Two Ngugi’s wrote the celebrated play I will Marry When I Want. One is now a living legend, the other largely forgotten.
In 1977, two men with the same first name co-authored and staged the controversial Kikuyu play Ngaahika ndeenda, which translates to “I will Marry When I want.” The play attacked most of the things that the government of the day had become. It had themes such as greedy capitalism, corruption, and religious hypocrisy. Both men, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and his much lesser known compatriot, Ngugi wa Mirii, were arrested and detained and the play banned.
The play remains one of the most critical cultural works of the era. Through different characters, the two playwrights caricature what had become clear by the late 1970s, that Kenyans had simply switched one master for other. In either case, whether it was a colonial power or the characters Kioi and Nditika in power, everyone else was the workhorse. The new lords saw themselves as overseers, telling each other “You and I will be like watchdogs.” It also includes a man called Ndugire, a wealthy farmer who got his wealth from serving as a Homeguard. Every other side but the common man had won.
It was a public shaming of a system that had now become entrenched in Kenya, and put the two on a collision course with the first government. The year after the play was first staged, President Kenyatta died and his Vice-President rose to the throne. One of his most benevolent acts in those early days, before he became a tyranny unto himself, was to release almost all detainees who had been languishing in jail in the increasing tyranny of the 1970s. In that year of detention Ngugi wa Thiong’o had scribbled another novel, this time in Kikuyu, on toilet paper rolls.
The two Ngugi’s staged another play in 1982. 1982 is a particularly important year because of the attempted Air Force Coup, often credited with turning Moi into the tyrant he always wanted to be. The play, Mother Cry For Me, went even further than their 1977 play. It also placed them in mortal danger, forcing both of them to flee. Ngugi wa Mirii settled in newly independent Zimbabwe, then under President Canaan Banana and the man who would become king, Prime Minister Robert Mugabe. The other Ngugi went to the United States.
Ngugi wa Mirii, like his mentor, was born in Limuru, only 14 years later and in a place called Roromo. He worked his way through school to the University of Nairobi for a diploma in Adult Education. Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o then worked at the same university, and met the younger man when he came to work as a senior research assistant. The two founded and managed the Kamiriithu Community Education and Cultural Center together. It is at the iconic Kamiriithu that the controversial play showed for six straight weeks, a clear commercial success, until the government learned of it and shut it down.
Like most countries in their earliest years of independence, Zimbabwe was a bastion of Pan-Africanism. It was a logical choice for Ngugi, and allowed him to grow his Pan-African profile. He also became a nationalist, staging many other plays and works that eventually brought him to the fore of Zimbabwean arts.
Spotting a thick moustache and a goatee, Ngugi wa Mirii became a citizen of Zimbabwe, and declared himself “The Son of two Nations.”Ngugi’s profile in Zimbabwe points to a manic spirit and a burning desire to use his art to effect social change. He wrote plays such as Zunde raMambo, Mvura Naya Naya and Orocaza. He also directed and produced two films, Secrets and Exile, and a documentary called Children of the Highlands. He founded the International Community Theater College, the Zimbabwe International African Dance Ensemble, and Visions of Africa. He also founded Southern Africa Performing Arts Network, Southern Africa Theater Initiative.
Ngugi wa Mirii perished in car crash in Harare in May 2008, 26 years after he escaped from Kenya. In his exile he had found a home, one that gave him the chance to make the art for which he had been persecuted at home.
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