Analysis of the Play: The Black Hermit

Updated on March 22, 2019

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 the Makerere College Students Dramatic Society at the Ugandan National Theatre. The cast included members from diverse nationalities: Uganda, Tanzania, Britain, Malawi, Kenya and India.

The play highlights various problems or challenges that the newly formed African countries, under a new local government, faced after gaining independence. It will be evident the same problems that faced the African nations after gaining independence are the same hurdles the nations face through the successive governments.

The play is divided into three parts: Act One, Act Two and Act Three. Both the acts have three scenes. The first an third acts take place in the countryside while the second one occurs in the 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, 2nd Neighbour, Woman and All.

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Act One

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 to which she replies they are about ready. Nyobi notices Thoni had been crying. She asks her whether she had 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 want to 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, Nyobi’s son and Thoni’s husband, back into the village.

After the elder exits, Nyobi realizes or believes the mistake she has made. Will God punish her by not bringing Remi back because she has accepted to bless a traditional practice is against Christianity teachings? She tells Thoni who enters a few minutes later she has to see the pastor. She must urge the pastor to go to the city and bring Remi back.

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 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 has run after the pastor to urge him to go to the city and find Remi. At first, the pastor refuses. After a while, the realization he’s growing old leads him to accept Nyobi’s pleading stating that the church needs a young blood which is energetic. He agrees to go to the city to look for Remi.

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Act Two

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. Remi tells her never to utter those words again.

In Scene II, Omange, Remi’s friend in the city, visits Remi. 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. A few months after the marriage, something involve his older brother in a car accident. His father having learnt the death of his firstborn becomes ill which leads to his demise. 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 to find Jane to prevent her from visiting Remi, at Remi’s instruction, because important people from his village have come. They 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 come back to his land. They leave behind a bundle wrapped with banana leaves which is the traditional medicine.

After they 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 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 insists he should 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 what his people are undergoing. 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.

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Act Three

Nyobi and Thoni are in the hut tiding while talking about Remi’s return. The pastor had communicated Remi’s message 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. However, his speech does not go well with the many who had gathered to hear him. Even when alone with his mother, wife, the pastor and Omange; he didn’t utter nice words to his mother and wife.

As pertaining to Thoni, he says, “I was wrong to marry her who was another’s wife, a woman who did not love me.”

No one had noticed Thoni leaving. Nyobi was the first to realize her disappearance. She went 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 the dead body of Thoni. 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 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.” 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

THEMES

The playwright has highlighted a number of subjects. This section looks in brief at the topics the playwright has drawn attention to.

1. Poverty

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 got the government’s seat. The leader of the elders 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, they won’t have enough money to afford the basic needs let alone the secondary ones.

Source

2. Cultural Practices

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. He refuses. This doesn’t go well with his parents. His mother weeps while his father though a Christian wails and curses him. The elders pray 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 them.

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 met to discuss the difficulties their tribe is undergoing and which elders should go to the city to convince Remi to return to their homeland; 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 side. Their intention is for their tribe to be represented in the government. This is only possible through Remi who is the only educated man in the tribe. 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.”

Accordingly, we find one group doesn’t want the other group to influence Remi. They want Remi to remain in their group. This can also be seen when the elders and the pastor went to the city. The elders left behind the traditional medicine while the pastor left behind the Bible. Can he be both a Christian (religious) and at the same time a politician? While it's possible, the elders and the pastor are of the opinion it isn't possible. He should only remain in their camp; not influenced by the other camp.

Character Analysis

4. Tribal Warfare

Since the country gained independence, Marua tribe appears like a non-existent tribe. It isn’t represented in the government. Lack of a representation means the many needs the tribe wants won’t be met. As per the leader of the elders utterance, it’s evident lack of representation in the government is affecting them negatively. “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 feel it isn’t right that their tribe isn’t represented thus their reason of wanting Remi to return to represent them. Lack of representation in the government has seen the people of the tribe over-taxed than before the independence and the area lacking the most important governmental services. The fact the other tribes are represented except Marua tribe questions the government’s stand on not favoring one tribe against the other ones. 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 in 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 dissappear, 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." It's evident the first local government that took the seat after independence is divided in tribal lines. For one to get a government position, one needs to approach a government official or politician from his/her tribe. It's a matter of who's fro my tribe.

5. Death/Suicide

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 die. In death she won't know anyone and no person would notice her because it's something she desires - no one to notice her. The fact she committed suicide is seen whereby the pastor tells Remi not to get closer to the dead body of Thoni. "Stand you not near her. Though she took her own life, she was holy, she was of God."

6. Haunted/Hermitage

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. He has run to the city, not to live a solitary life but to escape from the bondage his tribe has imposed on him.

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 his love for her 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 her. It is acceptable to guess and justify the guess as a fact that the letter clearly explained that Thoni loved Remi even before her brother asked for her hand. She had waited for him to tell her he loved her but as shy as he was then, he never told her.

Remi who was kneeling beside her wife’s dead body 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?”

We conclude Remi ran away from his wife because he believed Thoni never loved him and his parents did him injustice by forcing him to marry his brother’s wife. We also find in chapter one, Thoni told Nyobi it is not her she hates but her (Thoni’s) flesh and bed. We are aware that Thoni knew well why Remi decided to run away from her and why he’s never responded to her mother’s letters.

7. Superstition

According to Your Dictionary, superstitious "is believing in beliefs that do not have grounds in logic and reason in the physical world." 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 (emph. supposed to be 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.

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 leader of the elders and the elders believe when Nyobi blesses the traditional medicine it will work wonders by bringing Remi back. They believe the medicine will aid in 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 spoilt 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 he was against. Thus, the elders and majority of the villagers believe Remi was bewitched by the other tribes because Remi was educated, more educated than the black and white people combined as per the elder's utterance who was convincing Nyobi to bless the medicine. He tells Nyobi, "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?"



Questions & Answers

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    • Ben716 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alianess Benny Njuguna 

      5 weeks ago from Kenya

      Agreed but if we accept not to do what he has warned or adviced not to do because it is for our own good.

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 

      5 weeks ago from Houston, TX USA

      3. If we accept the idea that God/ The Ideal is Good, then all stories to the contrary are Blasphemy. Agreed?

    • Ben716 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alianess Benny Njuguna 

      5 weeks ago from Kenya

      You are Jay. Peace is an individual decision and tribalism must yield to nationalism. The playwright hasn't detailed enough information about Jane but we have a glimpse of her. Being a Hermit does at times help. It assists in refocusing or bringing things into perspective and it's a time of reflection and finding the inner peace we so long. About God, he is not evil though the negative emotions we call bad aren't negative until we let them rule us. An emotion such as jealous is not bad but when it takes control of us till it blinds our judgment, then it becomes evil. There is scientific evidence too in this.

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 

      6 weeks ago from Houston, TX USA

      Well, this is an extensive and detailed article! Here are a couple of points to ponder.

      1. Suicide is wrong.

      2. Tribalism must yield to nationalism.

      3. The Bible is wrong in every story which depicts God with negative human emotions (jealous, vengeful, wrathful). To do so is Blasphemy. God is peaceful and merciful, not violent.

      4. Sometimes it is good to be a hermit. Getting away from people helps one to weigh and balance competing systems (tribe vs. country).

      5. We do not know enough about Jane.

      6. Peace is an individual decision.

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