Nationalism, Ethnicity and Gender in Ngugi's the Black Hermit

By Chakraborty, Amitayu | Journal of Pan African Studies, May 2014 | Go to article overview

Nationalism, Ethnicity and Gender in Ngugi's the Black Hermit


Chakraborty, Amitayu, Journal of Pan African Studies


Introduction

Much scholarly work has been devoted to Ngugi wa Thiong'o's plays, short stories, novels and essays. However, most of the works have concentrated on his later works, especially the novels like Petals of Blood (1976), Matigari (translated by Wangui wa Goro from Matigari ma Mjiruungi, 1986) and Wizard of the Crow (Muruugi wa Kagoogo, 2006). One of his earliest writings, the play The Black Hermit (first published in 1968; premiered in 1962) has only gained attention in terms of Ngugi's initial struggle to formulate a specific mode of resistance to neocolonialism or the arrested independence in Africa in general, and Kenya in particular. In other words, it is regarded as a text that registers Ngugi's initial dilemma: being an English-educated Gikuyu athomi (1) what should be his approach towards the discursive field of sociocultural practices in Africa/Kenya, which was fraught with the troubled relationship between nationalism and ethnicity? In the words of James Ogude,

   In the early 1960s, when Ngugi was writing, the relationship
   between ethnicity and nationalism was clearly a vexed one. For one,
   the site for constituting the nation lay in reconstructing the
   past. But if one turned to history it had of necessity to be
   ethnic, an area of experience at which many writers tended to look
   with disdain. Alternatively, attempts to resolve this issue would
   seem to have involved the unwitting adoption of an
   anthropologically evolutionist position which posited ethnic
   polities as an earlier form of social organisation that would
   wither into the modern state. (15)

Simon Gikandi's insightful and comprehensive study of Ngugi's works published in 1997, namely Ngugi wa Thiong'o (2000) contains an analysis of The Black Hermit which considers the play (along with other early dramatic works of Ngugi collected in This Time Tomorrow which was broadcast on BBC African Service in 1967) as an exploration of the dilemma of the "'modern [male] subject' emerging from colonial institutions such as the university and the church, striving to reconnect with old traditions, only to discover that more often than not, the ideas of nationhood are at odds with 'tribal' affiliations and practices" (166). The analysis centres upon Remi, the modern "black hermit in the city" who strives to reconcile the demands of modernity with those of tradition, of the dominant discourses of nationalism and ethnicity in a newly independent African nation like Kenya or Uganda. This article is an attempt to reread the play The Black Hermit from a gender-sensitive perspective that focusses on how nationalism, ethnicity and gender are discursively intermeshed together. Hence the female characters of the play, especially Thoni and Nyobi, take the centre stage.

In this article "nationalism" and "ethnicity" refer to discourses that purport to narrate the communal. Worth mention is Benedict Anderson's argument: "all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined" (5). An ethnic group or ethnie comes into existence by virtue of the discourse(s) of ethnicity which depend(s) upon some "empty" signifiers of homogeneity like the myth of common culture, shared memory, common ancestry. As nationalism constructs an imagined community as a nation, ethnicity constructs an imagined community as an ethnic group. Thomas Eriksen argues in Ethnicity and Nationalism, nationalism "and ethnicity are kindred concepts, and majority of nationalisms are ethnic in character; " but a "nationalist ideology is an ethnic ideology which demands a state on behalf of the ethnic group" (144). In the words of Richard Jenkins, "to consider ethnicity and nationalism in the same analytical breath" is now an "anthropological common sense" (12). Interestingly, the word "ethnicity" has its genesis in the Greek "ethnos, which seems to have referred to a range of situations in which a collectivity of humans lived and acted together . …

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