The True Meaning of Kĩhĩĩ

(This critique appeared in The EastAfrican 21-27 March under the title Immature Man: The true meaning of ‘kihii’)

1982, is a significant year in Kenya’s history owing to the political unrest leading to and following the attempted coup d’etat in August that year. It also marks, according to the theatre scholar Mshaï Mwangola, ‘the end of one era of theatrical performance in Kenya’ after the production of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Maitũ Njugĩra.

All over the world, wherever there is an oppressive regime, theatre is often the first victim. Fortunately, Kenyan artists have enjoyed freedom of expression in recent years and in theatre, the re-emergence of a true people’s theatre can be seen in the production of Mheshimiwa Kĩhĩĩ, by Edwardo Waigwa and Thiong’o Kanyari, performed by Impressionist Theatre at the Kenya Cultural Centre, on Friday March 11.

The title of the play initially caused a lot of controversy owing to the tribalist connotations that the word is associated with. However, the word Kĩhĩĩ does not have its face-value meaning ‘uncircumcised man’ but rather, it’s true meaning which is ‘immature man’.

Waigwa and Kanyari address an issue which has perhaps been long-overdue in modern Kikuyu culture, which is, the role of circumcision as a rite of passage for thirteen or fourteen year old boys, often carried out in hospitals under local anaesthesia, in the absence of the traditional instructions that outline what is expected of a man in society.

In fact, the play exposes the widespread alcoholism and consequent impotence amongst men, and promiscuity amongst women. A member of the chorus talks about how she often finds her son sprawled on the ground in a drunken stupor and how her daughter does not know who the fathers of her children are, since she is always too drunk to recognise or remember them during the encounters that lead to the children’s conception. “Nĩ kaba kũgimara gatagatĩ ka matũ…” she laments in typical Kikuyu bluntness, (Better to be mature between the ears) “than to be mature between the legs.”

The president, Kiongi (Moses Macharia) holds a baraza with his fellow power brokers Kimunya (Moffat Nyagah), Kimata (Samwel Mararo) and Kanua Njeke (Irene Wambui).  As he waits, for Kimunya and Kanua Njeke to arrive, the chorus in the background sings: ihĩĩ cia mũrimo ũria, ikwenda kũrua. (The boys on that ridge, need to be circumcised). Kiongi looks nervously about and Kimata (who also looks ill-at-ease) asks him “Have you not been, you know…” , alluding to- in the words of Kanyari- political immaturity.

The play does not only address cultural issues but social and political ones as well.

When the meeting begins, Kanua Njeke, outnumbered by the three men, has to constantly assert or defend herself especially against Kimunya, who makes disdainful or condescending remarks to her or about her. She sits at their far right, and has to crane her neck to see the paper that outlines the public land that they are sharing amongst themselves, even though they eventually allot her a share of the spoils.

The set comprises the front of a modern house against the back wall, with four chairs in front of it, where the baraza is held. At stage right, is the entrance to a traditional hut and stage left, is the entrance to a church. Thus, this modern government is flanked by traditional heritage on one side and Christian values on the other.

The chorus, dressed in red and black enters between scenes, with songs written by Kinyua Mundia and dances choreographed by John Mudembo, accompanied by a guitar or accordion, rich in rhetoric, addressing issues like land and joblessness.

Minor but prototypical characters are played by members of the chorus who wear a dress over their red and white costume or merely changed their trousers in the case of male characters, a hallmark of theatricalism, in which theatre mechanics are exposed.

The powerful impact of the play stems from this theatricalism. For those who are too young to remember or to understand why Kamĩrĩithu Theatre was razed to the ground in 1982, this play illustrates the power of theatre as a weapon against oppression.

The play is written by people for whom, Kikuyu is the language of their hearts- the language they think in and in which they express themselves best. It therefore triumphs not only in its use of theatrical imagery but also in its command of poetic metaphor. It is understandable that African art flourishes when expressed in an African language, but it is regrettable that this confines it to its immediate community.

POST SCRIPT: To steer away from the controversy that the initial title caused, the playwrights have given it a new title, Mũgaathe Mũgaathuku (The Unhonourable Honourable) and will be showing it again on 16th and 17th April 2011 at the Kenya National Theatre.

© Anne Manyara 2011


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