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The Trial of Dedan Kimathi

Q. Comment on the title of the play.

The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976) is a revolutionary drama about the Mau-
Mau insurgency in Nigeria, written by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Micere
Githae Mugo. The writing of this play began as a response to a play (that
came out in 1974) by Kenneth Watene, which characterized Kimathi, the
leader of the Mau Mau uprising, as a crazed and brutal paranoiac. The
content of Ngugi's play derives from the actual trial of Kimathi after his
betrayal and capture in 1956, but the author makes extensive use of mime,
dance, and Gikuyu song to portray Kimathi as a courageous freedom-fighter
struggling against the forces of imperialism. The Trial of Dedan Kimathi
attempts to rewrite Kenyan history: an activity that according to Ngugi and
many others was urgently needed.

The title character of this play, Dedan Kimathi (1920-1957; also known as
Kimathi wa Wachiuri) was an important member of Kenya’s militant
nationalist group, the Mau-Mau. In 1950 Kimathi embraced radical politics
when he subscribed to the oath of the Mau-Mau, the group demanding
freedom and the return of Kenyan land from the British. Kimathi became
one of the most prominent of the three dominant leaders of Mau Mau’s Land
and Freedom Armies, with oversight functions for the Aberdare forest. Due
to the activities of the Mau-Mau, the colonial regime was forced to declare a
state of emergency in 1952. In 1956 Kimathi was captured with Wambui, his
“forest wife,” and sentenced to death. He was hanged on February 18, 1957,
at Nairobi Prison and was buried in a mass grave. Despite attempts by
British propagandists to label him a dangerous and elusive terrorist, Kimathi
became a folk hero among the people of Kenya.

It is significant to note that the word “trial” is used both in the judicial sense
as well as the spiritual sense in this play. Hence, there are both real and
metaphorical trials happening throughout the play. There are four main
“Trial Scenes” in the play, which are interspersed with crucially significant
Street-scenes. These scenes do not help in telling Kimathi’s life story.
Instead, these trials “intend to question the very basis of large economic-
political-social systems with an implicit or explicit call to overthrow the
whole system…Also, in a single Trial-scene there are different kinds of
tempting offers made to persuade Kimathi, and in the Fourth Trial, there is
no tempting offer, only a threat of torture which is carried out in the scene.
(The only way to read ‘temptation’ in it would be to see the temptation of
escape from great torture)” (Dilip K. Basu).

It is significant to note that the trial scenes in the play have religious echoes.
They remind the reader of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness for forty
days by Satan (a period which is now observed as Lent). In this play, it is the
vision of a “better” (not necessarily free) Kenya, that is used to tempt
Kimathi. But Kimathi sees through the imperialists’ intentions. We see the
real nature of Kimathi’s trial in the final courtroom scene. It is when he is
standing among his people that he finally triumphs over the crucial
hesitation and doubt in his mind about the future of Kenya.

According to Chidi Amuta, it is imperialism which is actually on trial. In the

four Trials, not only are the doings of the imperialists and their agents
exposed through their speech and action, Kimathi, the accused, is heard
giving his judgement upholding the charge brought against imperialism by
the injured, the exploited, the humiliated of the country and the continent.
“It is the dialectics of these exchanges between Kimathi and the agencies
of imperialism that constitute the essence of the ‘trial’. While the
colonialists’ judiciary tries Kimathi for his patriotic and progressive
stance, the whole of imperialism puts itself on trial by virtue of its
relentless association with and espousal of negative and oppressive values.
Henderson is the embodiment of the negative values of imperialism and is
made to play the symbolic role of trial judge in the play in an obvious
ironic bid to expose the fraud in the imperialists’ sense of justice.” (Chidi

The Trial of Dedan Kimathi is also the trial of the people of Kenya—the
workers and the peasants, exploited by the imperialists. In that sense, every
offer that is made to Kimathi in the Trial scenes, can be seen as an offer
made to the people of Kenya. Similarly, the torture inflicted on Kimathi in
the Fourth Trial is symbolic of the general torture inflicted on the people
after the “screenings” and detentions were started. This is shown through the
device of a previously enacted scene of physical torture of the Kenyan
people, which is brought back to be enacted again in every possible harmony
with the ongoing torture of Kimathi. It brings home the point that the people
of Kenya are as much on trial as Kimathi is.
Kimathi doesn’t die in the body of the play, as Kenya’s struggle does not
die. “Kimathi does not die when he is sentenced to death by hanging because
in the meanwhile he has come out successful after going through the trial of
his spirit, and is finally at peace with himself reposing complete faith in his
people,” (Dilip K. Basu).

The trial of Kimathi by the imperialist government is strongly contrasted

with the trial of the Mau-Mau traitors and imperialist soldiers, which
happens at the guerrilla camp in Nyandarua forest (where Kimathi is the
judge). This trial is very democratic, and everybody is listened to, even if he
or she is saying things hurting Kimathi’s statements and attacking his logic.
Kimathi’s ‘weakness’ of being “too human” is also discovered in this scene.
But the trial is humane and keeps everyone’s interests in mind. This scene
“recaptures the essence of Kimathi’s heroism and revolutionary vision”.
(Chidi Amuta)

Thus, the title of the play is very significant, as it highlights the key aspect
of the play—the Trial—while simultaneously presenting Kimathi both as the
hero of the Kenyan people as well as a symbol for them. I would like to
conclude with the words of the Woman in the play, which successfully bring
out the ethos of the entire play:

“The trial of our strength

Our faith, our hopes, our resolve
The trial of loyalty
Our cause…”

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