worker led by his skill and experience and knowledge (our emphasis) is the true creator of the wealth of nations" (I will marry, 37-38). This is the quintessential weapon in the battle pitting native against settler. Skill, experience and knowledge, not the colour of the skin or the shape of the nose: those are the weapons in the battlefield of cultural supremacy. Armed with them, any race, anywhere on earth, will rise to Aryan status. In a masterful finale to the basic principle of racial equality Fanon says: "The native discovers that his life, his breath, his beating heart are the same as those of the settler. He finds out that the settler's skin is not of any more value than a native's skin; and it must be said that this discovery shakes the world in a very necessary manner" (35).

Ngugi's dramatic realism consists in x-raying society without masking mistakes and weaknesses. He does not engage in any puerile romanticization of the freedom struggle, nor in the saint/devil dichotomy between native and settler so common in anti-colonial apologia. He points out mistakes where he finds them. And the local bourgeoisie provides more than enough grit for his critical machine, as does the Church, an institution in which nothing much can be perceived by way of succor. On the contrary. In actual fact, "The Church in the colonies is the white people's Church, the foreigner's Church. She does not call the native to God's ways but to the ways of the white man, of the master, of the oppressor" (The Wretched, 32).

For Feuerbach, God was simply human beings worshipping themselves (Funderburk, 21). Even though in his distress the native has cried out: "Jesus your blood cleanses me" (I will marry, 46), this supplication has fallen on the ears of a white man of God with Bible in left hand, gun in the right (I will marry, 56), whose avowed mission is to "soften our hearts, cripple our minds with religion" (I will marry, 56). Gicaamba remembers how, during their liberation struggle, the religious leaders used to be sent to them in detention camps to tell them, "Surrender, surrender, confess the oath, that's what Jesus tells you today," and how, in an anecdotal but revealing moment, a priest trails Patriot son of Njieri into his cell pressing resignation calls on him only for the prisoner to shoot saliva into his priestly mouth (59).

The black bourgeoisie equally bear responsibility for the injustices plaguing the local masses. Ikuua wa Ndikita, Kioi's business partner, is described as a man with a belly as huge as that of a woman about to deliver (75). As for Kioi himself, Kiguunda tells him: "It is said that the fart of the rich never smells. But yours Kioi stinks all over the earth" (102). Kioi's fart does not only smell, it stinks; and not only in Kenya, but all over the earth. The man's malodorous emission is easily identified as the by-products of imperialism, captured most vividly in this lament by Gicaamba:

What did this factory bring to our village?

Twenty-five cents a fortnight.

And the profits, to Europe!

What else?

An open drainage that pollutes the air in the whole country! An open drainage that brings

Diseases unknown before!

We end up with the foul smell and the diseases

While the foreigners and the local bosses of the company live in palaces on green hills, with wide tree-lined avenues, where they'll never get a whiff of the smell or contract any of the diseases! (39).

Significantly, the foreigners and local bosses live in the same kind of palaces, away from the stench of the open drainages. If there is anything Ngugi holds against the African man, it is this attitude of joining the foreigner to exploit his fellow African. Since a house divided within itself cannot stand, this double oppression suffered by the African masses makes the liberation struggle twice as difficult. This is the basic plight of today's African countries where the leaders and the local bourgeoisie delight in sojourning in European countries either for holidays or health checks, during which the essence of their country's sweat is squandered with abandon.

Even when the wealthy pretend to invest locally, the action is driven more by egoistic reasons than any real nationalist feeling. For instance, when they build good hospitals, it is not to provide healthcare to the needy and beleaguered masses but just "so that when they get heart attacks and belly ulcers, their wives can rush them to the hospitals" (38). The heart and belly as mirrors flash at us the dynamics of imperialism and the remains of its action in, on, and around man. There is no relieving intention here. All is harm and disease. By these extended metaphors Ngugi states with dogmatic clarity that imperialism eats up both makers and victims, that the end-result of the system is nefarious, either in the form of foul smell and diseases for the masses, or in that of heart attacks and belly ulcers for the compradors.

It is not wealth as such that the playwright condemns, but its greedy accumulation and the anti-social causes it is made to serve. Whereas the rich suffer from heart attacks and stomach ulcers, obviously the fruit of over-indulgence and anxiety, what do the poor get fortnight after fortnight? "Something for the belly! . . . just for the belly! But it's not even enough for the belly! (I will marry, 38).

So what are the lessons? No play is there just for its own sake, given that every dramatic rendition is an exercise in dialectical and/or ideological persuasion. As we have seen, Ngugi's two plays re-visit colonialism and its sequels. There must be a reason for this. What then is the thrust of his cathartic proposition? To catch this thrust, it will not be unnecessary to return to the motive force of his dramatic indulgence, as laid out in the Preface to The Trial, namely, that "good theatre is that which is on the side of the people, that which, without masking mistakes and weaknesses (our emphasis), gives people courage and urges them to higher resolves in their struggle for total liberation". In this dramatic manifesto, mistakes and weaknesses emerge as the ultimate enemies of any liberation struggle. These drawbacks are essentially human, and they manifest themselves first at the individual level before fanning out to engulf groups and societies. That is why Ngugi burns the consequences of colonialism into the flesh of the African, the better to dramatize and apportion causality: if the African is where he is, that is to say in the cesspit of human experience, he only has himself to blame for it. His body thus becomes at once symptomatic and emblematic of his failures, and the repository of the consequences of these failures. As Fanon says, "I admit that all the proofs of a wonderful Songhai civilization will not change the fact that today the Songhais are under-fed and illiterate, thrown between sky and water with empty heads and empty eyes." (The Wretched, 168). And so colonialism, ever compassionate, returns, in its fresh post-colonial garb, this time to "protect her child from itself, from its ego, and from its physiology, its biology and its own unhappiness which is its very essence." (170).

Colonialism, in whatever hue, will not mitigate the essence of the African condition, here rightly identified by Fanon as unhappiness; it can only exacerbate it. The onus of such a task lies primarily, not to say exclusively, with the victim. If the African body feels the effects of colonialism, as Ngugi demonstrates it does, then the African mind must do what it takes to ward off the assault. The final lesson for the African mind, all African minds, is to be obtained from the following exposition by Engels in his now-famous exchange with that epitome of puerility, Monsieur During :

In the same way that Robinson (Crusoe) was able to obtain a sword, we can just as well suppose that (Man) Friday might appear one fine morning with a loaded revolver in his hand, and from then on the whole relationship of violence is reversed: Man Friday gives the orders and Crusoe is obliged to work… Thus the revolver triumphs over the sword, and even the most childish believer in axioms will doubtless form the conclusion that violence is not a simple act of will, but needs for its realization certain very concrete preliminary conditions, and in particular the implements of violence; and the more highly-developed of these implements will carry the day against primitive ones. Moreover, the very fact of the ability to produce such weapons signifies that the producer of highly-developed weapons, in everyday speech the arms manufacturer, triumphs over the producer of primitive weapons. To put it briefly, the triumph of violence depends on the production of armaments, and this in its turn depends on production in general, and thus…on economic strength, on the economy of the State, and in the last resort on the material means which that violence commands (qtd. in The Wretched, 50).

As Engels makes clear in this passage, violence is not a race issue, but one of ability: the ability to produce the weapons for its propagation and sustenance. If violence is construed in its less abrasive sense of life-force, we see that every human category has within its specific context the means for the production of its own violence. In this connection Aimé Césaire postulates: "I believe that our particular cultures contain within them enough strength, enough vitality, enough regenerative power to adapt themselves to the conditions of the modern world and that they will prove able to provide for all political, social, economic or cultural problems, valid and original solutions, that will be valid because they are original" (qtd. in Zirimu, 193). And so by way of rhetorical fillip, Ngugi joins Fanon to ask the African man: with what are you going to fight colonialism? With your knives? Your shot-guns? Or with your loaded, self-made revolvers? The answer, we think, lies not in the arms that till the settler's fields, but in the mind that makes it possible to save the land for the full enjoyment of its rightful owners. To borrow from a lament by Malcom X, "if the conked black men and white-wigged women gave the brain in their heads just half as much attention as they do their hair, they would be a thousand times better off" (qtd. in Zirimu, 185).

Select bibliography

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1954.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1967.

Funderburk, Charles and Robert Thobaben. Political Ideologies. New York: Harper & Rowe, 1989.

Ngugi wa Thiongo. Homecoming. London: Heinemann, 1972.

_____. and Ngugi wa Mirii. I will marry when I want. London: Heinemann, 1982.

_____. and Micere Githae Mugo. The Trial of Dedan Kimathi. London: Heinemann, 1976.

Zirimu, Pio and Andrew Gurr, eds. Black Aesthetics. Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau, 1973.

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Last modified: 21 November 2005