11.2 East African Poetry & Drama: How well do you understand the text Shreds of Tenderness?

Chapter 11

11.2 Analyse the text Shreds of Tenderness


Originally published under the title Music Without Tears in 1985, Shreds of Tenderness explores the historical period just after Idd Amin Dada’s regime had been overthrown in a coup of a combined force of the UNLF and Tanzanian Military troops.

Amin’s government had been characterized by murder, violence and bloodthirst against Ugandan citizens.  Thus the disappearances or absence of certain important members of the family in Shreds of Tenderness is a literary manifestation of the histo-political circumstances of that time.  The head of the family (father) represented by the portrait that hangs on one of the walls of the sitting room was killed by the government soldiers.  One of the sons (Wak) of that family has just returned and naturally we would expect some celebration.  But Odie is not happy about his brothers’ return.  The readers’ curiosity is raised at this state of affairs.

As the play opens, Odie is busy engaged in an experiment with a termite in a jar, ice cubes and a bunsen burner.  For Odie, the insect seems to represent a content head of state who is obviously too complacent to bother about the security of his own people.  The author then brings in a second human character, Stella, sister to Odie and step sister to Wak.  She is happy that Wak is back after ten years of absence.  Odie is not happy with her because she fights for someone who abandoned them to suffer under the repressive regime that he reminds her that she has no otherwise but to side with him because “The Uterus rules the world”.  We later on learn of the atrocities meted against innocent individuals by the bloody regime.  For example, Stella’s school was raided and the army raped school girls and the nuns.  Ironically we are also told that Stella has a romantic relationship with the man masterminded the death of their father and whose platoon raped the girls at the school.

In part two of the play, Wak is brought on the scene and the hatred between Odie a stayee and Wak the returnee is played.  Revelations are made; Odie betrayed his step brother Wak when he was going to give a lecture titled:  ‘The Inevitable Road that will lead us back to Democracy’ to University students in one of the lecturer halls.  That is when he went to exile.  As a refugee Wak suffered as much in the host nation which in the text alludes to Kenya.  He is insulted and spat upon.  This is brought out in the many plays within a play in the text. Secrets of the SRB files are revealed to Odie and his activities as a government agent exposed.  The resolution comes when Odie agrees to pay the price of his actions by his death although we are not told if actually he faced the firing squad.


Implications of the Title: Shreds of Tenderness

The word ‘Shred’ means a tiny bit or piece of something. ‘Tenderness’ refers to feelings of love, compassion, kindness, forgiveness and peace.

As shown in the play, these pieces of love and forgiveness need to be gathered for reconciliation and reconstruction for the purposes of a new beginning.  The need for this reconstruction is seen at both the family and national level. At the family level, there has been strife, quarrels, and disagreement among the siblings, especially Wak and Odie.  This is caused by issues such as the family inheritance, (pp. 20-22) betrayal (pp. 122-124) and the cold and hostile reception Wak gets from Odie (p. 77).  All these issues are instigated by Odie and they cause disruption and bitterness in the family.  Towards the end of the play, however, Odie gets to understand the reality of the intimidation and humiliation Wak went through as a refugee and he genuinely sympathizes with him and apologizes.  This is brought out in the play within a play between Wak (a refugee) and Mr. No-Fear-No-Favour (Stella) (p. 117,119).

In addition when Wak comes back home after ten years of exile, he is not bitter with Odie and is ready to forgive him for betraying him to the SRB.  He even tells him that he deserves the family inheritance since he remained behind and need the fort (p. 118).

Similarly, Stella makes numerous attempts to reconcile the brothers whenever they get into a conflict.  She keeps reminding them that they are brothers and so they should stop fighting.  “But you are brothers whether you like it or not.  Hitting below the belt doesn’t work.  You haven’t seen each other in ten years and the best you can do is jump at each other’s throat A brother is a brother man” (p. 58).

These attempts at bringing reconciliation at the family level are symbolic of the reconciliation and reconstruction of the entire country.  Due to the political strife in the country, there are cases of rape, executions and betrayal which show that citizens have little or no tenderness at all for one another.  For example,

(i)         Major General Ali’s platoon raids a school and rapes nuns and school girls, Stella included (p. 31).

(ii)        The SRB spies like Odie inform on their fellow citizen including friends for petty offences e.g. “Daudi’s dog yapped at the presidential motorcade…” (p. 127).

Attempts towards bringing reconciliation in the entire country are seen through Wak who, among other returnees, has come back with the sole intention of reconciling, reconstruction and rehabilitating the entire country (p. 53).

The play ends on a note of hope for the future of the country.  Wak forgives Odie.  Odie admits his mistakes and is ready to face the consequences.

One can argue that the text tackles a national issue from a family standpoint.  A family set-up is apt for representing a nation because a nation’s basic unit is the family the success or failure of a nation largely depends how the families that form it are.  From the family standpoint, we see the family members brave through great challenges.

However emotions of tenderness, of love, of compassion, of kindness and of forgiveness help them through to achieve a modicum of peace.  Pieces of love ad forgiveness seem to be the most important aspects if one is to reconcile, rehabilitate and reconstruct a family and by extension the nation.  It is good that we consider these shreds of tenderness both at Family and at National levels.


Family Level

The text presents a quarrelsome family.  Odie has dislike for Wak.  We really don’t know why but we can gather that it is due to family inheritance (pg 20-22) a betrayal (pg 122-124).  Odie seems to be interested in having all the property of their late father and that is why he betrays his brother to the SRB.  Once he realizes that the brother has escaped the dragnet of SRB and left the country he declares him dead and hence manipulates his way to inheritance.  Further tension is caused when Wak all of a sudden re-appears.  Odie grabs him in a very callous manner and accords him a hostile reception.


Some Emerging Issues


Some of the citizens who return from exile are ready to reconcile, reconstruct and rehabilitate the entire nation as shown in the following illustrations.

Pg 53Wak says that they have come back to reconcile, reconstruct and rehabilitate.
Pg 54Wak tells Odie to openly state what is bothering him so that they can all rest in peace and start building for the future.
Pg 73The ruling regime i.e. the Liberation Front is urging those in exile to come back home and has set aside forty thousand dollars for each family to help them reconstruct their lives from the ravages of exile.
Pg 117Wak reveals why he had to take to the bush “Not to save my little neck, but other people’s lives.”

It is suggested here that reconciliation is important before the work of rehabilitation and reconstruction can begin. Wak declares that he has not come back for the family inheritance but for reconciliation.  Infact he tells Odie that he can have it all.


In the light of the foregoing, it is evident that after a system of governance that is oppressive, domineering and destructive, countries are still able to reconstruct their broken pieces and move towards reconciliation.  This has happened in a number of African countries.  For example, Sudan which has been war-torn for decades has at present made very remarkable progress towards bringing together the two warring factions i.e. Southern Sudan and Northern Sudan.  Similarly Rwanda which was completely ravaged during the genocide in 1994 has almost brought to an end the animosity between the Hutus and Tutsis.

In the same way, when family members disagree over one issue or another, they should be willing to reconcile.  In the absence of reconciliation, strife, be it the political or family level, can go on indefinitely.


Betrayal as a causative of family and national disintegration

Shreds of Tenderness borrows by inference from the violence witnessed in another of Ruganda’s plays, The Floods. In The Floods, Ruganda compares the military regime to an ogre; and in the Shreds of Tenderness, he constantly revisits the violence that was witnessed time and again to confirm that it is in deed the cause for the dislocations/the fleeing of people that he creates in this play. For example Stella recalls that ‘the ten years of genocide of the now fallen regime were characterised by, the music of death at dawn, death at noon, death at dark, shroud of darkness not needed, not nowadays.’ p.10

From the play it is understood that Wak fled his motherland to escape death after his own brother betrayed him. The accusations brought against him are well captured in the telephone reverie Odie has on P.123

Is that the SRB? Number triple one triple three calling… put me through to the major-general… I’ve got a curious case on my hands. One Wak Witu… he is becoming a bit of a nuisance. Threatening to give a talk on democracy and all that… yes, always seething with discontent… like all the rest of his intellectual colleagues… they must be hirelings of foreign forces. Marxist, I should say. Externally dangerous. Will arouse the public against the government… he says boss is a big ignoramus; that he is a village pumpkin… that he is dragging the economy to the doldrums, to utter chaos and ruins.

At that time Wak had not learnt of the wheel-dealings of his brother. Even when the three strange and mean looking figures come for him within the University premises, it is a combination of luck and his instincts and sense of escape that help him lie to them as he buys time to escape. Wak recalls, ‘I met the trio. In the corridors of the social science building at the University. They had been sent to pick me up. I was going for my classes… excuse me, Sir,…. We are looking for a Mister Wak.’ P.122

Upon discovering that it is him they are after, Wak senses danger. He lies to them by directing them to a room used as a store on the second floor of the building, as he prepares to leave. He reminiscences;

Second floor, office number 213. he is out at the moment. Salaries section Main building. Or just in case he doesn’t show up, checks him in the main hall at 5.00p.m. He is giving a public lecture on, ‘THE INEVTABLE ROAD THAT WILL LEAD US BACK TODEMOCRACY,’ so my gamble worked. I dashed home, put a few things in a plastic bag, got some money from the family kitty, left a note for Beth to lock up and go to the village, and I began the long torturous trek into exile. P.122


Elsewhere, we come to learn that the death of Odie’s father was founded on betrayal. It is claimed that Odie actually informed the SRB that his father had committed treason. While going through SRB files, Wak finds this out;

At the SRB, incredible. Absolutely nauseating. The reports, the false statements, Christ!.. ‘Pepe spat on the president’s portrait in a public bar. Judgement; ‘let him face the music at once.’ And report back it’s been done.’ No investigations carried out. No witness called. No! Just the auctioneer’s final hammer on the bloke. p.119.


It is also discovered that Odie betrayed his friends as well. One of the SRB report files has it that a man called Daudi met his death in the most queer situations. His dog is alleged to have barked while the presidential convoy was cruising by and a case was opened against him and his dog;

Daudi’s dog yapped at the presidential motorcade… The dog, the first respondent is charged with treason and Daudi, the second respondent, with concealing his dog’s intent. p.127.

In summary, the author shows that the present situation in the play Shreds of Tenderness is a result of the betrayal and violence manifested in the earlier years as captured in his other play The Floods. The actions and decisions of characters in Shreds of Tenderness are presently informed by what has forgone.

Plight of Refugees

The refugee problem is prevalent in many African countries. It results from unpopular and bad governance as has been witnessed in countries like Sudan, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo just to mention but a few.  People have to flee from their countries due to political strife to seek refuge in other countries.  In most of the host countries, refugees lead very unpleasant and difficult lives as seen in the following examples:

P. 86 They are accommodated in camps where living conditions are deplorable.  Wak says “… there are ten tired, exhausted and hungry bodies slouched in there … This tattered shack is all the UNHCR can afford for now”. They lack basic necessities like water leading to unhygienic conditions.  “Then the sweat, the stench, and water isn’t for washing or bathing but for drinking only.  If you are lucky to find it”.
Pp 103, 106. They are abused, intimidated, humiliated and women are sexually harassed.  They are referred to as uncircumcised dogs, cowards, mongrels etc.
P. 105 False accusations are levelled against them e.g. murders, forgery, impersonation, robbing banks, spreading venereal diseases etc. Ruganda explains the predicament of the exiles, presenting exile as diabolic. Through Wak, he laments of the treatment accorded to exiles thus;

There is nothing as abominable as being a refugee… shouted at, your dignity lowered. Hell, man… from the sweeper to the highest official, they subtly remind you that you don’t belong… a third rate non-citizen, always associated with hunger and deprivation and cheap labour… sometimes no one wants you to work. Your very presence is an irritant… if you do more than the nationals; they say you are buying your stay. You’re living in perpetual fear of losing your job… you can never do anything right once you are a refugee p.80


It is also revealed that problems for exiles start with a first hurdle at the border where the immigration officers torment, rather than assist them. Such officers refer to refuges abusively as, ‘tornadoes of stench’. A refugee is exposed to a humiliating body search for guns and illicit drugs and if the person happens to be a woman, she is sexually abused without regard to her education or social standing. An example is given of one Dr. Rugendarutakaliretigaruka, an academic of repute who is grabbed and taken for a ‘quickie,’ an euphemism word to refer to a cheap and hurried sexual affair by the officers. Wak laments;

If you are a woman, every blinking idiot wants to paw you. The short term solution is to be permanently obsequious.


But why are refugees treated this way? Wak confirms that the reason behind this treatment is mostly malice, jealousy and sheer sadism. This is seen especially among the academic circle;

The academics are the worst. Always engaged in endless prattle on lofty subjects which they half understand and… worst of all, they profess academic freedom but the moment you open your mouth or challenge their views, they feel threatened. p.81

If you tie this statement to the ones given above, then it becomes evident that the nationals habour malice, are jealousy against the exiles and seem to gain pleasure from tormenting these exiles because they consider them as outsiders who are a threat to their jobs. That is why they strive to make the lives of refugees difficult.


As seen in the play, it is important to note that anyone can be a refugee and so refugees should be treated with concern, sympathy and understanding.  Mr. No-Fear-No-Favour who is a national of the host country humiliates Wak and swears that he can never be a refugee, yet when an explosion is heard, he is terribly frightened and has to turn to Wak who is a refugee for security.




Therefore, there is need for good governance in order to avoid problems that may lead people fleeing their mother countries.


Gender Issues

The society depicted in the text is a patriarchal i.e. a society where woman are looked down upon by men.  This is seen in the following examples from the play;

Pg 6 Odie tells Stella “Don’t shout, I hate it when people shout particularly women – sister or no sister. There is a tinge of disrespect for the women fraternity in the above statement. It is not that he doesn’t stomach being shouted at because as an agent of SRB, he was used to being shouted at by his bosses. It is just the way the society has conditioned him to look at women as members of the inferior gender.


Pg 129 – Odie’s father tells Odie that he is a perfect replica of his mother’s IQ. This means that he inherited his stupidity and miscreant behaviour from his mother. The underlying meaning is that women have bad manners that they pass down to their progenies which, of course, is not true. We cannot attribute the reckless behaviour of a child to the any one of the parents. This is a direct abuse to all mothers who in my opinion deserve better treatment than this.

Pg 81 – Women refugees are sexually harassed be it at the borders, at refugee camps or even at places of work if they are lucky to get employment. It is clear that when a woman is in trouble or when she seeks services, she is only allowed to access them in exchange for sex. This is belittling women and abusing their essence. It is regarding them as sex slaves and subjects. These are some of the practices that retard the social growth of third world states.


From the above illustrations it is clear that women in this society are not treated equally with men.  The men despise them and abuse them as they please. It is interesting to note that despite the low opinion that men have towards the women, women are portrayed as more tolerant and more reasonable than them.  Look at the way Stella has been portrayed against the backdrop of his brother Odie. They should therefore be treated just like men and be involved in nation building.




There is need for the society to treat women with respect because they are human beings first of all. The author makes Stella a passionate, concerned, loving and reconciliatory character purposefully. This is meant to show that women are very important in the process of healing the wounds of feelings of betrayal and anger. Any society which ignores its women does so at its own peril.





From our discussion, do you think the text is relevant to the contemporary society? Yes it is because all these issues are prevalent in our society today.  There are refugees in our society today.  There are the gender issues, there are cases of bad governance and there are attempts at reconciliation in African countries as has been Sudan, Rwanda and Liberia.


Sample Revision Questions

  1. With reference to Shreds of Tenderness discuss the plight of refugees.
  2. Discuss how corruption has been brought out in John Ruganda’s Shreds of Tenderness.
  3. Odie is not justified in the way he treats his siblings and father.  Discuss.
  4. With specific illustrations from the play Shreds of Tenderness, discuss the character of Odie.
  5. How important is Wak’s return from exile in the play Shreds of Tenderness?
  6. Discuss the effectiveness of the use of play within a play in highlighting the plight of refugees.
  7. With illustrations from the play, discuss the relevance of the title Shreds of Tenderness.
  8. Both the stayees and returnees are victims of poor governance.  Discuss.
  9. What is the role of Stella in the play, Shreds of Tenderness?




Further reading on this lesson


1.      Imbuga, F. (1991). Thematic Trends and Circumstances in John Ruganda’s Drama. Unpublished PhD Dissertation. University of IOWA.

2.      Kyallo, J. (1992). A Comparative Study of the Visions and Styles of Francis Imbuga and John Ruganda. Unpublished M.A. thesis. Kenyatta University Nairobi.

3.      Njogu, J. (2008). A Literary Study of Dislocation in Selected plays by John Ruganda. Unpublished M.A. project. Kenyatta University, Nairobi.

4.      Ochieng, P &  ——– (…….). The Kenyatta Succession

5.      Ruganda, J. (1992). Telling the Truth Laughingly; The Politics of Francis Imbuga’s Drama. Nairobi, East African Educational Publishers




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