Two weekends ago I went to the Kenya National Theatre to watch Ngaahika Ndenda, a play co-authored by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ngugi wa Mirii. The play tells the story of the conflict between an unholy alliance of the post-independence political class, the church establishment, and multinational corporations on the one hand and the poor on the other.
For a share of profits made by the international corporations, the political class and local capitalists sacrifice the nationalist aspirations of freedom and equity.
The wealthy class view the poor as lazy and envious of their wealth. The church, on its part, tells the poor not to worry about material things, as they will get their reward in heaven.
For the poor, the post-independence and colonial periods are eerily similar. The poor, however, have not completely given up on the ideals that inspired the freedom struggle.
One of them, Gichamba, a worker at a multinational corporation, reminds them about these ideals. He reminds them of the glorious anti-colonial struggle. He tells them how the church has taught them to look down on their cultural traditions. At the end of the play, he mobilises the workers and peasant to rekindle the fire that once burned in their bellies during the fight for independence. It is clear who the new enemy is.
The play was first performed at an open-air theatre in Kamirithu village, Limuru, in 1977. The theme of the play made the ruling class and the church uncomfortable in the extreme. It seemed to them that it was inciting rebellion against the government and the social order.
Ngugi was arrested at his home in Limuru at night and placed in detention at the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. The irony of a post-independence government placing a critic in the same jail where the British imprisoned nationalists just confirmed the play’s political view. On his part, Ngugi wa Mirii escaped arrest by the skin of his teeth. The night the secret police came looking for him at his home in Limuru, he had fled, barely an hour before, into exile in Zimbabwe.
On release from detention, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, too, fled into exile after he learned of plans to permanently silence him. His family in Limuru, viewed as enemies of the state, would be subjected to regular death threats and their home raided by police.
As if that was not traumatising enough, Ngugi’s children had to watch on TV effigies of their father being burned in the streets of Nairobi during state-organised demonstrations.
That at last week’s performance there was not a single policeman in sight, and that the director, a British national, has not been threatened with deportation, shows how far we have come as a country.
A section of the political class tells us to forget such history. But by remembering the sacrifices of the past, we are also reminded of the values that drove those who sacrificed. Values we now so desperately need.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator