Book Review- “The Trial of Dedan Kimathi”

I am delighted Waveland decided to republish The Trial of Dedan Kimathi. It is one of Africa’s most important plays that should always be in print. Bringing it back has done East Africanists a big favor. —Myles Osborne, University of Colorado

The Trial of Dedan Kimathi is a play written by Ngugi wa Thiong’o with his collaborator, Micere Githae Mugo in the year 1976. It is a response to the colonialist writings about the Mau-Mau movement. The colonialist writings depicted the whole movement and the protagonist Kimathi as a mentally unbalanced and vicious character, to counter that, Ngugi and other contemporary writers created his counter-image by showing Kimathi as a courageous and committed nationalist. And, this is how Kenyan peasants and labourers have conceived him in the first place. The play follows the three-part structure of drama in the form of three movements which capture the ideological differences leading to slavery, exploitation evidenced in the plantations and subsequently the liberation struggle of Dedan Kimathi.

In the text, the playwright is not focusing on re-creating the trial realistically at all, rather it’s an attempt to create the image of kimathi. The author showed how colonialism still exists in the form of writings as the colonizers create the image of the oppressed as “barbaric”. The author said, “We agreed that the most important thing was for us to construct our history imaginatively, envisioning the world of the Mau-Mau and Kimathi in terms of the peasants and workers struggle before and after independence.” The plot is full of disparate but thematically connected episodes depicted the circumstances surrounding the trial of Dedan Kimathi; scenes where Kenyan people are trying to save kimathi, kimathi’s interaction with guerrillas and Kimathi in prison and his torture. The author has also shown different cultural sides by showing Kikuyu songs, dances and mime. Ngugi portrayal of the culture and Mau-Mau Movement is his attempt to help his country to cast off its legacy of oppression.

The text could be seen as the consolidation of time and space in a symbolic drama of growth and development. Past and present events are recreated on the stage to provide a historical perspective and to show the continuity of the anti-colonial movement in Kenya. The text has shown this spatial shift from distant guerilla encampments in the Nyandarua forest to local prisons and courtroom installations in Nairobi, emphasize the breadth and depth of the Mau-Mau rebellion. “The rapid montage design of the play overrides the accustomed cause-effect rational processes of the audience and consequently prohibits simplistic and limiting interpretations of staged events”(Magel,1). In this structure, the characters are similarly transformed from their spatial and temporal individuality to symbolic, collective proportions. The text is composed of two narratives: the first focused on the imprisonment, capture and trials of Kimathi and second focused on the transformations of the two young Kenyans from childhood to adulthood in a symbolic “rite of passage”. The character of kimathi is a symbol of the Mau-Mau movement- a symbol of anti-colonial resistance. The unnamed character of Boy and Girl are metaphors for all the lost youth of Kenya. Such usage of symbolism made the text much richer in terms of character and plot development. Even before the Kimathi enters in the play, there is a symbolic dimension which is captured in the thoughts and feelings of the other characters. Kimathi’s character has been revealed first when a white police officer questions a suspected ‘Mau-Mau Terrorist’ by asking if he’s “Mtu Wa Kimathi”(Ngugi 1977:7). The first soldier counters all these negative remarks by saying “That’s what Bwana Shaw Henderson says. But he doesn’t know the people. They love him like anything, say what you will” (Ngugi, 1977:13). The dialogues in the text show the author’s fundamental inclination towards Kimathi.

To continue the allegorical plot, the Woman finally smuggles a gun into the courtroom by unifying the unnamed Boy and Girl to free Kimathi. The lesson that Ngugi is giving is clear enough that the ‘tribalism’ and other divisions, really induced by competition for scraps of colonial power, are only overcome by an armed struggle against a common enemy, forging a new national consciousness. However, the death of Kimathi makes the climax ambiguous. The Boy and Girl, holding the gun and crying “not dead” and with a gunshot, darkness falls, obscuring the meaning of the shot. But then “the stage gives way to a crowd of workers and peasants at the centre, singing freedom songs.”, but this is not clear from the scene that what exactly are they celebrating here? For what revolution was Kimathi’ death decisive in any other but a negative way? Is the poem of freedom at the end is in commemoration of the martyrdom and getting the independence or is it referring to the future victory against a “new enemy?” the temporality of the lines of the poem is deliberately ambiguous. There are words which represent past(using ka as an infix makes the sentence in the past tense and somewhere ki which makes the sentence in future tense).

The play used the method of socialist realism to justify the artist’s commitment to positive action. Ngugi belief system came out in his writing. He used theatre as a platform to fight the ideological battle. By using the concept of folklorism, he gave the affirmation of ritual evocation and possession. In such text, where folklorist is used in theatre, the ritual is theatricalized and the act is simulated in a conscious design that impinges on the subconscious effect of the spectators. The re-enactment of a story or an event that brings back the actualities of the experience through the use of imagination and the resources of a tagged performance heightens the effect of the play on the audience or readers for reason of the identification, similarity and communion(Adedeji,442). Ngugi illustrated the episodes to evoke the spirit of the actual Dedan Kimathi by recalling his memory, his fate and destiny, through an actual visitation to his birthplace, talking to the old men who had known him since his childhood, by drawing motivation from the women who said “Kimathi will never die”, visiting the place where kimathi perfected his tactics and followed by the trial. He made the text and the stage as realistic as possible by using bitter and realistic truths.

Reconfiguring the historical understanding, for Ngugi wa Thiong’o, was the primary purpose while outlining the nature of the drama. His idea was not to recreate the official history. He said,” The play is not a reproduction of the “farcical” trial at Nyeri. It is rather an imaginative recreation and interpretation of the collective will of the Kenyan peasants and workers.” not just Ngugi, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Charles Mungoshi and others also wrote on the similar lines to capture the ills affecting their societies. The authors of the play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi do not only show the problems of the society but also offers an elixir to African aesthetics and drama which have been distorted by European critics and authors. Music and song have been used to show different emotions-aggression, determination and so on. The only thing, Ngugi could have improved is taking care of the time frame as it disturbed the concentration of the reader or audience.

The Trial of Dedan Kimathi is a social drama that evokes the emotions in people to liberate yourselves from mental, physical, political and economic slavey. It has “austere and profound message”, as said by Victor Hugo. The play doesn’t directly tell the issues with the society, it creates the social structure to create the agitation in the audience/reader. By using the Kikuyu language, he wanted to prove that language is just a medium, “I want to see languages relating to each other, not in a hierarchy but as a network. No language is more of a language than another.”, and hence he wanted to work outside the framework. Through this play, Thiong’o aimed to engage with Kenyan history and draw linkages between the Kenyan experience and the outside world and after reading the play, I think he succeeded in doing so. According to British Book News “What Ngugi offers is nothing less than a new direction for African writing.”


  • Brown, Nicholas. “Revolution and recidivism: the problem of Kenyan history in the plays of Ngugi wa Thiong’o.” Research in African Literatures 30.4 (1999): 56-73.
  • Magel, E. A. “Symbolism and Regeneration in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s and Micere Mugo’s The Trial of Dedan Kimathi.” Canadian Journal of African Studies/La Revue canadienne des études africaines 17.2 (1983): 239-245.
  • Gikandi, Simon. “On culture and the state: The writings of Ngugi wa Thiong’o.” Third World Quarterly 11.1 (1989): 148-156.
  • wa Thiong’o, Ngugi, and Micere Githae Mugo. The Trial of Dedan Kimathi. Waveland Press, 2013.

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