I Will Marry When I Want

by Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Ngugi wa Mirii

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Critical Context

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I Will Marry When I Want is a drama that celebrates, in a series of flashbacks, the events of the Mau Mau Revolution that quickened the pace of Kenya’s march toward independence. References are made throughout the drama to the taking of oaths not to betray fellow members of the organization to British authorities or to sell land to the Europeans. After these vows are administered, the initiates pass in pairs through an “arch of banana leaves to the other side.”

These allusions to the Mau Mau are also used as time markers. Kiguunda recalls his courtship of Wangeci as taking place “long before the state of Emergency,” a period from 1952 to 1962 that saw the establishment of the Homeguard and the subsequent arrest and detention of suspected Mau Mau members. The frequent allusions to the martyred Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimaathi, who is praised in songs, contrast with references to the Homeguard, whose ascendancy to power is described as the result of crooked means. Hence, I Will Marry When I Want may be read as a tribute by Ngugi to Mau Mau leaders, those he considers the progenitors of Kenya’s freedom and the rightful heirs of political leadership in postindependence Kenya.

Ngugi’s criticism of the economic policy of Kenya’s leaders in I Will Marry When I Want led to the banning of the play, and was in part the cause of his imprisonment from 1977 to 1979. Originally written in his native language, Gikuyu (or Kikuyu), as Ngaahika Ndeenda, the play was later translated by Ngugi and a fellow writer, Ngugi wa Mirii, into the English version, I Will Marry When I Want. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, in the chapter “Women in Cultural Work: The Fate of Kamiriithu People’s Theater in Kenya,” from his collection of essays Barrel of a Pen (1983), attributes his arrest to the unflattering depictions of the politicians in the drama: “Understandably, the wealthy who control the government did not like the stark realities of their own social origins enacted onstage by simple villagers. As a result, we were harassed, even some of us detained.”

Although the banning of the play in Kenya has affected public exposure to the work and limited the available scholarship, if past criticism of Ngugi’s work is a reliable indicator, the criticism of some reviewers of Ngugi’s earlier work might also apply to I Will Marry When I Want. That criticism pertains to the stridency of tone which some attribute to the idealism prevalent following independence.

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