Critical Context

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East African—unlike West African—countries had a substantial population of permanent British colonists. By their residence, they imposed upon Kenya and Uganda a British university educational system and an elite society that reflected British social behavior. Local theater companies offered only popular British plays for an audience that included few Africans. Ngugi wa Thiong’o decided to challenge the imposition of British values and the fact that in schools “an annual production of Shakespeare with African boys dressed in the costumes of sixteenth century England has become a ritual.” In 1961, students at Makerere University established a traveling acting company, which toured Kenya and Uganda and presented plays in village halls, in churches, and even in the open air. This genuine attempt to bring theater to the people was hampered because there was not any indigenous work available for them to perform.

In 1962, the year of Ugandan independence, Ngugi wrote The Black Hermit as a contribution to the Uhuru (freedom) celebrations. In truth, this play can hardly be considered a celebration of that event. Ngugi was an aggressive anticolonialist, but his optimism concerning independence did not long survive the evidence of corruption in the new national governments. The defeat of this expectation forms part of the plot of The Black Hermit. It was also a stimulus to Ngugi’s subsequent writing, which led to a period in jail for his crime of exposing the moral and economic hypocrisy of the regime. After The Black Hermit, Ngugi became uncertain whether the English language could sustain the kind of drama he wished to write. English addressed the educated elite, while Ngugi wanted to reach the masses. From that time, he has preferred to produce plays—including his The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (pr. 1974, pb. 1976; with Micere Githae-Mugo), Ngaahika Ndeenda (pr. 1977, pb. 1980; with Ngugi wa Mirii), and I Will Marry When I Want (pr. 1982)—in African languages and present them in village settings rather than in formal theaters. The Black Hermit has since been translated into Swahili.

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