By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
Religion is not the same thing as God.
All the religions that now sit on us
Were brought here by the Whites
When the British imperialists came here in 1895,
All the missionaries of all the churches
Held the Bible in the left hand,
And the gun in the right hand.
The White man wanted us
To be drunk with religion
While he, In the meantime,
Was mapping and grabbing our land
And starting factories and businesses
On our sweat.
Excerpt from the 1982 published play, I’ll Marry When I Want, written by Ngũgĩ wa Mirii and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.
In 1977, Ngũgĩ wa Mirii and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o launched the play, Ngaahika Ndeenda, in the Gikuyu language (one of the languages spoken in Kenya), which translated into English as I Will Marry When I Want. The play was performed in the village of Kamiriithu, where Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was born.
The play tells the story of a farmer who owns a small plot of land in the newly independent Kenya and is tricked by a local Christian businessman into mortgaging his house and land to finance a “proper Christian wedding”, even though he and his wife were married decades earlier in a traditional Kikuyu wedding. The businessman covets the farmer’s land because he wants to expand his business on that land. In collaboration with a local bank manager the businessman uses his influence to buy the mortgage of the farmer’s house and land in order to expand his business.
The play also indicts the church in the plot to facilitate the theft of the farmer’s house and land in forcing the couple to mortgage their possessions to afford a “proper Christian wedding”. There were other incidents of politics in Kenya that were addressed in the play which resulted in its cancellation and the imprisonment (without a trial) and banishment of the writers. These writers used their craft, their talent as writers to educate and raise the awareness of the people in Kamiriithu village.
I thought about the play written by the Kikiyu writers, Ngũgĩ wa Mirii and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, as I listened to Dr. Ajamu Nangwaya speak about the responsibility of the writer during the launch of my book, Berbician Griot, on Saturday, February 21. Brother Ajamu spoke about the work of Amilcar Cabral, Carter Godwin Woodson, Kwame Ture and W.E.B. Du Bois as Africans whose work helped to raise the consciousness of Africans on the African continent and in the Diaspora. Brother Ajamu spoke about the responsibility of African writers to become involved in raising the awareness in their communities and becoming involved in activism. As he spoke, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and the play that he co-authored came to mind, especially because the night before (Friday, February 20) I had attended the play, To the Rhythm of the Drum, written and directed by Amma Ofori and performed by children from the Ubuntu Drum and Dance Theatre.
The play, about the history of the drum in African culture, was reminiscent of the play, Ngaahika Ndeenda, because of the educational quality and the raising of awareness. The three parts of To the Rhythm of the Drum were 1: The Drum is born, 2: The Drum is taken away and, 3: The Drum reunites the People to claim their proud history.
The youthful performers, ranging in age from six to 13-years-old, used song and dance to tell the story of the Djembe drum and its importance in African culture and history from the continent, through the enslavement of Africans and their resistance through to emancipation and freedom.
As Brother Ajamu pointed out during his talk, “African Liberation Month” should be more than recognizing the first “Black” person who achieved or did something or other. During February as we celebrate and commemorate our stories it is important that we move beyond the “firsts”. Brother Ajamu raised the awareness and educated everyone who attended the book launch.
I was especially delighted when some of the children from the play, To the Rhythm of the Drum, attended my book launch on Saturday (through the snow) and demonstrated/shared their drumming skills with us. Thank you to the children Makeba, Abena and Kwabena and their mother, Amma Ofori, of Ubuntu Drum and Dance Theatre.
In his 1986 book, Decolonising the mind: the politics of language in African literature, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o writes: “The play Ngaahika Ndeenda, in part drew very heavily on the history of the struggle for land and freedom, particularly the year 1952, when the Kimaathi-led armed struggle started and the British colonial regimes suspended all civil liberties by imposing a state of emergency.”
In his 1998 book Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Towards a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa, Ngugi wa Thiong’o explores the relationship between art and political power in society. Sometimes writers are seen as enemies by those in power, especially when those writers critique politicians and businesses that abuse their powers.
Exploring the potency of the play, I Will Marry When I Want, in Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams, Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote: “The project which was started in 1976 – a literacy and cultural program with theatre at the centre – became a truly community affair involving peasants and factory and plantation workers then resident in the village of the same name. In 1977 together with the community of this village about thirty kilometres from the capital, Nairobi, we developed a play Ngaahika Ndeenda ‘I Will Marry When I Want’ in which people sang songs about their own history. Here were peasants and workers who only the year before were illiterate, who were used to singing songs about the leadership and what it had done for the people, but who now could not only read and write but were actually singing with pride about their own abilities, what they had done in history, and now their hopes of what they could do tomorrow.”
He concluded that thought by writing: “What is more, they had built an open-air theatre in the centre of the village by their own efforts, and with no handouts from the state. They had reclaimed their historical space.”
I look forward to the play To the Rhythm of the Drum, by “Ubuntu Drum and Dance Theatre” being used by more African Canadian students to “reclaim their historical space” throughout the year. Amma Ofori and the group have made a start that the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) can support and expand. Proof that we can go beyond the “firsts” as we celebrate our Africanness during and beyond February.