Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Kenyan playwright and novelist has gained international acclaim through his publications which have been translated into many different languages., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Colonisation, ideology and aesthetics in African drama
March 24, 2014 Opinion & Analysis
Elliot Ziwira The Book Store
COLONISATION, a human creation which is a manifestation of avarice and malice, has inspired African writers to experiment on ideology and aesthetics in their exploration of the vice.Aesthetics, according to Jefferson and Robey, encompasses “philosophical speculations about poetry and literature . . . Concerned with literature from a philosophical point of view, in relation to general concepts of art, beauty and value”.
Ideology, as posited by Cayne et al, is a body of ideas used in support of an economic, political or social theory; the way of thinking of a class, culture or individual; and drama which reflects elements of black vernacular traditions, is characterised by ritual, mime and the element of spectacle.
Wole Soyinka’s “Kongi’s Harvest” (1974), and Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo’s “The Trial of Dedan Kimathi” (1976) contribute immensely to African drama in that the plays do not only conform to the three-part structure embraced by Allison (1986), but they also exhibit the phenomenon of ritual characteristic of African drama.
This tripartite structure espoused by Allison examines how ideological conflict affects African societies.
As is the case with “Kongi’s Harvest”, such a structure uses a basic plot: Hemlock/Exposition, which is the first part and the first half of the second part; Complication: second part; and Hangover, which is the resolution.
In “The Trial of Dedan Kimathi” this tripartite structure is exploited in three movements, which capture the ideological conflict leading to slavery, colonisation and exploitation evident in the plantations; and subsequently, the liberation struggle masterminded by Dedan Kimathi.
African drama is also characterised by dance, dress, ritual and music which are manifest in the everyday life of Africans evident at weddings, funerals, and marriage as well as harvest ceremonies where music occupy centre stage.
Though in most African societies, the drum is used at most functions, its tone or pitch can be altered to suit a particular situation. Messages can be deciphered by just interpreting the sound of the drum as is culturally accepted by a people or society.
Music therefore, plays a significant role in drama and society as norms and values are usually present in its different genres.
Although language is distinctively used to effect in “Kongi’s Harvest”, it is, however, non-realistic, contrary to what obtains in “The Trial of Dedan Kimathi”, which conforms to realistic speech patterns. Aesthetically, Soyinka contributes remarkably to African drama, but the traditional elements that he incorporates have an artistic intention which is questionable, and seem to draw inspiration from non-African aspects.
The ideological conflict in the play also remains unresolved, as it tilts in favour of Kongi, a modernist, suggesting the futility of traditionalism — thus betraying society.
The rationale of the artist as the voice of his people embraced by Chinweizu et al obtains in “The Trial of Dedan Kimathi”. This is also echoed by the playwrights in the preface to the play when they question: “Why was Kenyan literature on the whole so submissive and hardly depicted the people, the masses, as capable of making and changing history?”
Ideologically, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo “believe that good theatre is that which is on the side of the people . . . gives people courage and urges them to higher resolves in their struggle for total liberation”.
The fact that proponents of imperialism subscribe to the ideological mannerisms of imperialists, averse to all that embraces African experiences, hoists another feather in the cap of “The Trial of Dedan Kimathi” as a piece of art, as it seeks to portray the African toil as seen through the eyes of the Africans whose ideological values and mores are shaped by what is lived and not what is hoped.
Ideologically and aesthetically, Henderson’s “The Hunt of Dedan Kimathi”, cannot capture the African mood or experience appropriately or without bias as he is alien to the African culture which he attempts to explain.
Neither is Huxley’s “A Thing of Value” or “A Thing of Love” an appropriate record of African aspirations; nor is Ruark’s “Uhuru” ideologically appropriate in the African context. Because of these ideological and aesthetic differences evident in African literature, “The Trial of Dedan Kimathi” is an eye-opener to serious followers of African drama, as it touches on the sensitive ideologies of Negritude, culminating from the brutalities of slavery — which Africa witnessed first-hand – Pan-Africanism, and Marxism.
Unlike Soyinka who uses non-realistic dialogue to contrast the ideologies embodied in Kongi and Danlola, wa Thiong’o and Mugo use realistic dialogue to express their disgust and bitterness at how the real owners of the means of production have their cake usurped from their mouths by a minority gang of thieving aliens who feed on their gullibility and submissiveness.
To them white oppression is the worst of all forms of oppression, as it seeks to displace everything African and replace it with everything European.
It is these ideological differences that lead to the spirit of revolution epitomised by Kimathi wa Wachiuri.
Kimathi, like Danlola in “Kongi’s Harvest”, is an embodiment of societal values and norms as he represents the people’s suffering and oppression.
Unlike Danlola, however, Kimathi’s world is a real world and not a satirical one. Wa Thiong’o and Mugo do not only look at the oppressive tendencies inherent in humanity like Soyinka, but they take a step further into that ancient part of the human mind which is excited by trauma. The destructive tendencies of imperialism are explored in an interesting dimension in the dialogue between the two soldiers in the play.
In the mould of the members of the Reformed Aweri Fraternity, the Carpenters’ Brigade, the second soldier, who is clearly hog washed, sees life through the eyes of the oppressor, and espies him as superior, as illuminated in the following: “You think the Mzungu is a fool?” and “it will be end of this bloody struggle. Mzungu! Don’t play with him.”
Ideologically, however, like Soyinka, wa Thiong’o and Mugo are conscious of how the oppressive machinery fail to completely forestall the functioning of the minds of the oppressed as suggested by the Fifth Aweri in “Kongi’s Harvest” and The First Soldier in “The Trial of Dedan Kimathi”, as illustrated here: “The way Mzungu makes us thirst to kill one another”, and “Kimathi is a hero to the people. They love him like anything, say what you will.”
The ideological conflict expressed thus, pitting two black soldiers fighting in the corner of the imperialist, plays a pivotal role on how African aesthetics should be examined. sThe playwrights do not only proffer a panacea to the problem besetting their society, as they mirror their people’s experiences, but they also offer an exit to African aesthetics and drama which has been distorted by Eurocentric critics.
As is the case in “Kongi’s Harvest”, music is exploited in highlighting the existence of contrasting ideologies, as well as for celebration; the celebration of the blackness of black. In the first movement, music introduces the ideological conflict between black and white. The drums used are symbolic of African “aggression and firm determination”.
The guns — another source of “music” — symbolise white supremacy, brutality and violence. This ideological conflict is illustrated thus: “Staccato burst of gunfire. The drums respond with deafening, rhythmic intensity.”
Music is also used to celebrate the unity of the African family, as in the end although Kimathi is sentenced to death, instead of being silenced, the masses led by the embodiments of youth, vitality, regeneration, love and life in the Boy and Girl, break into song to celebrate the triumph of the voice of reason; the voice of the incarcerated; the voice of the oppressed.
Hence, unlike in “Kongi’s Harvest” where dictatorship prevails, the seeds of success and independence are evident in “The Trial of Dedan Kimathi”.
Language is also used to contrast ideologies and for dramatic effect in “The Trial of Dedan Kimathi”. The language used in the dialogue between Johnnie and Woman does not only have an element of suspense, but it is also dramatic and conforms to the aspect of spectacle characteristic of drama.
Kimathi uses blatant expressions, undisguised and uncamouflaged as the following suggests: “By what right dare you, a colonial judge, sit in judgment over me?” Henderson on the other hand, uses flattery in his many disguises.
However, although “The Trial of Dedan Kimathi” explores ideological conflicts inhering in humanity in an attempt to express African aesthetics and drama, from an African point of view, its glorification of armed resistance smacks of bias.
The Mau Mau rebellion, glorified in the play and epitomised by Kimathi, is said to have cost 11 000 lives among their ranks, and 100 Europeans and 2 000 African loyalists by the end of 1956. It is also said to have caused ethnic divisions in Kenya as the Mau Mau were drawn, mainly, from the Kikuyu.
The element of time as central to drama is also problematic in the play.
The use of flashbacks and a time span of more than 400 years, limits spectacle as it stretches the concentration span of the audience. On the whole, however, “Kongi’s Harvest” and “The Trial of Dedan Kimathi” contribute ideologically and aesthetically to African drama and society in that they enhance the understanding of African tradition, values and experiences from an African vintage point.