The Trial of Dedan Kimathi

by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The play opens in a courtroom that is blatantly segregated. Black people are seated in the back, crammed in uncomfortable chairs. White people are seated more comfortably. The court proceeding is forceful, and Kimathi speaks no words. It ends abruptly, the stage falling into darkness.

This grim scene is immediately followed by music and the singing of peasants, telling a story from Kenyan peoples’ history. This is interrupted by a shot and violence. Then, several scenes show the oppression of the Kenyans under colonial rule. This transitions to something audiences might recognize as a protest, with anti-government chanting. Drumming and gunshots trade off for a time, until dawn breaks to a scene of people fleeing an unseen enemy, some fighting back with guns.

This mostly visual and musical exposition fades, and focus turns to a group of soldiers harassing Kenyans, calling them terrorists and beating and arresting them. A woman named Waitina resists the soldiers and stands up for her neighbors.

Another, longer scene follows in which a British soldier accosts a Kenyan woman and steals her food. She mocks him for being afraid of her, and he tells her stories of the strong women fighting the resistance, whom he absolutely fears (though he tries not to show it).

The scene transitions again with noises of violence, ultimately causing both of those characters to flee. Several soldiers come onstage and talk about Kimathi’s capture and several attempts to free him. They also reveal the colonial government’s plans to arrest entire villages to attempt to find resistance fighters. The soldiers argue about whether Kimathi’s death will mean the end of the Mau Mau’s resolve to fight.

The woman from the previous scene emerges from hiding and heads to the fruit seller. She is very careful with her loaf of bread. She reflects some on the ways that fighting off British oppression has also made her own people more likely to turn on each other.

On her way to the fruit seller, she encounters two siblings fighting over money. She asks their story, shames them for fighting over what the colonialists bring rather than making their own separate way, and then gives them money for food. When the child returns her change, she sends him with the bread to the fruit seller.

As the second movement begins, we see the fruit seller trying to hide his impatience.

The scene transitions to the inside of the courtroom, which is segregated as obviously as before. Kimathi doesn’t remain silent this time. Instead of answering the question of his guilt, he gives a powerful speech about how the colonial law is irrelevant to him. He argues that the law is meant to protect the ability of the colonizers to oppress his people. He questions why he should follow a law that is written to hurt him. The judge’s retorts are weak and justify Kimathi’s ideas. The Kenyans in the courtroom are excited by the speech, and the white people grow angrier and more aggressive.

One settler is so upset by Kimathi’s speech that he points his gun at the Kenyan side of the room and gives a speech of his own in which he hysterically blames the people of Kenya for all his losses. His farm was built on land that was stolen from Kenyans, but he sees himself as entitled to it and blames them for fighting to have it back. He also blames them for poisoning the minds of his sons, whom he implies have taken to the anticolonial side of the fight. He threatens to kill them all but is disarmed by...

(This entire section contains 1267 words.)

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a court official.

Here begin the “four trials” of Kimathi. The first is a conversation in his cell with Shaw Henderson, the judge from the first scene. Henderson tries to convince Kimathi to plead guilty so that his life may be spared. Kimathi steadfastly refuses, calling Henderson deceitful the whole time. Henderson keeps trying, varying his manipulation tactics, and eventually Kimathi tells him that to save his life by submitting to these British demands would still be to lose his life, because his life is for the people. Henderson leaves insisting that he will “break” Kimathi.

In his second trial, a banker and an Indian man come to see Kimathi. They also try to convince Kimathi to plead guilty, this time so that he can partner with the banks and let them in to exploit Kenya in place of the British government. The Indian man is meant to convince Kimathi from the mouth of another person of color. Kimathi rejects the idea that money is anything but a “sell-out” for his people.

The play returns to the siblings who were fighting. They get in a tussle, and eventually the loaf of bread is broken open to reveal a gun. They panic, and the boy becomes upset at the woman, but he also feels some call to finish the mission he was given.

Kimathi’s third trial involves him speaking with an African business executive and a priest. The businessman is dressed in white man’s clothes but speaks about Black power. He tries to convince Kimathi that the war is over because the colonialists have agreed to end discrimination and allow everyone to freely participate in capitalism. Kimathi rejects the idea that the people he is fighting for should have to buy back their land that has been stolen, or that trading a white master for a Black one is progress. The priest follows and offers an Africanized church as his own form of progress. Kimathi rejects this as well.

The scene returns to the boy and the girl. They cannot find the orange seller but take stock of their situation and decide to free Kimathi themselves.

The fourth trial involves the return of Shaw Henderson, this time to demand information. Kimathi is tortured for the location of Stanley Mathenge. He says that he is yielding and is taken to sign a confession, but he throws the paper at Henderson. Kimathi refuses to become an oppressor and points out that each trial in turn has been aimed at getting him to do just that. Henderson orders Kimathi back to the torture chamber.

The third movement of the play begins with the woman reuniting with the siblings to whom she had given the bread. She explains the escape plans that have fallen apart. They all decide to work together to free Kimathi.

The scene cuts to a guerrilla camp, where Kimathi is leading the trials of people who have fought against the Mau Mau Uprising. He identifies that he does not care to fight British people but is opposed only to their colonialism. He also shames soldiers, both Black and white, for fighting for the riches of those who oppress them for only a penance in exchange. Kimathi also champions the ability of the Kenyan people to exist outside of the capitalist structures that the colonialists bring. He repeatedly urges continued militancy and training to push out the British.

The play ends in the courtroom. The judge tries to convict Kimathi, but he is interrupted first by the entrance of the woman, who is arrested and removed, and then by the entrance of the siblings. As he announces that Kimathi will be hanged, the boy and girl step forward. A commotion breaks out; then a shot is heard. Darkness falls, and when the light returns, all the soldiers are gone except one, who joins in singing the freedom song with the Kenyans in the courtroom. This singing closes the play.


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