by Susan Abraham
This afternoon, I read an East African play, The Bride sketched to meticulous poetic detail and hoarded by serious social innuendoes, befitting an era that spelt complexities for a nation’s sharp pursuit of a Woodstock freedom in the 60s and 70s.
It was a time, stresses Austin Bukenya (Mwalimu) in his introduction, that African plays were viewed an an entertaining form of exotica for the West. He doesn’t say so in as many words – one is immediately aware of Bukenya’s carefully measured tact in all he writes – but I rather got the picture.
The Bride was first presented as a public performance by the Ngoma Players, under the direction of Nuwa Sentongo, at the Nile Hotel, Kampala in January 1973.
The Uganda-born playwright, Austin Bukenya, a longtime novelist, poet, critic, accomplished stage actor and sportsman and who has in the past also taught Literature and Languages at universities in Nairobi and Kenya, is fastidious about the creative performances of The Bride, should anyone decide to stage the play.
I first picked up this small book at an old Tanzanian bookshop in Dar-es-Salaam, two years ago.
The Bride was originally based on a short story, Two Husbands One Night by L.M. Kimaro, vol.1 of Darlite, a literary journal published in Kenya in 1966. Bukenya would reclaim his own version of a play sketched to 4 movements, as a ‘broad experiment in creativity’ and serving as a yardstick for an East African society, determined to find itself.
In the first movement, the story opens up to drums, music and a fervent dance by Lekindo and his merry band of friends. They skip around for the moon and attempt to conduct an initiation ceremony. Lekindo who’s projected as sensible and clever, is in love with the virginal Namvua. She is late and he is anxious. His tension reveberates through the scene. Namvua possesses a tidy role as principal dancer, in the initiation ceremony, under the big bright moon.
The tragedy here is that the young maiden is held in prejudice as a ‘foreigner.’ Her father Merio, was one; a man who sprouting up from a different tribe and region, had longed for acceptance, but been appropriately shunned by the village folk.
Namvua found herself treated in equal terms as a pariah. She was not allowed circumcision with the other girls. Later, the rest of the womenfolk would declare her to be not yet reborn into womanhood. They would turn toffee-nosed, considering themselves higher mortals. In fact, it is her long delay now, that causes a group of girls to spit insults in the meantime and demand the spotlight as principal dancer. The girls, refer to Namvua as a she-goat or cow.
Lekindo and his loyal friends will have none of this. Arguments break out between the young men and women. Through his defence of Namvua in poetic if not heroic speeches, Lekindo stoutly holds his ground. When Namvua arrives, it is clear from her excuse, that she has had to sneak her way, through another route, dodging two elders – elderly men considered wise men & decision-makers – chatting and blocking the foothpath.
The girls continue to fight as Namvua dances. Later, the group disperses and there is a moment of tender conversation between Namvua and Lekindo, before he takes her home. The conversations highlight Namvua’s difficulties with regards to social status in her rural African community and Lekindo’s struggle to command his village’s as yet, impalpable compassion. This is not helped by Lekindo’s father, Shundu, who marches in angrily and thunders a lecture. Lekindo stays a true friend to Namvua, even at the risk of greatly angering his father.
The second movement is terribly comical. This scene highlights a temple and a shrine of the idol, Wanga whom the local folk worship. In Movement Two, the priest, a colourful character and longsuffering husband to his sly wife, Mkumbu, is busy buttering a rich villager, Lesijore. He offers blessings in the hope of receiving a fat donation.
Later Mkumbu turns up and Lemera plunges into what a reader suspects; a habitual groan of moaning for an heir. The temple’s wealth has to be passed down. Mkumbu insists they already have a son. The son turns out be an old skull – the relic of Mkumbu’s dead son – whom Mkumbu still calls Lettie and carries with her everywhere. She cares for the skull with the same tenacity and tenderness as any mother would employ for a living child. She appears as a woman seemingly either cast by a spell or locked in terrible denial. It is clear to the reader that Lemera holds no sentiment for the old skull but is eager to pacify Mkumbu. The couple hatch a plan together. Why not marry Namvua to the decaying object called Lettie, where the old Lemera would then conspire to sleep with her to get his heir. The promise made to Namvua’s father, Merio is an effective one. The village would accept him and his family as one of theirs, thereafter. I found great humour in the dialogue, that despite tradition, ancestry or belief, a marriage would hold similar problems.
Movement Three highlights a thrilled Merio, so pleased with the proposal that his family is to be accepted at long last, by the village folk. He indulges in Lemera’s earlier gift of beer heartily and proceeeds to tell his wife, Tutu, a thing or two. Tutu is shocked beyond words that her daughter is to marry a skull and laments the fact that she will have no happy extended family, with a bunch of grandchildren milling around her.
Much earlier, also in Movement Three, Lekindo had chanced upon Namvua in the outdoors, while the latter was busy collecting firewood. There ensured a bit of a tease and banter. Their gentle romance is affirmed, nary a bit of wistfulness on her part. However, Lekindo was bent with curiosity as to what sudden affliations, Namvua’s parents had conjured up with Lemera and Mkumbu. Why, he had witnessed just the day before, jolly scenes of the two couples, appearing in jovial episodes together, suggesting an astonishing goodwill and friendship. Namvua swears she knows nothing. Lekindo believes her but is determined to find out more.
The fourth Movement opens with Namvua waiting with apprehension, to marry her husband in the bridal chambers. There is the sound of drums that signal his impending arrival. Crowds start to gather. In conspiratorial whispers, Namvua’s aunt, Sikitu, opts to give Namvua, some lengthy maternal advice about marriage and encourages the nervous girl, to go ahead with the wedding. Namvua is already lonely and can’t believe that she would find herself surrounded by strangers, she’s not quite sure she’ll like. Sikutu laughs it off, remembering her own lusty moments on her first wedding night, where she screamed and wailed for her parents and fought, clawed and scratched everybody with furious intent, until she had to be tied to her bed, to await her husband.
Suddenly Lekindo dashes into the room with his friends and attempts to rescue Namvua. Namvua had no idea that she would in a matter of minutes be betrothed to a skull, awaiting its lively fate in a bowl. She had been given the vague impression of inheriting the wrinkly Lemera for her husband. In the event that Lekindo and his friends would soon confront the surprised audience, they agree to use not spears, sticks or force but words of peace and tolerance to achieve their means.
However, Lekindo cannot resist smashing the doomed ‘Lettie’ to the ground once and for all, and turning the skull to smithereens. The mournful Mkumbu starts wailing as she gathers the pieces together, and Lemera gives way at the end of it all, to allow Lekindo to marry Namvua instead.
Bukenya sketches The Bride with a deft hand, almost showcasing his play as a lengthy narrative poem. In this aspect, he has advised actors to recite conversation in its most ordinary manner, where if recited with poetic imaginings, the play may go a -wandering. Imagery is spoken in everyday encounters as if it may have been pronounced as the most normal thing to do.
In the First Movement, to warn against waiting for Namvua, one of the jealous girls, Kajiru says to Lekindo, ‘The dance is cooling upon our breasts.’ When Tutu tries to advice Namvua about the birds and bees in the Third Movement, fearing her bewildered daughter knows nothing, she later discovers to her horror that Namvua has learnt all she needs to know from her best friend, Lekindo.
Tutu mutters with disdain, “Oh, you gods and spirits that bore me, Come here, Namvua, let me look at your eyes and your breasts. Open your breast. Has this Lekindo? Has he…touched you? Tell me Namvua… I have never known a dog that protects meat between its teeth. Tell me and I will tell you all the secrets of the plains.”
And back to the First Movement, which I find most enchanting, Lekindo questions unease and anger, “Is this the age-group of fire, that is going to burn away the dead leaves of stupidity which have accumulated upon the plains since Wanga (deity) fired the sun in the sky…”
I was held riveted to the play. I forgot I was reading dialogue and with the right amount of dramatics amounting to tension, joy, music, excitement, nervousness, shock, fear and a wry humour encased in all the right parts, I could well have been watching a film and never once felt bored.
Further Reading: The Future for Young Writers is Online by Austin Bukenya.