“They talked of him as still being alive. ‘Kimathi will never die’, the Woman said. ‘But of course if you people have killed him, go and show us his grave!’ She said this in a strange tone of voice, between defiance and bitterness.”
(The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, p. vii)
The Trial of Dedan Kimathi by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Githae-Mugo, originally published in 1976, is a response to colonialist writings about the Mau Mau movement (a Kikuyu-dominated group fighting for freedom from the white settlers), which depicted the movement as vicious and its leader, Dedan Kimathi wa Wichiuri, as a terrorist. The writers counter this image with a portrait of Kimathi as a man of great courage and commitment, which is how he was seen by the oppressed citizens of Kenya. The play therefore is a rewriting of history from the Kenyan perspective, written in order to reestablish his role as the Mau Mau leader. In this way, the play challenges why and for whom history is written, where the occident had been controlling it before, to leave Kimathi unappreciated. The trial however is not presented accurately by the two playwrights but with a mythical reverence of Kimathi by the people as indicated by the line quoted above (where as a representative and not as a man, Kimathi can never die), the plot consisting of disparate but thematically-connected episodes instead of a tightly-woven dramatic narrative. The scenes in the courtroom are interspersed with ones that depict episodes from Kenyan history of the previous two hundred years: of Kenyan people attempting to help Kimathi escape, of his interactions with guerrillas, of him in prison, and of his torture. The play includes Gĩkũyũ songs and dances, and even mime. Ngugi looks back at history in an effort to erase deliberately propagated falsehoods, and so help his country cast off its legacy of oppression. The writers attempt to fill the gap for such a work, as they found “no single historical work written by a Kenyan telling of the grandeur of the heroic resistance of the Kenyan people fighting foreign forces of exploitation and domination”, wanting to reintroduce the “neglected heroes of the masses” into discourse.
The focus of the play is on the peasants’ and workers’ struggles before and after independence in an imaginative reconstruction of history. Micere and Ngugi explain the political motivation behind their collaborative work as— to celebrate the “peasant armed struggle against the British forces of occupation”, thus depicting “the people, the masses, as capable of making and changing history.” It is, the playwrights state, “not a reproduction of the farcical ‘trial’ at Nyeri. It is rather an imaginative recreation and interpretation of the collective will of the Kenyan peasants and workers in their resistance to 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). Kimathi’s work for the Kenyan freedom struggle had been almost forgotten from history until Mandela asked to see his wife and grave upon his release from prison in 1990, embarrassing the Moi administration and bringing Kimathi back into political discourse. The play re-defines the role which the Mau Mau movement played in gaining Kenya’s political autonomy and socio-cultural re-identification. In one of her interviews, Mugo states. “We were using drama specifically in order to conscientize our people, to review our history with them and theirs with us to be able to answer the questions, ‘Where are we?’ and ‘Where are we heading?’”
Ngugi and Micere not only explored how important the memory of Kimathi still was to the people of his area, but also used direct personal knowledge that contradicted standard or official accounts. It was a common belief that Kimathi had acquired military skill through having served with the British in the World War, rather than, as now appeared to be the case, from his own abilities and the circumstances of the independence struggle against the British. This style of writing can therefore be seen to be influenced by the Latin American genre of magical realism, pioneered by authors Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges, which engages primarily with a realistic world view but maintains fantastic elements, which critic Dilip K. Basu points out. The playwrights deal with the people’s beliefs and feelings rather than actual facts in order to bind the emotional significance with reality. Even though colonialism ‘wins’ in the text in the end, with Kimathi captured and killed, the suffering masses stay united in their pain, the Kenyan narrative finds a voice and the history as experienced by the orient is finally presented, purveying African experiences through the eyes of the Africans themselves.
Ian Henderson’s Man Hunt in Kenya (1958), written on the ‘hunt’ for Kimathi, which had for a long time been the only source of information on the last days of the freedom fighter, ideologically falls short in capturing such an African experience, as the writer is alien to the culture he seeks to expound. This is as opposed to the ideologies of Pan-Africanism, Marxism and Negritude as offsprings of imperial oppression represented in the works of writers like China Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong’o through personal experiences that capture the ills affecting society. Writers like J. M. Kariuki set the record record through historical reviews of the revolution such as Mau Mau Detainee, where he wrote that Dedan Kimathi was considered by the Kenyan people as a “brave and valiant fighter for freedom and a great leader of his people in the forest”. Kariuki’s personal account thus contrasts vividly with those of the colonial forces. He noted that “his admirers also almost universally stress [Kimathi’s] kindness and gentleness”. Robert Buijtenhuijs too, in Mau Mau Twenty Years After: the Myth and the Survivors (1973, confirming Thiong’o and Micere’s ideas three years before The Trial), assesses residual impressions of Dedan Kimathi’s activities on the people of Kenya, writing “he has become the personification of the armed struggle, and his image is very positive indeed. In nine out of ten cases his name is quoted when people want to single out a Mau Mau hero, and he is the only forest fighter who has a street named after him in Nairobi”. At the time of the revolution, Kimathi was known throughout Kenya as a freedom fighter and an anti-colonialist. Although most Kenyans had never met him, they knew of his heroic exploits and selfless concern for their freedom, with people’s faith in for him never diminishing through the years.
Wa Thiong’o and Mugo use realistic dialogue to express their disgust and bitterness at how the owners of the means of production have their freedoms usurped by a minority gang of white aliens, with Kimathi emerging in response to embody the spirit of revolution. Like Danlola in Wole Soyinka’s Kongi’s Harvest (1974), Kimathi personifies societal values and norms and represents the suffering masses. He also brusquely uses a language of defiance and resilience, as in the line “By what right dare you, a colonial judge, sit in judgement of me?” He challenges lies and claims that there are “Two laws. Two justices. One law and one justice protects the man of property, the man of wealth, the foreign exploiter. Another law, another justice, silences the poor, the hungry, our people.” There is however, an attempt not to single out Kimathi as special, as critic Arlene A. Elder points out. While he is being tortured, our attention is deflected from his solitary suffering by his being shrouded in semi-darkness and, in a lighted area of the stage, “scenes representative of the history of general black oppression and exploitation” being mimed. Even the poetic quality of many of his utterances are not intended to draw focus towards him as an individual, as Elder further writes, since many people at the time, inspired by their struggle, composed revolutionary verse. Dilip K. Basu too is in favour of this interpretation of a portrayal of Kimathi as ordinary rather than exceptional, as he mentions how the final scene of the play depicts “not Kimathi in lonely grandeur who stands as hero”, but the Girl, the Boy, the people of Kenya singing and dancing, and offstage in the shadows the already great historical figures, named in the course of the play or unnamed, among whom also stands the Woman of the play.
His symbolic function in the play however is represented as in one passage of dialogue where the Girl asks “Who really is Dedan Kimathi?” to receive a litany of combining aspects of his political role: “Leader of the landless. Leader of them that toil”, and mythic deification: “I have […] heard it said that he could turn himself into an aeroplane”, “that he could walk for 100 miles on his belly”. Since Kimathi, “Great commander that he was, Great organiser that he was, Great fearless fighter that he was”, was also, according to the Woman, “human! Too human at times!” his role is clearly not personal. They “only captured his shadow, his outer form and let his spirit abroad, in arms. No bullet can kill him”, as the Boy says. While the people believed in Kimathi to the extent that they did not think he could die, the ideology he left behind truly did remain eternal, with the Woman, as the Kenyan people at large, obstinately refusing to accept his death even when he had been killed and so remaining unified in their loss. He had become a legend for the oppressed and so several people had refused to believe he could be dead, and the play ensures he (although captured, tried and hanged in October 1956) will never die. The girl and boy, having earlier been symbols for the last youth of Kenya, transform into “newly-initiated freedom fighters, following the path blazed by Kimathi” (Magel, 1983). His legend, even when he was obscured by the government, therefore continued to inspire the struggle against colonialism and, later, against neo-colonialism. It is as Frantz Fanon posits in the introduction to Black Skin, White Masks, where he has written, “I believe the individual should tend to take on the universality inherent in the human condition”.
Elliot Ziwira, however, presents an area of criticism in the play in her essay ‘Ideological Import in The Trial of Dedan Kimathi’ where she points out that the Mau Mau Uprising, fought between the Mau Mau rebels and the white settlers’ army, glorified in the play and epitomised in Kimathi, actually resulted in the loss of thousands of lives, not only of their enemies but also of loyalists and those within their ranks. This element is, however, glossed over in the play, lost in the writers’ attempts to positivize the movement and strike a balance between glorifying Kimathi and presenting him as just one in the masses. It is problematic to present a revolution, necessarily violent as Marx would have it, as only positive, as it obscures history and discredits the narrative that the presents.This is in contrast with China Achebe’s writings, such as Things Fall Apart (1958), where he presents the Igbo culture as it is, with the inherent violence and sexism left in so as to represent both the good and the bad aspects of Nigerian life: not ideal by any means but certainly no worse than British imperialism, proving that the Igbo people are capable of self-governance without intervention. He demonstrates how no point in history is ideal and while the tribe may have had problems, they cannot be condemned as better or worse than any other civilisation.
The writers’ ideology is thus comparable to the philosophy of négritude (of which Thiong’o was a supporter), developed by francophone African intellectuals, writers, and politicians. Achebe was against the movement due to its unrealistic, excessive pride in Black culture without an acknowledge of any shortcomings within the society. The use of Kiswahili songs and Kenyan words and phrases in the play (without any explanation offered) however, is similar to Achebe’s tactics employed in his writings, where he is unapologetic about his culture. Language is considered by Thiong’o to be a weapon to reclaim one’s land from imperial rule, as he writes in ‘Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature’, and his use of Gĩkũyũ language is thus him asserting his identity. It is a way of not only harkening back to Gĩkũyũ traditions, but also of acknowledging and communicating their present. At the same time, Thiong’o and Githae-Mugo write primarily in English, using the very weapon of the colonial against them, to reclaim their own culture. Through this regeneration of tradition and culture, the play highlights the work of Dedan Kimathi, bringing him back into view as the leader of the Mau Mau Uprising, and as a symbol of the movement as E. A. Magel points out, to fight the colonial idea that perpetuated his actions as terrorism. Thus the reclamation in the play works both on the level of subverting language and that of rewriting a historical event. In Kimathi’s own words, that capture the sense of unity and urgency his leadership instilled, “I don’t lead terrorists. I lead Africans who want their self-government and land. God did not intend that one nation be ruled by another for ever.” Dedan Kimathi, therefore, may be a common man or a Kenyan deity, but he is not a terrorist.