Return of Ngugi’s ‘Ngaahika Ndeenda’ and how US abandoned playwright

Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Renowned author Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o gestures during an interview with the Nation on February 7, 2019. 

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Ngaahika Ndeenda is back on stage in Nairobi – and he seems happy about it.

On the weekend of November 27, 1977 the residents of Kamirithu village in Kiambu were told that the permit to stage Ngugi’s Kikuyu play, which translates to “I will marry when I want,” had been withdrawn. Every Sunday, for a month, they had trooped to the Kamirithu Community Centre to watch what was turning out to be a unique community portrayal of capitalism, peasantry and class struggle.

But what is surprising is that when he was detained on January 13, 1978, the US, the most powerful nation, continued to regard Kenya’s human rights record as “good”. From Nairobi, Washington was told that “it appears to embassy that Ngugi’s detention under Public Security Act has been handled in accordance with clauses of Article 83 of Constitution.”

 “Frankly,” Wilbert J. Lemelle, the US ambassador to Kenya wrote in a cable, “we doubt that raising the Ngugi Affair further with the GOK would achieve anything for Ngugi.”

 “Kenyan courts cannot question the necessity of detention itself, although they can assure compliance with certain procedural rights,” wrote the embassy.

The embassy appears to have left little room to manoeuvre on the Ngugi issue; - or it was simply indifferent: “It is impossible to estimate length of Ngugi’s detention, but it seems this would be purely political rather than legal decision. It should be remembered that Ngugi was detained on express order from President Kenyatta upon alleged recommendation of Attorney General (Charles Njonjo).”

While the Jimmy Carter administration had placed some emphasis on human rights and democracy, it is interesting that their embassy in Nairobi was still viewing Kenya’s human rights record as ‘good.’

They said: “As we have reported in past, Kenya’s human rights record is good, although not perfect. Attorney General Charles Njonjo is conservative, authoritarian and strong advocate of law and order. On several occasions before Parliament he has defended use of Public Security Act as necessary to deal with what he terms ‘subversives’.”

In Africa, in the 1970s, subversives was the buzzword for communists, socialists and Marxists and they received little sympathy from Washington – and that explains why there was little concern or push for the release of Ngugi. “There have been some rumblings at University (of Nairobi) and a deepening feeling of frustrations among intellectuals over the failure of the university authorities even to raise the issue of Ngugi’s detention publicly,” the embassy reported.

Certainly, the literature don, novelist and playwright appeared to be on his own.

Curiously, Lemelle admitted that they “have not maintained systematic contact with Kenyans on Ngugi’s case,” and that they had raised concerns on human rights with numerous senior Kenyans. But these were a deputy undersecretary and deputy public prosecutor in the hope that the matter would reach Charles Njonjo – and the President.

Kamirithu was a colonial village where thousands of residents had been bundled together in a mini-concentration camp during the crackdown on Mau Mau freedom fighters. For long, there was a vacant building on a four-acre plot that still stood in the village, and locals, led by a Mrs Mary Waithanji, had in 1976 turned it into an adult education centre. Here, the villagers from all walks of life attended evening classes. From June 1976 to July 1977, the first batch of 50-plus men and women could read and write.

After that, they engaged the best-known scholar from the village, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, to write a play for them that could capture their predicament.

The East African Literature Bureau, which had published Ngugi’s This time Tomorrow in 1971, had given an advance royalty payment of Sh200,000 while the balance for the construction was borrowed from various people – in the hope that they could be repaid from the gate tickets.

 After that, the name of the building was changed from Kamirithu Youth Centre to Kamirithu Community Educational and Cultural Centre .

The play, co-authored by Ngugi wa Mirii, a research assistant at the University of Nairobi’s Institute of Development Studies, had elicited interest in Central Kenya, and was making many of the elites within the Kenyatta government uncomfortable. It was an indictment of the Kenyatta state and how it had handled wealth distribution.

It is the story of a freedom fighter, Kigunda, and his wife, Wangari, who are tricked into selling their land to a local tycoon, Kioi — who represents western capitalist interests. It is an indictment on religion and exposes the hypocrisy of westernised Kenyans. “Looking at the audience and actors, it is obvious they are enjoying themselves immensely and this not only goes to show that it is not only city slickers who enjoy drama but that drama has remained a part of African life,” wrote Fibi Munene, a theatre critic.

The director of the play, Kimani Gecau, had told the press that the team had worked with the community to stage the play.

“We did not want to follow the Western model of theatre and we have worked within the strength existing in the community.”

Although the play was in Gikuyu language, it was drawing large audiences from non-Gikuyu speakers and groups of high school students.

In his letter to Ngigi Mwaura, then the chairman of Kamirithu Community Centre, the Kiambu District Officer had ordered the staging of the play stopped until fresh permission was granted. Mwaura had thought there were some “misunderstandings” and had hoped that they could sort out the matter — but it was much deeper than that.

 The order had come from Simeon Nyachae, the provincial commissioner, who had become the prefect of the literary scene. It was not the first time that Nyachae was trying to meddle in the literary scene. Shortly after J M Kariuki’s murder, he had banned a gospel song, which he thought was targeting the government. In his autobiography, Nyachae wrote: “There was a lot of bitterness at the time in Central Province and indeed a song ‘Maai ni maruru’ (the water is bitter) was composed. It clearly portrayed bitter feelings about the murder of JM. The song implied the government, which was supposed to protect them, had turned bitter against them. To contain the situation, I used my official position then to invoke the Chief’s Authority Act to ban the song.”

Nyachae was still at the helm when Ngaahika Ndeenda emerged and used the provincial administration to silence the play. But that did not end there. On December 31, 1977, Ngugi was picked up from his rural home and was detained without trial, triggering uproar from the international community and was adopted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience.

Under the Public Security Act, under which Ngugi was detained, he was to be informed within five days the reasons for his arrest and there was no requirement to charge a detainee in court. Even though their cases could be reviewed by a Special Tribunal appointed by the president and sitting in camera, the recommendations were not binding on the president. The Kenyan courts could also not question the necessity of the detention and that left detainees at the mercy of the Executive.

In between, the harassment on his family continued and there was a raid to his house on October 12, 1978 by six men armed with axes who damaged the windows.

Ngugi’s suffering in Kamiti is well detailed in his book Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary and while there he wrote the book Caitani Mutharaba-ini (Devil on the Cross).

On December 12, 1978 President Moi announced the release of all detainees. Ngugi was driven from Kamiti Maximum Prison to his house that night.

“Democracy is not praise-singing. Democracy is open talking and criticism. This eliminates disunity and leads to the solution of problems. It creates a good atmosphere and unity in the country,” Ngugi told the press.

But even after he was released from detention, Ngugi, would still be hunted and in March 1979, he was arrested for “drinking after hours and behaving in a disorderly manner in a police station.”

Interestingly, he was charged together with his Ngaahika Ndeenda co-author. The charge was that at the Tigoni Police Station, they had behaved in a disorderly manner by “shouting, banging the counter and cell doors and using abusive words to police officers on duty, forcing them to release them and other people.”

But then Kiambu senior resident magistrate Emmanuel Okubasu released the two saying that nothing unusual happened at the Tigoni Police Station “apart from the fact that the two accused were persons conscious of their constitutional rights, and demanded to know why they had been arrested.”

After he was appointed the Central Province Commissioner in 1979, David Musila, decided to bring down the remnants of the theatre and build a polytechnic.

“I knew the government was uncomfortable with the ‘revolutionary ways of Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o. To date, however, I have never understood what dangers the government saw in the play,” Musila now writes in his recent autobiography, Seasons of Hope.

“As a new PC, I took it as my duty to engage the people and see if we could reach an agreement on the way forward. I held consultations with the local leaders and we decided the best way forward was to build an educational facility on the very spot where the open air theatre once stood. I held a public meeting in the area and made an offer on behalf of the government to build a polytechnic for the benefit of the local youth.”

Musila would later invite President Moi to open the polytechnic – thus sealing the fate of Kamirithu.

The return of Ngaahika Ndeenda shows how far we have come as a nation.

@[email protected] @johnkamau1

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