African leadership challenges tackled in ‘Betrayal in the City’

Friday September 8 2017

Lucy Kamau breaks down the issues in Francis

Lucy Kamau breaks down the issues in Francis Imbuga’s famous play for literature students. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 


Francis Imbuga was born in Chavakali in Vihiga County in 1947. He was a professor of literature at Kenyatta University. He was also the first director of the Polyvalet Theatre Workshop and the director of Unesco’s children drama project for Kenya.

In 1992 he graduated with a PhD at the University of Lowa, did his Masters in literature at the University of Nairobi and part of his post-graduate work at the University of Wale, University of Ghana and University of Ibadan.

Imbuga went to the University of Nairobi for his undergraduate and Alliance High School for his secondary school. Apart from the Betrayal in the City, Prof Imbuga has written other books, among them Kisses of Fate (1971), The Fourth Trial (1972), Married Bachelor (1973) and Man of Kafira (1982).

The play Betrayal in the City is about African independent states that are characterised by dictatorship, impunity and corruption among leaders. Boss, the leader in Kafira, is a dictator who is surrounded by a few officials who are loyal to him and are ready to do anything, including killing, to please him. In return, they are rewarded handsomely and can get away with any crime.

Those who try to fight for justice pay dearly through imprisonment and even with their own lives. The play is set in an imaginary African independent state, Kafira, just after independence with the events shifting from the rural area to the capital city of Kafira. The characters are drawn from different ethnic groups which serve to heighten the aspect of tribalism in the play.

The playwright uses stylistic devices such as humour, irony, foreshadowing, and play-within-a-play to highlight various themes like corruption, dictatorship and nepotism among others. The play is a true reflection of most African independent states and their leaders, humorously portrayed, making it interesting. It is short and can be read in one sitting.

The events in the play are driven by two categories of characters — those who represent the government and its vices and those that represent the subjects and their challenges.

Mulili, one of the government officials, is behind most of the atrocities that happen in Kafira. We first meet him at the beginning of the play, at Adika’s graveside. Doga and Nina are at the graveside in preparation for the shaving ceremony of their son, who has been shot during a students’ riot against the dictatorial government.

Mulili, together with Jere, are soldiers who have been sent to the village to stop the shaving ceremony in the interest of peace. The couple argue with the two soldiers as they try to plead with them to allow them go on with the ceremony because it is very important according to the traditions of their people.

After listening to the couple, Jere sympathises with them and asks Mulili to let them conduct the ceremony because it is harmless and assures him that both of them will take charge to ensure that no one breaks the law. Mulili remains adamant and even becomes disrespectful to the old couple, who threaten to curse him. Jere tells Mulili that he will help the old couple to conduct the ceremony with or without his support, which triggers a heated argument between them. Towards the end of scene one, Jere points a gun at Mulili, who tells him that he will pay for it, which he does because the next time we meet him, he is in jail.

Apart from ensuring that Jere is imprisoned, he also confesses eliminating Doga and Nina for insisting on the shaving ceremony. The next time we see him, Mulili is in a meeting with other committee members planning how to welcome and entertain a Head of State who is due to visit the country. He, together with the other members, are in the committee because of their unflinching support of the government and are reminded by Tumbo, the chair, that they should justify their selection by doing exactly what Boss, the leader, wants.

In the meeting, Mulili and Kabito, another member of the committee, disagree and argue. Mulili threatens Kabito. During the one hour break, Mulili goes to Boss and falsely accuses Kabito of talking ill of him in the meeting and telling them that he has ruined the economy of Kafira, has hidden millions in foreign countries and wanted to take Regina by force. Boss orders him to silence Kabito, which he gladly does.

The other character who develops the plot is Tumbo, one of the government officials, who confesses to having acquired his wealth through corruption, and which he doesn’t hesitate to brag about it. We first meet him in Regina’s house, where he had gone to discuss her brother, Mosese’s release from prison.

He is appointed the chairman of the entertainment committee and is expected to look for a person who can write a play to entertain the visiting Head of State. It is in Regina’s house that he meets Jusper, a university student and Regina’s boyfriend and appoints him the writer of the play without giving other writers an opportunity to show their competence.

He also promises him a big ‘potato’ but later says that he and Regina will only get a third of the 600 pounds meant for the competition and two thirds will be used to set the record straight. It is through corruption and his negligence that he fails to read the script and the play is used by the prisoners to stage a coup.

The subjects are represented by the old couple, Mosese, Jere and Regina, who advance the plot at different scenes. Doga and Nina open the play and it is through them that we see how the masses have been rendered voiceless. They have no one to listen to them and if they insist they are eliminated.

Mosese is lecturer at the university who is imprisoned for speaking his mind at the funeral of one of his students. He is introduced to the reader in Act One, scene two, when he meets Jere and narrates to him why he is in prison. The funeral of the slain student was turned into a political rally with orders that the service must not take more than 10 minutes, the coffin should not be carried by students and weeping in pubic is illegal for academic staff, which he could not bear and he told them his mind. The following day, they went for him, accusing him of possessing drugs which were planted in his car by one of the government officials.

Jere is another prisoner and a former soldier who is also imprisoned for siding with the old couple and defying orders from the government to stop the shaving ceremony. In Act One, scene two and three, both he and Mosese share their disappointments with the government for failing in its responsibility and dictatorship. To them, all the hopes people had as they waited for independent have been shattered and they no longer have any say in what happens to either the country or themselves. They are at the mercy of the dictatorial leaders. The two are among the few who are ready to fight for justice, no matter the consequences.

Scene four of Act One is developed by Jusper and Regina, who are victims of the dictatorial regime. Jusper is determined to avenge the death of his brother while Regina is desperate to see her brother released from prison. Their bitterness and desperation make them do things that put their lives in danger, with Jusper killing Chagaga and Mulili and Regina risking being raped by Boss. Towards the end of the play, a coup is staged and the greatest betrayer of people, Mulili, pays with his life while the prisoners are able to express themselves on behalf of the masses.

To sum up, Prof Imbuga has cleverly painted a picture of African independent states, their corrupt and dictatorial leader and the struggles their subjects go through in their day-to-day lives in order to survive. He also highlights the determination by a few citizens to fight for justice at whatever cost and the consequences of such determination.

Students are encouraged to keep reading and attempting the questions to polish up on their essay writing skills. The best essays will be published.


The writer is a teacher at Alliance Girls High School. [email protected]