10.1 East African Poetry & Drama: What is drama for development? Does literature need to respond to the issues of the society that creates it?

Chapter 10

Drama for Development

10.1 Define Theatre for Development and Drama for Development.

10.1.1 Discuss the reason why literature needs to respond to the issues of the society that creates it.


We are aware of Theatre for Development (TfD) because it is the one we hear most of the time.  This is a theatre practice that seeks to actively empower the participating masses with knowledge and skills that can help them change their lives. TfD in Africa emerged as a conscious effort to assert the culture of the dominated classes since it aims to make the people not only aware of, but also active participants in the development process by expressing their wishes and acting to better their conditions.  TfD therefore seeks to bring together the people of the dominated (lower economic class and to instruct their knowledge acquired by acting so that they can participate in their own economic empowerment).


The success of TfD rests on the two basic principles of participation and conscientisation.  Participation is where the TfD practitioners explore the people’s social performance modes in order to create a theatrical performance which the people are familiar with and are free to take part in.  The people are all united in taking part in it.  Conscientisation is the use of this theatrical performance to advise, warn and inform the participating masses on the ways they can empower themselves.  Therefore participation in familiar performance modes serve as a launching pad for intervention in what Kerr (1995) refers to as ‘the sugaring of the didactic pill.’


TfD is based on the Marxist philosophy which says that true liberation doesn’t come by the sword but it comes as an idea and that theatre should offer this idea.  The oppressed must simply be given options that will enable them resist ideologically their oppression.  Theatre then becomes a tool for empowering the people with ideas.


When the people have come up with a theatrical performance and its premier show performed, writers who may be part of the performers may come up and write a play based on that performance.  The written play is what I am referring to in this discussion as Drama for Development (DfD).


Objectives of this Lesson:


By the end of this Lesson, you should be able to:

  1. Define Theatre for Development and Drama for Development.
  2. Discuss the reason why literature needs to respond to the issues of the society that creates it.
  3. Summarise the text I Will marry when I Want
  4. Outline the Kamirithu Theatre experience.



One then can argue that every drama is DfD because drama is meant to inform and change the lives of its recipients.  In a way such an argument can be true but one needs also to know that most DfD have specific political and economic themes as we shall see with I Will Marry When I Want.  It is a literary response to the power struggles between the classes namely the haves and the have-nots.  That is why Ngugi says that Drama should be used as a tool and weapon in the class struggle and it should be used to raise critical consciousness of the underprivileged or otherwise oppressed masses.

Several scripts have been written out of theatre for development experiments in East Africa.  Of them all, I Will Marry When I Want is the most known due to its radicalism and the effects it created to its writers and Kenya at large.

10.1.3 Outline the Kamirithu Theatre experience.

The Kamiriithu Community Theatre Experience

Kamiriithu is a village in Limuru some 30 kilometres from Nairobi.  The peasants living there decided to have a sought of communal theatre in mid 1970’s under the leadership of Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ngugi wa Miiri.  The people of Kamirrithu organized themselves into a sought of organized theatre club that performed plays meant to highlight causes to their especially poverty and how to overcome them.  They used the traditional forms of theatre which draws its raw material from the real life experiences of the performers themselves.  They performed in Gikuyu language which was a medium readily available to them.  Some of the plays performed at the Kamiriithu community centre were, Ngaahika Ndenda (I Will Marry When I want The Trials of Dedan Kimathi,) and Maitu Njugira (Mother Sing for Me).

10.1.4 Summarise the text I Will marry when I Want

I Will Marry When I Want

This is the English version of the script of Ngaahika Ndenda a Gikuyu play that Ngugi wa Thiong’o patched together after its performance in 1977.  Ngugi in Decolonising the mind posits that:

“The research on the script of Ngaahika Ndenda, the writing of the outline, the readings and the discussions of the outline, the auditions and rehearsals and the construction of the open-air theatre took in all about nine months from January – September 1977.”

Thus then the people were fully involved in the creation of the performed text.

Confronting the class differences depicted in I Will Marry When I Want demand a true revolutionary spirit.  Such is by virtue of the contention posited by Ngugi [1981] that it is the dominant class which wields political power, and whose interests are mainly served by the state and all the machinery of state power, like the police and the army and the law courts.  For instance Kigunda’s attempt to physically challenge and subdue Kioi brings him to the discovery that the law favours the rich.  It is within such a framework that the oppressed lack a voice of representation within the state machinery that art becomes their only solace. If such art, especially drama, manages to enlist the participation of the people as actors in the drama of their own life struggles, true revolutionary drama is born.  Such drama will need to make two sacrifices: firstly, it will need to explore a new language.  Here language is understood not only in terms of verbal signs but also in terms of the totality of communicative devices deployed in literary communication. Secondly it will need to extent the methods and standards of artistic performance to accommodate the participation of ordinary people and their level of artistic perception and socialization.  The result of Kamirrithu was a theatre of the oppressed in which the peasant’s and workers acted out their predicament in the context of neo colonial society driven by class contradictions.  The popularity and revolutionary appeal of the play brought the banning of its staging by the government of Kenya.


I Will Marry When I Want is an attempt to dramatise the exploitation of the workers and peasants by an evil alliance of foreign capitalists and indigenous middlemen under the guise of economic development.  Such manipulation of the people’s consciousness is disguised by Christian religious propaganda.  The general perception and the underlying questioning of the legitimacy of capitalist production relations in contemporary Kenyan society provide the thematic basis for the play.


The plot is straightforward but carefully crafted around the centrality of the class question in capitalist society.  Kigunda, a farm labourer possesses a piece of land which his employer Kioi covets and together with his business partner Nditika, they will stop at nothing to take the farmers land for a factory project which they propose to undertake with their western partners.  Likewise the relationship between Kioi’s son and Kigunda’s daughter provides a basis for the conflict in the play and furnish the material for the exploration of the realities of social experience in class society.  The play not only exposes the hypocrisy and cowardice of the bourgeoisie and their repressive use of law to cow their victims.  But the awakened consciousness of the workers and peasants is able to penetrate the cocoon of their ignorance and rise defiantly against their oppressors.

Another concern in the play is the nature of capitalist exploitation and its implication to the life of different classes of in the society. The love affair between Kigunda’s daughter and Kioi’s son is based in inequality.  He summons his beloved by hooting at his car horn and cannot be seen in the house of his father’s slave. The contradiction created here is of affluence that cannot give people the basic needs of life like the need for love. Kioi’s son cannot get love from women of his class and therefore goes to the lower class in search of it. However because material wealth rules the upper class and makes them look superior, he cannot enter the house  of the lower class people  and get his loved one. He does not want to be seen to be entering it because that will mean that he is willingly associating with them.

Njooki, states that rich families marry from rich families and vice versa. We can understand this statement from the point that marriage is not necessarily a product of love but of circumstance. The rich marry from rich to protect their egos and their wealth while the poor marry from poor families to avoid rejections by rich families and to escape being caught in the web of deceit that characterises the rich families.

The fact that the play inclines towards didactism makes it flat in terms of literary techniques. The authors so were preoccupied with grappling with the class question and how it hurts the society economically and socially that they put little attention on the literary aspects of the lay. There is little euphemism and figurative language, which might have helped them hide their intended message from the government authorities who were interested in censoring art. The flatness of the play made its message easily accessible to these government agents who fell upon the Kamirithu Cultural and Education Centre and razed it to ashes. They also banned any performance of this play to the public.


Flat as it may be, one cannot fail to notice one or two stylistic aspects that are characteristic of such participatory drama.  As such you will find the use of songs, foreign words (especially Gikuyu words) and other African folklore material that are specific to the Agikuyu community. Remember this play was initially conceived and written in Gikuyu before it was translated to other languages.



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