The setting is the small, one-room hut of Kĩgũũnda, his wife Wangeci, and their beautiful teenaged daughter Gathoni. A sheathed sword hangs over the bed, and patched and torn coats hang on the wall. Wangeci is peeling potatoes, Kĩgũũnda is fixing a broken chair, and Gathoni is combing her hair. They are expectantly waiting for guests.
Kĩgũũnda stares at his title-deed and Wangeci asks why he must always do that. He boasts that this one-and-a-half acres is worth more than the rich man Ahab Kĩoi wa Kanoru’s thousands. Wangeci asks tiredly if he will fix the chair in time for their guests, and Kĩgũũnda laughs at the thought of Mr. Kĩoi and his wife Jezebel on the floor.
As they work a drunk passes by and calls for Kĩgũũnda to come out for a drink. Wangeci is annoyed and yells that he cannot urinate there. Kĩgũũnda chastises her and says the drunk was once a good man and only became that way after he lost his job. He comments, “Poverty has no heroes, / He who judges knows not how he will be judged!” (5.)
Music is heard. A soloist leads a chorus, singing of “The Satan of poverty” as well as the Satan of robbery, theft, and oppression needing to be crushed. They sing of how their awareness is held back.
The leader enters Kĩgũũnda’s hut and explains that they “belong to the sect of the poor. / Those without land, / Those without plots, / Those without clothes. We want to put up our own church” (8) and that they have a haraambe, public fundraising. Kĩgũũnda is disgusted and yells them off his land.
He harangues them to his wife, shouting that all these religions will drive the people crazy. He lists several churches and religions and wonders if “we [are] the rubbish heap of religions? / so that wherever religions are collected, / They are thrown in our courtyard?” (9.) Now there is a sect of the poor, and that bothers him. He mocks them a bit and his wife and daughter laugh.
Wangeci praises his voice and he grows somber, asking her if she remembers how he used to sing and dance the Mũcũng’wa dance before the Emergency. He calls for Gathoni to bring him his sword so he can show Wangeci how he used to do it. In his head he remembers the dance as he starts to sign and move. Dancers appear onstage.
Kĩgũũnda sings of going up the mountain, sleeping in a maiden’s bed, and reminiscing about his mother. He speaks of taking back the crown of victory from traitors and giving it to patriots. The dancers begin to leave and Wangeci cuts him off, telling him “an aging hero has no admirers!” (13.) She asks snidely who prevented him from selling out and orders him to finish the chair.
Kĩgũũnda grudgingly works on it, singing a bit: “Whose homestead is this?....This is mine own homestead” (14).
Wangeci muses why Mr. Kĩoi and Jezebel want to come to their poor home. Kĩgũũnda scoffs that he is not poor because he has a title-deed. Furthermore, he and others like him make the rich men rich with their blood and sweat. Wangeci sighs for him to stop singing that same song, and to fix the bed frame.
She then turns to Gathoni and asks her to help with the potatoes instead of sitting there. Gathoni claims she swept the floor, but Wangeci points out her pile of bedclothes. Gathoni spitefully says those are not real bedclothes. Wangeci retorts that she ought to get a husband, to which Gathoni complains that her mother keeps her at home as her slave only to pay fees for her son and heaps insult on injury. Wangeci tells her she can leave if she wants, but no girl wants to be an old maid.
Gathoni indignantly says she will marry when she wants, and Wangeci becomes furious with her. She sends her daughter outside, and Kĩgũũnda rebukes her as well.
The parents discuss why Gathoni has no manners. Wangeci sighs that when they get to this age they just have to hope for the best -she will soon marry and be gone. Kĩgũũnda wonders if modern girls do marry, or if they just go to bars and look for sugar daddies.
When Gathoni comes back in her mother orders her to go borrow some salt. She asks her husband for money but he says he already gave her all he has. Unhappy, he complains about high prices and how much he used to be able to buy. Wangeci says wryly, “The difference between then and now is this! / We now have our independence!” (19.)
After Gathoni leaves to fetch the salt, Kĩgũũnda continues to talk about how much prices have gone up and how African employers are no different from Indian employers or English Boer landlords.
When Gathoni returns with salt, a car horn toots impatiently from outside and Gathoni runs out. Her parents speculate that she has become worse now that the son of Kĩoi has taken interest in her. Kĩgũũnda lambasts modern young men.
Wangeci suddenly wonders if that is why Mr. Kĩoi and his wife are coming to visit. She remembers that she used to be beautiful like her daughter, which Kĩgũũnda initially scoffs at.
The two then begin to remember fondly the time when they were courting, the time before the Emergency. Kĩgũũnda compares his wife to the moon, stars, instruments, and music. Wangeci remembers how they used to dance, and how all the girls wanted to dance with him.
As they speak, instruments are heard and dancers come onstage, as if in their memories. Kĩgũũnda sings of his beautiful wife. They remember dancing the Mwomboko dance, with Kĩgũũnda singing of wanting to be with Wangeci and take care of each other.
The dancers and musicians leave and Wangeci and Kĩgũũnda pause, frozen. Kĩgũũnda states that the seven years weren’t over before they began to speak of freedom for Kenya, “a land of limitless joy / A land rich in green fields and forests / Kenya is an African people’s country” (26).
The first pages of the long first act necessitate some background, as well as an explication of some of the themes, which are already pervasive even in this early chapter. The play is set in post-colonial Kenya; the Mau Mau uprising, which brought about the state of emergency referred to by the characters, eventually led to the British relinquishing their imperial control over their colony and Kenya becoming a republic. Things were not ideal, however, and the decades following independence saw many tensions over class, religion, and the relationship with foreigners. Hugh Dinwiddy, who reviewed the play upon its publication, summed up his interpretation of the author and his work: “It is what he sees as a betrayal of the values inherent in this mainly Kikuyu movement that continues to make Ngugi tremble physically with suffering and fury.” That Kikuyu movement he refers to is that of the Kenyan ethnic group to which most Mau Mau belonged (see “Other” in this study guide for more information about the uprising). Scholar Evan Maina Mwangi offers this useful summation of the play: “the play laments the exploitation and marginalization of the peasants who fought for Kenya's liberation by a new group of leaders and financiers who have taken over the country’s economy.
The names of the characters help flesh out this story. Kĩgũũnda suggests farming, Gathoni shyness, Gĩcaamba a cock/rooster or courage. Kĩgũũnda is introduced as a man who belongs to the earth; or, better yet, he deeply reveres his own bit of earth. It is small in acreage, but he boasts that it is more meaningful than the thousands owned by rich men. That title-deed is associated with Kĩgũũnda’s manhood (he compares it to being proud of one’s penis), and when it is taken from him at the end of the play, is akin to a castration.
Land and economic and political autonomy will become the rallying points for Kĩgũũnda and his compatriots, but in this early act religious autonomy seems to be the paramount concern. Religion is always part and parcel of Western countries’ attempts to subdue other territories, and it was no different for Kenya during and after its colonial period. The British administrators may be gone, but Western religions have proliferated. Kĩgũũnda angrily asks, “Are we the rubbish heap of religions? / So that wherever the religions are collected, / They are thrown in our courtyard?” (9). He thinks “Religions in this village will drive us all crazy! / Night and day!” (9). Religion is equal in weight to political and economic pressures because it is part of a culture and is thus deeply ingrained in society. It is no surprise, as it made clear later in the text, that the greedy Kĩoi and his snooty wife are Christians.
One of the other themes that are laid out in this first section is that of the clash between modernity and tradition. Gathoni, Wangeci and Kĩgũũnda’s daughter, embodies the youthful desire to push boundaries, make one’s own choices, and live a life free from the strictures of her parents. Gathoni is the character who first utters the phrase, “I shall marry when I want. / Nobody will force me into it!” (16.) This is her act of defiance: to dress, talk, and act as she pleases (her beau buys her platform shoes, for example) -- and then, of course, to marry whomever she wants. Interestingly, this is still framed within very traditional notions of a woman’s role in life -- to be a wife and a mother -- but it does represent a societal change that Gathoni thinks she has the ability to make any choices in this regard. For her parents, Gathoni’s obnoxiousness is a reflection of the crassness of “modern” times. Kĩgũũnda laments, “It’s all the modern children. They have no manners at all” (17), which Wangeci agrees with but adds that this is a recognizable attitude of youth in general: ”when children get to that age, / We can only watch them and hope for the best” (17). Gathoni’s fate is more complicated than, this, though, and offers interesting commentary on Ngugi’s views on gender (see summary/analysis of Act III).
In terms of character analysis, there is much to discern about Wangeci and Kĩgũũnda. Their marriage seems amicable enough, but they are living in a tumultuous time that brings out their discordant views on independence, economic security, etc. Wangeci appears much more willing to accommodate the realities of life in Kenya, not thinking deeply about the problems that undergird society and how they are tied to foreigners and wealthy Africans. She dismisses the drunk man callously, whereas Kĩgũũnda, rebuking her, calls attention to why he is drunk: “And don’t look down upon him. / He was a good man; / He became the way he is now only after he lost his job” (5). He adds perspicaciously, “Poverty has no heroes” (5). Wangeci also stops Kĩgũũnda from going on too long with his reminiscing about his patriotic days, chiding him with “An aging hero has no admirers!” (13.) Later, when discussing their lack of money, she mocks independence by saying, “The difference between then and now is this! / We now have our independence!” (19.) As evidenced in later parts of the play, Wangeci is not concerned with mounting another independence movement or upsetting the social hierarchy if it means she will be comfortable; assuming the guise of Western religion and Western culture and kowtowing to people like Kĩoi and Jezebel are more palatable to her than her husband and their friends. This shifts by the very end of the text, but it takes a greater degree of effort for Wangeci.