Merchants of the Iron Snake is a clever historically-based saga, set somewhere in pre-colonial Africa, staged last weekend at Kenya Cultural Centre by Millaz Arts productions.
Scripted by Millaz’s founder Xavier Nato, this dramatic story unfolds at a critical moment in time, when the white colonizer first arrives in this village and immediately sets off a tidal wave of change.
It’s a seemingly small event, but it’s immediately disruptive of the culture and traditions of the local people.
Appearing innocent enough, the white man wants to save the life of a new-born child, which according to tradition is meant to be sacrificed to their gods.
The man insists on saving the baby girl who’s considered a curse when born a twin to the male heir to the king’s throne.
His views are tantamount to treason by local standards, but the man who initially goes unnamed, claims his one God is the God of life, not death.
The king (Samuel Ouma) relents only because his wife (Ileene Anyona) seems to side with the white man who seems merciful.
The king is endorsed by the impoverish Sakwa (Brian Kathinzi) who seems to have some prophetic powers, and is fiercely opposed to having anything to do with the whites.
But once the baby is taken alive by the mzungu, Sakwa is detained since his cry against the intrusive evil of the whites is nerve-racking, especially as he claims the live child will be a curse to the community in future times.
The play is economically staged at Ukumbi Mdogo where the people are suffering from lack of water and rain. Their prayer is to find a solution to the problem of drought. So when the same white man arrives 20 years later, he promises to provide that solution.
Finally identified as Father Brandon (Samuel Baraza), he brings his friend and secular spokesman, Jonathan White (Carlton Gandani) and engineer (Ntiyari Karani).
He also comes with an unnamed African nun who some of us already suspect she’s the forgotten girl child. But her identity isn’t disclosed until a strategic moment.
We soon discover the whites have an agenda that includes digging a bore hole and actually finding the water the people need, but then immediately locking it up until they can ‘negotiate’ with the village to get what they want.
Their demands begin with elephants since Jonathan is not just a colonial but also a trader in ivory tusks. If the village doesn’t show them the herd’s stumping ground, no water will be available to the people.
Truly wicked the whites become as they taunt the locals with the possibility of water, but at what cost?
Now the detained Sakwa looks saner and more loyal to the villagers than ever before.
He had foreseen the wicked ways of the whites and had advised to keep them at bay, but nobody listened to him back then. Now they side with him against the new king who is torn.
This king (Samuel Mwangi) is heir to the throne, the twin who’d survived when his sister was supposed to die.
In one dramatic moment, she comes forth and speaks up so her villagers will know that Father Brandon is a child molester, a man she can even take to court for having abused her.
Xavier gives us a quick flashback to show how Clementina (Precious Mawia), at age 12, was molested by Brandon. It is a violent scene wherein the sexual dimension is rendered more metaphorically than graphic on the set. But we feel her pain.
Yet her story reinforces Sakwa’s point of view, that she brings nothing but the effects of the curse that was set in motion once the people’s culture was violated some 20 years before.
Her life is actually endangered now since Sakwa and his local allies see the logic of killing her now as a means of ending the curse.
But like a stone cast into a river years before, the ripple effect has already turned into a tsunami that won’t be turned around by killing the nun.
Clementina is only saved by running into her Queen Mother’s arms. But in the end, the white man comes forward with his terms militarized by the guns he now exposes to ‘negotiate’ on his own terms.
With that, we all know how it ends. The first dead elephant’s tusks bring the ugly promise of carnage and colonial cruelty that sadly is the brilliant saga of the Merchants of the Iron Snake.