6.1 East African Poetry & Drama: How was Drama in Pre-Colonial East Africa?


Chapter 6

Drama in Pre-Colonial East Africa

6.1 Appreciate the pre-colonial East African dramatic forms as drama in their own  right.


When we talk of drama in pre-colonial East Africa we mean those expressions of drama that the early people of East Africa engaged in before the white man came and disorganized their lives. We are interested with how these people found avenues of releasing their natural dramatic vent in their day to day lives. We shall start by looking at some of these dramatic expressions and then look at their characteristics.


Drama hinged on Oral traditions, rituals and customs

It is sometimes argued that Africans lacked any sense of organized Drama.  However a study of the history of East Africans in pre-colonial days reveals that indeed they had some form of enactments that were geared towards socialization, education and entertainment. Africans always entertained themselves by use of songs, mime and dramatized narratives that had a story and a lesson to learn. We shall discuss the songs under poetry.

 6.1.1 Name at least four dramatic forms in pre-colonial East Africa

War drama

Ole Kantai notes that after winning a war, the Maasai Morans usually engaged in a mock war to show the people how the enemy fell under their spears.  Young boys aspiring to be Morans got a chance to learn skills of Moranship.  These young boys could practice these skills among themselves in the grazing fields or in the playfields.  All these mock fights were enacted and they produced a Dramatic vent among the early people of Maasai.


Hunting Drama

Before going for hunting, African tribes tried to imitate the actions of the animals they were interested in catching.  A hunter would for example paint himself the colours of an antelope, then his fellow hunters would try to catch this fast-running animal without spearing it.  All tricks and skills would be revealed during this enactment.  These skills would be used in the hunting field or in the bush.  The enactment is not just about entertainment but also about learning the skills of survival in a place infested by ferocious animals, wild poisonous snakes, thorny scrubs and bushes. Therefore this goes a long way to prove that drama was utilitarian in the early East African communities. As one or many hunters try to capture the antelope, others pose possible dangers.  One would act like a ferocious snake attacking the hunter, another would act like a rhino that charges at the hunter, yet another one would act like a thorn or a poisonous leaf which when it comes to contact with human flesh, it makes one itch.


Drama of traditional political succession

Some of the Drama in pre-colonial East Africa could take days, weeks, or even months.  Among the Agikuyu of Kenya, for instance, there was the Ituika ceremony held every twenty-five years or so. It marked the handing over of power from an older generation to a younger one. According to Kenyatta in his book, Facing Mount Kenya, the Ituika was celebrated by feasting, dancing and singing over a period of six-months.  Laws and regulations of the new government were embodied in the words, phrases and rhythmic movements of the new songs and dances.  How Ituika came to be was always re-enacted in a dramatic procession.  Central to all these varieties of dramatic expressions were oral poetry, dance and occasional mime.


Funerary Drama

When a person died, the community mourned.  There were those who wailed and uttered words of praise, farewell and blessings upon the dead one.  Others would just wail.  This would be done in a singsong, a dirge or in action.  The action may imitate the fallen person; what he/she used to do when he/she was alive or just some unrelated action.  But the best form of funerary drama in East Africa was by the Luo of Kenya. Christened Tero Buru, this action- packed mourning period was characterized by waving of twigs, cutting of branches and a general pandemonium once it was announced that an elder of the village had passed on. The announcement was usually done by the elder wife (also called Mikai) of the deceased.  Generally the action took the form of a war enactment in which imaginary enemy was beaten by the charged male members of the society.  It was usually a scary scene that left women, girls and boys scampering for safety.  The action was accompanied by loud wailing and cursing death for having robbed the community of a sage.

Miruka, O. (2001) in his text Oral Literature of the Luo, says that;

Tero Buru was ideally performed before burial in classical Luo tradition. On such a day, all the cattle in the homestead and the village are collected and taken to graze in the wilderness by the sons and other young men in the village who decorate themselves with leaves, tendrils and dust.  They carry clubs, spears and other weaponry as well as whistles.  Their return is a stampede punctuated by singing dirges, dance and Sira, a mock fight with death where the mourner enacts spearing or clubbing death – The mourners run around helter skelter chanting and welding their weapon in a very aggressive fashion.  The women meet the tero buru team at the gate and accompany them into the homestead singing their dirges and doing the sira in their own fashion. (Pp. 16-17)


This classical Luo funeral performance is obviously varied in some ways to the tero buru we see in the present Luo funerals.


6.1.2 Analyse the characteristics of Drama in the Pre-colonial East Africa.

Characteristics of Pre-colonial Kenyan Drama


  1. It was not an isolated event.  It was part and parcel of the rhythm of daily and seasonal life of the community.  It was an activity among other activities and it drew its strength from those other activities. It relied on communal survival.
  2. It was entertainment for it involved enjoyment of the activities.
  3. It was an activity of moral instruction.
  4. It was utilitarian in nature.
  5. It could take place anywhere – wherever there was an ‘empty space’.






  1. African Drama was functional. It served a purpose within communities and cultures that is much greater than simply that of entertainment or diversion.
  2. African Drama was directly related to the ritual, seasonal rhythms, religion and communal roots.
  3. The nature of the contemporary African theatre and Drama draws upon traditions, beliefs, and needs that are not remote in time but which co-exist alongside it. Therefore it can only be fully understood in the context of its historical roots.





Identify some of the rituals that were carried out in your community and carry out a survey on what forms of Drama were performed during this rituals.



References on this Lesson:

Miruka, O. (2001). Oral Literature of the Luo; Nairobi, E.A.E.P.

Banham, M. (1976) African Theatre Today, London, Pitman Publishing Limited.

Jahn, J. (1960). A History of Neo African Literature



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