7.1 East African Poetry & Drama: Do you know the various expressions of drama encouraged by colonialists in East Africa?

Chapter 7

Drama in Colonial East Africa

7.1 Identify the expressions of drama encouraged by colonialists in East Africa


In this lesson effort is made to look at the forms of drama in East Africa which the Europeans employed or encouraged during their colonial rule. Therefore we shall limit our discussions on the period between the entry of the Europeans and the take over of power from the tribal chiefs until when the time they gave way for independence by handing over power to African national chiefs.


7.1.1 List the uses of dramatic expressions by the colonialists

Drama to reinforce colonial rule

Scholars in African studies have argued that the period of formal colonial occupation in East Africa provided the ‘womb’ out of which poetry and drama that worked against African indigenous theatre was born.

European observers treated Africa as either a ‘tabula rasa’ without any dramatic or poetic tradition, or as a source of primitive, atavistically obscene rituals, which indicated its inferiority to the supposed ‘superior European culture’.[1] With this twisted thinking in mind, the European settlers, colonialists and missionaries went about breaking the indigenous forms of drama and poetry and setting European-like structures and outfits.  The Europeans levelled an attack on these indigenous arts from these five fronts;

  1.  The Church (mission)
  2.  The School
  3.  Professional theatres
  4.  Didactic village drama
  5.  Prison Drama

7.1.2 Explain how some of these dramatic expressions worked.

Church and Mission Drama

Upon arrival in Africa, many missionaries saw many of African traditions, cultures, practices and dramatic activities as the works of the devil which had to be fought before evangelization could take root in the hearts of Africans. They devised a strategy of using drama as a way of reaching out to “the lost sheep” in Africa.  This was because the missionaries were finding it hard to convert Africans by merely preaching to them and telling them to abandon their ‘heathen’ ways.  So, stories of bible characters like David, Saul, Jesus and Samson were put on stage to help attract natives to the church. After the show, Priests, Pastors and Missionaries would talk to them and possibly convert them.  The white missionary would also encourage the converts to take part in such Dramatized Christian celebrations as the nativity, the birth, the passion and crucifixion of Jesus, Story of Nebuchadnezzar, the Garden of Eden, the prodigal son and the Asenscion of Jesus to heaven.  Some Africans who took part in such celebrations felt privileged to be associated with the ‘mzungu’ and so they were easily converted through drama.


Didactic Drama

This was encouraged by European settlers and colonial agricultural agencies that used it as class demonstration exercises meant to enlighten the natives on the new ways of life and farming.

Didactic drama is a kind of drama/theatre for development in which the audience is given training or instructions through participatory performances.  This drama used elements of pre-colonial performing arts such as dances, songs and narrative motifs to teach Africans new agricultural extension programmes as well as the supposed importance of adherence to colonial expectations like hygiene.

Drama therefore was used to show such ideals as better homes, healthier children, and better plantations among the native populations.  Extension officers told natives to act an improvised play in which points to be emphasized like the importance of building a grain store or new farming methods were acted out.  The hare who was the trickster hero in mythical oral culture of the Africans was depicted as the progressive farmer who embraced colonially sanctioned methods while the hyena would represent the farmer who clings to African methods of farming.  This was intended to make the alien ideas of farming seem relatively familiar to the natives.  This didactic drama was found particularly useful not only in agriculture but also in other fields of colonial administration including primary health care, savings, importance of paying tax etc.  The hare was presented as a law abiding native who paid his taxes on time, took his children to health care centres and saved regularly.  The hyena was presented as one who was always in conflict with the authorities over taxes, who took his children to traditional herbalists, and the children eventually died and who never saved any money for emergencies.




In summary, the didactic drama campaign among East African colonial communities used the powerful ability of dramatic satire to twist the consciousness of the African audience by projecting new role models with which African natives were supposed to identify with; models who portrayed perfect traits of a colonized African.


7.1.3 Outline some of the professional theatre centres established by colonialists during the colonial period.

Professional Theatres

Many other European controlled theatre buildings were erected in the major towns like Mombasa, Nakuru, Kisumu, Kitale and Eldoret between 1948-1952. In Mombasa there was the Little theatre, in Nakuru there was the players theatre, in Kisumu there was garrison theatre, in Eldoret there was the Uasin Gishu theatre, in Kitale there was the Kitale club and in Nairobi there was the Kenya National Theatre.  Further afield in Uganda there was also the Uganda National Theatre. But the famous was Donovan Maule Theatre currently known as phoenix players or professional centre.

1) To perform European plays aimed at comforting and reassuring Europeans in East Africa.

2)  To perform European plays aimed at manipulating and socializing the indigenous natives into the requirements of colonialism and capitalism.


Europeans needed to localize their culture East Africa by setting up cultural, recreational and leisure structures on African soil.  These structures were to provide an environment in which the whites could define themselves and their Europeanness in contrast to the black African culture by which they were surrounded. The cultural and national theatres were to act as symbols of cultural solidarity and superiority among Europeans.

In 1946, plans to establish and build a national theatre in Kenya and Uganda, were meant to provide a meeting point to the Europeans together in a leisurely manner where they could compare notes on how colonialism was flourishing.  Shakespeare’s and other European plays were performed to entertain and bring a British feeling to the colonial clerks, soldiers, administrators, farmers and settlers in Nairobi and Kampala.

Annabel Maule in her text Theatre near the Equator chronicles.

“The National Theatre had been conceived in March 1946.   Building had started in August 1951 and now it was being opened by Sir Ralph Richardson to a Full House of VIP’s on November 6, 1952. (P. 27)

Prison Drama

Political prisoners and detainees were encouraged and forced to take part and produce slavishly propaganda plays which denounced Mau Mau and praised and glorified colonial regimes and administration. Ngugi, (1981: 38). Those who did not take part in it were mistreated and subjected to harsh conditions. Prison drama just like other colonial dramas was meant to make the European superior and make the African look inferior. It was supposed to make the African look at the European as an infallible and invincible man.


The School Drama

The colonial masters encouraged school going boys and girls particularly in secondary and High Schools to engage in drama as part of their extra-curricular activities.  In East Africa, plays of English origin were staged in European controlled schools. The students attempted to perform pieces from the classical European canon for the annual school play and Shakespeare was the favourite. The school Drama started as an inter school Drama Festival held as a co-curricular activity between 4th-7th April 1959 at Pangani Girls.  Only six high cost secondary schools book part in this Festival. This encouraged European students to be like the Europeans they were and African students be pseudo-Europeans who admired and adored European culture while rejecting African ways. In Kenya, the pioneers of the school drama included Graham Hyslop, Peter Allnut and Norman Montgomery (Kasigwa 1994). Alliance High School for example had an annual speech day event in which Shakespeares plays were performed.  Ngugi records that between 1955 to 1958 when he was a student there, Shakespeare’s, As you like it, King Henry IV, King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream were performed.




It is also important to note that all the literature  texts that were studied in secondary schools in colonial East Africa were written by European authors and poets.






Do you think the colonial era incubated the process that led to the present drama and poetry in East Africa?



References on this Lesson

Kasigwa, B. (1994). An Anthology of East African Short Plays. Nairobi: EAEP

Osiako, J. et al. (2004). Kenya Schools and Colleges Drama Festival, Experiments and Developments, Nairobi: JKF.

Kariuki, J. M. MAUMAU Detainee.

Annabel Maule, Theatre near the Equator. Nairobi; Kingsway Publishers





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