Analysis of the Play: "The Black Hermit"
The Black Hermit is a play written by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. It was first published in 1968. The play was first played out on November 1962 by Makerere College Students Dramatic Society at the Ugandan National Theatre. The cast included members from Uganda, Tanzania, Britain, Malawi, Kenya and India.
The play highlights various problems or challenges the newly formed African countries under a new local government faced after gaining independence. It is worth noting that successive African governments have never fully solved the issues that were raised by the general public immediately after their countries gained independence. Tribalism, land clashes and inequalities are some of the problems that still face African countries in the 21st century despite enjoying over twenty years of self-rule.
The Play's Structure and Characters
The play is divided into three parts: Act One, Act Two and Act Three. Both the acts have three scenes. The first and third acts occur in the countryside while the second one in town.
The characters in the play both the major and minor ones are: Remi, Thoni, Nyobi, Omange, Pastor, Jane, Leader, Elder, 1st Elder, 2nd Elder, Elders, 1st Neighbour, 2ndNeighbour, Woman and All.
In the first scene, Thoni is kneeling on the floor near the hearth in the hut sorting out beans spread in a basin. Nyobi, her mother-in-law enters carrying a water-barrel which she puts down in a corner.
She asks Thoni if she has finished sorting out the beans. Thoni replies they are about ready. Nyobi notices Thoni has been crying. She asks her whether she has been crying which forces Thoni to turn her head aside. Nyobi reflects how the world has changed. Sons no longer respect their mothers and carry out their wishes. She wonders why her son has never replied to her numerous letters.
She tells Thoni it pains her to see her maiden years wasting away. She asks her to get another husband even if the man will not marry her, she should at least ensure she’s impregnated. Thoni responds she won’t allow herself to become a public ball or a common whore. She will wait for her husband even if it will take over twenty years.
Nyobi says she has seen a lot. She has seen the sun rising and setting, seasons followed by many others including birth and death alternating. She has tasted the pain of beatings and experienced the pangs of birth and death’s blow. She says she has learned the joys of a woman. However, she wonders why her son has been silent for many years. Thoni tells her mother-in-law it is not her (mother-in-law) he hates but her (Thoni’s) flesh and bed.
They hear a voice outside the hut. They become excited. It must be Remi. Their excitement is diminished when they realize the voice is that of an elder. Thoni exits after the elder enters. The elder influences Nyobi to bless the traditional medicine and the man who will carry it to town. He tells Nyobi he has been sent by the elders for they believe once Nyobi blesses the medicine it would aid in bringing Remi back to the village.
After the elder exits, Nyobi looks for a shawl. She believes she has done unchristian thing by blessing a traditional medicine. Will God punish her by not bringing Remi back because she has accepted to bless a traditional practice that is against Christian teachings? She must see the pastor and urge him to go to the city to convince Remi to return to his homeland.
In Scene II, the elders and their leader have gathered in a meeting ground in an open area. They are discussing the difficulties their tribe is undergoing and the fact their tribe isn’t represented in the current government. For instance, the leader says that independence hasn’t benefited their tribe. Instead, it has brought them heavier and heavier taxation. “We are told about roads, about hospitals; but which hungry man wants a road...” He tells them they should make sure once Remi returns he should not be influenced by his mother or the pastor.
In Scene III, Nyobi is running after the pastor to exhort him to go to the city. At first, the pastor refuses. After a while, the realization he’s growing old leads him to accept Nyobi’s plea. He acknowledges the church needs a young blood which is energetic. He agrees to go to the city to look for Remi.
In this act we come across Remi. He is working in the city in an oil company as a clerk. He is seeing a woman, Jane, who is of European descent.
In the first scene, Jane finds Remi lying on the sofa. She asks him why he is not ready for a night out. He replies he is tired. Jane laughs reminding him how in the previous year he used to go from one nightclub to another like someone who was haunted, running away from something.
In Scene II, Omange, Remi’s friend in the city visits him. After the greetings, the discussion focuses on politics. In Scene II, we learn Remi had fallen in love with Thoni but as shy as he was then he found it difficult to let her know how he felt. He left the country to go to the city to study. Later, he is sent a letter inviting him to attend the wedding of his older brother and Thoni. His elder brother dies six months later after the wedding in a car accident. His father having learnt the death of his firstborn becomes ill. The shock of his son's death leads to his demise a few days later. As is the customary law of Marua tribe, Remi has to inherit his brother’s wife. He tells Omange he has a wound in his heart, and that wound is a woman–Thoni.
As they are discussing about Thoni who ‘broke’ Remi’s heart, the leader of the elders and two elders come into limelight. Omange leaves at Remi’s instruction to find Jane to prevent her from going to Remi’s room. The elders plead with him to return to their land factoring their tribe isn’t represented in the government. Since Remi is educated, he is better suited as a political leader to steer his tribe in the political direction. Remi refuses their offer and pleadings, insisting he will remain in the city. They tell him they’re hopeful he will return to his land. They leave behind a bundle wrapped with banana leaves which is the traditional medicine.
When the elders have left, the pastor enters. He too wants Remi to return because his mother, his wife and the church needs him back. Remi offers the pastor various reasons he does not want to go back. All of a sudden, he turns to the pastor with an ironic smile and tells him, “Go back to the village. Tell the elders this; if they need me, I’ll come. If you Christians want me, I’ll not fail you. If my mother calls for me, I’ll not disappoint her hopes. Go and tell it to all: The ridges, hills and the mountains. Tell it to all the land.” This ironic smile, as we’ll find later will spell doom because the events that will unfold will result from this simple yet drastic action.
The pastor leaves behind his Bible. Remi weighs the Bible and the bundle wrapped in banana leaves. He utters, “These…These…pieces of superstition meant to lure me home. Shall I find my peace and freedom there? These are part of me, part of my life, my whole life.”
In Scene III, Jane pleads with Remi to go with her to his homeland. Remi tells her she will not be able to adapt to the traditions of his tribe neither does she understand the sufferings his people are going through. She tells him she will try to adjust to the ways of his people but Remi refuses. At her insistence, Remi reveals to her that he has a wife. This sets a confrontation between the two of them. It is at this point we learn further the characteristics of Remi from Jane which offers an insight of how his attitude/behavior leads to the catastrophic events that will unfold when he returns to his homeland. Jane tells him to go back to his little wife and storms out of the room.
Nyobi and Thoni are in the hut tiding while talking about Remi’s return. The pastor had communicated Remi’s message that he will come back to his homeland. Thoni tells Nyobi she fears Remi will be different. She tells her of a terrible dream she had the previous night. In the dream she saw a man who had a face like that of an insane man. Nyobi too had the same dream.
Remi delivers his speech in his village on the same day he arrives. Nonetheless, his speech is not received well by the villagers who had gathered to hear it. Even when alone with his mother, wife, the pastor and Omange; he doesn’t utter nice words to his mother and wife.
Thoni leaves without anyone realizing she’s not in their presence. This is after Remi stating, “I was wrong to marry her who was another’s wife, a woman who did not love me.” Nyobi is the first to realize her disappearance. She goes out to look for her.
In Scene II, a village woman is persuading Thoni not to leave. Thoni is adamant she will leave. She tells the woman she longs the country she had experienced when she was young. It is a country where “there is no light and no people. It’s all darkness, swallowing you wholly so that no man from this world may know or recognize you.” She leaves despite the village woman’s insistence.
In Scene III, the beating of drums is heard followed by men carrying a dead body. Remi kneels beside her, a broken man. He wishes she had sent him the letter earlier. He was handed the letter by the village woman who had persuaded Thoni not to leave. When he asked her whose letter it was, she replied, “She was kind. She who was true. A tender sapling growing straight though surrounded with weed.” Confused, he asked her again. She responded angrily, “The best woman the village had ever borne. Many curses on you.”
As he stares at the dead body, he utters, “I came back to break Tribe and Custom, instead, I’ve broken you and me.”
How To Find A Theme
When Remi was studying in the city, he influenced the elders to support the Africanist Party which would bring the needed changes after leading the country into independence. However, it has done nothing to tackle the problems faced by the people after it attained the government’s seat. The leader tells the elders during their meeting, “…Because we love that soil, we, years ago, agreed to fight the white man and drive him away from the land. Today the same love of our soil makes us turn to the only educated man in the country. Look at our country since independence. Where is the land? Where is the food? Where are the schools for our children?” Furthermore, he says uhuru (independence) has not brought them anything to be proud of. In its place it has brought them heavier and heavier taxation. The promise of roads and hospitals are useless when people are hungry. When people are over-taxed, it would be difficult for them to meet their basic needs let alone secondary needs.
2. Cultural Practice - Wife Inheritance
One of the noticeable traditions practiced in Marua tribe is wife inheritance. This involves a man inheriting the wife of his deceased brother. When Thoni’s husband dies in a car accident, Remi is reminded of the Marua’s custom - he should inherit (marry) his brother’s wife. Remi refuses because he believes Thoni had never loved him. Instead, she had accepted to get married to his elder brother. This doesn’t go well with his parents. His mother weeps while his father though a Christian wails and curses him. The elders implore him to obey the tribe’s custom by agreeing to his father’s wishes. They remind him when he asked them to join the Africanist Party, they agreed. Now, it was his turn to obey theirs.
He runs away to the city not wanting to share the same bed with Thoni. He believes Thoni had never loved him. He tells Omange, Thoni knew he loved her before she agreed to be married by his older brother. We find Remi’s hatred for Thoni is misplaced. Remi never told Thoni he loved her. Without having been told how would she know the feelings she had for Remi was reciprocated by him?
3. Conflict between Religion and Politics
When the elders meet to discuss the difficulties their tribe is undergoing and which elders should go to the city to convince Remi to return; the leader utters something profound before releasing the elders. He says, “…When Remi comes back, he must not fall under the influence of his mother, or the pastor..."
They don’t want Remi to lean on the Christianity (religion) side. Their intention is for their tribe to be represented in the government. The only person who can represent them in the government is Remi due to his level of education. He’s the only who can steer the tribe in the political direction.
When the pastor returns to the country, he visits Nyobi and Thoni. He tells Nyobi, “… But be prepared. He must be kept away from politics. Away from the influence of tribal elders.”
It is evident that one group does not want the other group to influence Remi to join their camp. Each camp has its own expectations for Remi.
Marua tribe appears like a non-existent tribe in a self-ruling or republic country. The tribe isn’t represented in the government which poses various problems in terms of economic, social and technological development. The lack of a representative in the national government is poised out by the leader of the elders. “Look at our country since independence. Where is the land? Where is the food? Where are the schools for our children? Who of our tribe is in the government? Who of our own flesh and blood can be seen in long cars and houses built of stone? Our tribe waits under a government composed of other tribes.”
The elders want Remi to return to his homeland so that he can steer his tribe in the political direction. They want him to represent them in the government. The fact the other tribes are represented in the government except Marua tribe questions the government’s stand on not favoring any or some tribes against others. In addition, no one from Marua tribe has a house made of stone or drives a long car. This elicits jealousy among the Marua people that the other tribes are well-off than them.
Furthermore, in his speech, Remi was aware of the troublesome fact the country was divided on tribal lines. He utters, "Go now dear elders. And remember what I told you. We must all turn to the soil. We must help ourselves build more schools; turn our hearts and minds to create a nation, then will tribe and race disappear, And man shall be free..."
When Remi is left alone with Nyobi, Thoni, Pastor and Omange, he tells Nyobi, his mother, "I will no longer be led by a woman, priest or tribe. I'll crush tribalism beneath my feet, and all the shackles of custom..."
Lastly, when discussing the state of affairs affecting their nation, Omange tells Remi, "...But take tribalism for instance. Since Independence tribalism and tribal loyalties seem to have increased. And even leaders who were the supporters of the Africanist Party are the very ones who are encouraging these feelings."
Thoni is a strange woman according to the village woman who persuaded her not to leave. This strangeness results from Thoni desiring to return to the state she experienced when she was young. A state where there is complete darkness. She tells the woman, “… I am not afraid. I’ll go through the world, a maid flouted by both fate and man. And I’ll go to a country where I’ve many times thought of going. There, there is no light and no people. It’s all darkness, swallowing you wholly so no man from this world may know or recognize you. I’ll go there, I shall never meet anyone who’ll see me and pause to whisper: There is a girl no man will touch. There is stillness, all stillness in that country which I saw only once when I was a child. I was then small–very small.”
She desires to be dead than alive because in death she won’t experience any form of suffering or pain e.g. rejection from her husband. Using darkness as a symbolism, the playwright emphasizes Thoni’s desire to depart from this ‘hurtful’ world. In death she won't know anyone nor will anybody recognize her because it's something she desires - no one to take notice of her.
According to the events that have unfolded in the play leading to the climax, a hermit is a person who runs away from something. In the play we can locate Remi as a hermit. The fact he is termed a black hermit indicates his origin is black - African. He ran away from his village to the city, not to live a solitary life but to escape from what he considered as a prison life in the village.
Jane reminds Remi how the previous year he was going from one nightclub to another as if he were being hunted, running away from something. We find out during his conversation with Omange that he ran away from the country because he’d a wound in his heart and the wound was a woman - Thoni. The fact he was forced to marry her, the woman he believes betrayed her love for him by accepting to be married by his brother made him flee to the city. He tells Omange he was trapped by his tribe, forced to marry the woman he believes never loved him the reason he stopped his engagement in political activities. Omange asks him whether he told her that he loved her. Remi replies that he knew she didn’t love him. But, the letter Thoni wrote before she committed suicide did elaborate her love for him. It is acceptable to guess and justify the guess as a fact that the letter clearly explained Thoni's love for Remi even before Remi's brother had asked her for her hand. She had waited for him to tell her that he loved her but as shy as he was then, he never told her.
Kneeling beside her wife’s dead body, Remi says, “And she is gone now, gone from me and my heart, with her words of love still ringing in my heart. Dear Remi - I loved you all of my life. Oh, what have I done? Thoni, what have I done?”
Etymonline defines superstition as "false religious belief; irrational faith in supernatural powers...religious belief based on fear or ignorance and considered incompatible with truth or reason."
The elder who had visited Nyobi to bless the traditional medicine told Nyobi, "Thank you wife of Ngome, may God guard his spirit. He was a man, oh yes your husband was, before the white-man stole his heart and turned him into a Christian. The gods themselves are jealous, they only take away the choicest in the land, leaving the weak and the feeble." The elders believe the reason Nyobi's husband died is because he had accepted to convert to Christianity, a white-man's religion, thus angering the gods who passed their ultimate judgment - his death.
Also, we find another example of superstition during the elder's meeting. The leader tells the elders, "You all know what a fine man his father was, before he came under their influence and lost all his manhood. He never became himself, except he was near death..." Thus, the leader is implying Nyobi's husband lost all his senses including reasoning when he accepted to become a Christian.
Last but not least, the elders believe when Nyobi blesses the traditional medicine it will work wonders by bringing Remi back. The elder who was sent by the other elders tells Nyobi, "Trust Marua medicine to do its work," because the tribe's diviner had a vision from God concerning the tribe and the man who would lead the tribe to its glory.
Lastly, the elders believe it was the evil eyes of their neighbors (the surrounding tribes) which spoiled Remi's mind. We know Remi wasn't bewitched. He ran away from the village to the city because he was forced to accede to Marua traditional practice of inheriting his brother’s wife. The elder who visited Nyobi to bless the traditional medicine tells her, "You know what our neighbours are. The tribes that surround us don't want to see us rise. Who knows? You are there. I, your neighbour, here can't I use black magic to turn your mind against the tribe and this hearth?"
Nationalism refers to one's love (loyalty/patriotism) for his/her country. This entails an individual and government working together towards realistic development of their country and ensuring it heads in the right direction in respect to individuals' interests (rights and freedoms) and national (government) interests.
Remi was instrumental in convincing the elders of his tribe to join the Africanist party. He believed the political party would steer the country into positive development once it attains the government's seat from the colonial regime. However, Remi's hope and dream of a better future for his country didn't materialize. The nation is divided on tribal and racism line which threaten the existence of the newborn nation.
The elders joined the political party in the hope the new local government will deal with issues affecting the people of the country including their tribe. They thought by joining the Africanist party, the new government would deal with the problem of taxation by lowering it. However, the government has done nothing to deal with the issues that are affecting the tribe.
The leader asks his fellow elders during their meeting, "What has Uhuru brought us?"
They answer, "Nothing."
He tells them, "Not nothing. It has brought us heavier and heavier taxation...When we all stood solidly behind the Africanist Party we thought that once Uhuru was gained, taxation, for the poor, would stop."
The Marua tribe’s individual and communal interests weren't taken into account. They were sidelined by the government in various aspects of development because they lack someone from their tribe to represent them in the national government. The leader of the elders points to the elders the saddening fact about the state of their country. "Look at our country since Independence. Where is the land? Where is the food? Where are the schools for our children..."
Lastly, Omange isn't happy with their government. While Remi still supports the government, Omange is of a different view. He feels the government isn't fulfilling its mandate. For instance, the government has made all strikes illegal. This means people can't fight for their rights when they feel they are oppressed by the government or companies they're working for. He says, "...Since independence tribalism and tribal loyalties seem to have increased. And even leaders who were supporters of the Africanist Party are the very ones who are encouraging these feelings. Do you think these people would pass an effective piece of legislation when it would touch the very taproot of their power?"
Literary Devices with Mr. Taylor
9. Position of Women in the Society
This refers to how women are portrayed in the Society. In Black Hermit, we find that in Marua tribe women can’t choose for themselves who will marry them. It's a decision that is made by their parents as dictated by the tribe’s traditional practices. When a woman's husband dies, she is married to her husband's brother. Thus, the wife is inherited by the husband's brother. The woman can't object because the laws of the tribe don't allow it. Remi is forced to marry Thoni since his elder brother (Thoni’s husband) died in a car accident.
Another point to consider is that women aren't accorded the respect they deserve. Even though Remi felt he was forced to marry Thoni, it doesn't translate to him disrespecting his mother. Furthermore, publicly disowning Thoni as his wife is lack of respect, consideration and in turn it humiliated Thoni who later committed suicide as a result of it. Remi tells his mother in front of Thoni, the pastor and Omange: "And you mother. I turn to you. What did you do to me? You harped on my weakness and made me marry a woman whose love and loyalty will ever lie with those in grave." He further says, "I will no longer be led by a woman, priest or tribe. I'll crush tribalism beneath my feet, and all the shackles of custom. I was wrong to marry her who was another's wife, a woman who did not love me."
Nyobi tells her son, "Everything is not tribe and custom. Your mother, your wife or child are not merely tribe. Search your heart. You have never known her." Despite attaining education to university level, Remi treats women as ‘weaker sex’ who are unfit to lead a tribe or a group of people. We find Remi has preconceived ideas about Thoni which stems from the notion that Thoni accepted to be married by Remi's older brother and not him.
Another consideration is that women cannot inherit their husband's property. Mothers and their daughters aren't afforded that privilege. Nyobi tells the elder who was sent by the other elders to ask Nyobi to bless the traditional medicine: "...My first son...was taken from me, like that, for no reason a man could divine. And not a year had passed since he brought us joy by marrying a young girl, the best in the land. Our tears had hardly dried before my man follows. And now, Remi, the only man left to head this house, went and died to us in the city."
Men are considered as the final decision makers. While their wives' decisions may be taken into account, what they say is final.
You might be interested in Analysis and Summary of the Play: The Lion and the Jewel
Questions & Answers
What is the role of women in the play "The Black Hermit"?
The major role of women in the play is that they serve as custodians or guardians. When Remi ran away from his wife (Thoni), Nyobi took her under her wings and began taking care of her. The pastor told Nyobi God had brought Thoni to her care to lead her to Christianity.Helpful 34
What message do we get from the play, "The Black Hermit"?
There are plenty of messages that are derived from the play. One of them is not to base one's belief on assumption. Remi believed Thoni never loved him but at the end he learns Thoni had always loved him. He should have told her that he loved her and ask her if she feels the same for him to be sure whether what he believes to be true or not is the case.
Another thing to be learned from the play is that tribalism rips a nation apart. It leads to divisions, hatred and unhealthy competition for power. The elders wanted Remi to represent them because their tribe wasn't represented in the government. Tribalism never works for the good of a nation.
We also learn the true essence of love. Love means you're faithful to a person and committed in the relationship or marriage till the end. Even though Remi had run away from his wife, she still remained royal to the marriage. Her mother-in-law, Nyobi, tries to convince her to get married to any man. Or, if no man would want to marry her, she should at least ensure she's impregnated since a woman without a child is not a woman according to the Marua people. But, she said she'll wait for her husband even if it will take more than twenty years. Being faithful is one of the indicators of true love.
Another thing we learn is that you can't escape from your past. You have to face it. You have to deal with the problem or challenge that you're facing. A person can't escape a problem which he can only solve. You have to find a way to deal with it.
Another one is that we shouldn't allow politics and religion to blind us to reality. We can become religious to the extent the kind of reaction or attitude we display towards others isn't justifiable. The differences between the elders and the pastor complicated matters instead of lessening them. One can be religious and a politician but shouldn't be biased against others because of the religion he professes or the title he has in the government.
Lastly, as individuals, we can never solve every problem or challenge that faces our community. The ones we can, we should solve them. A president can lessen corruption in his country but he can't get rid of it. At the end of the book, we learn Remi learns that while he tried to fight against tribalism and conflict between politics and religion; he had in fact ignored one thing that really mattered a lot to him which he didn't realize then - Thoni. He was able to deal with tribalism but what about his wife committing suicide?
The above are some of the things we learn from the play.Helpful 29
Which conflicts do we get from the play, "The black hermit"?
There are several: Conflict between the elders (politics) and the church (religion). The elders don't want Remi to be influenced by the church (the pastor and Nyobi) while the pastor tells Nyobi when Remi comes back to the village he shouldn't be influenced by the elders.
There's conflict between Remi and Thoni. Remi misunderstood and misinterpreted Thoni. He thought and believed so Thoni never loved her the reason she got married to his brother. Remi ran to the city because he didn't want to share the same bed with the woman he thought never loved him. But we find Thoni used to love her, and was willing to wait for her husband to come back even if it took twenty years. Obviously, Remi's assumption about Thoni was misplaced.
There is conflict between Christianity and Traditional Practices. When Nyobi blessed the traditional medicine, she began having second thoughts. She thought God would not bring Remi back because she accepted to bless a practice that is against Christian teachings. Thus, she hurriedly for her scarf in search of her pastor to urge him to go to the city. We find Christianity doesn't merge with traditional beliefs of Maria tribe and vise versa. The elder tells Nyobi the gods took her husband, the finest in the land, because he had accepted to be converted into Christianity, a white man's religion.
There is the conflict between Remi and Jane. When Jane learned the truth that Remi was a married man, and that he had hidden from her this fact, made Jane to hate him. She left Remi's room an angry woman because Remi had betrayed her trust. He had lied to her.
There is the conflict between Thoni and herself. This is an internal conflict. While she told Nyobi she would wait for her husband no matter how long it took, still she wanted to be dead than alive. She believed in darkness - death - no one would recognize her and she wouldn't need to talk to anyone. She would only be by herself. When Remi disowned her in front of people, she went to an undisclosed area and committed suicide.Helpful 21
Why has the playwright called his book 'The Black Hermit'?
The word 'black' symbolises an African man. The word 'hermit' means someone who lives in solitude (alone) especially for religious purposes.
Remi tells Jane that he has been a Hermit for long. He ran away from his village to the city to escape from the village's bondage. He was forced to marry Thoni, a woman he believed never loved him.
Thus, Remi is the black hermit. He thought by running away from the village to the city to live a solitude life (not live in the village), he will find meaning of his life. Jane told Remi when they met, Remi looked like someone who was bring haunted by something.
Remi was haunted by his village. He never responded to his mother's letters because he didn't want to associate with her or the villagers.
After he was approached by the elders and pastor, he knew where his life was heading to. He realized what he was meant to be.
An African (Kenyan), Remi had run away to the city to live a solitary life to find meaning of his life and not to associate himself with the village. He wanted to live his own life in the city, not influenced by his village.Helpful 8
What is the language used in the play, the Black Hermit?
The author has used both formal and informal language. Most vocabularies used in the play is formal, language that is mostly used in institutions. Only once has the author used informal language or mother tongue. This occurs when Thoni tells her mother-in-law she had a weird dream. She saw the face of an 'irimu.' Irimu is a Kenyan Kikuyu word which means crazy or insane person.
The author has also used simple language or vocabularies which are easier to read.
Lastly, he has mostly used concrete words. These are nouns which a person can use his/her five senses to touch, see, hear, taste and feel. He has rarely used abstract nouns which you can't use your five senses. For instance, the pastor who left behind him a Bible when he had visited Remi. A Bible is a concrete word because you can be able to visualize it in your mind in terms of seeing and touching it because it's something you've come across.Helpful 18
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