The political and economic atmosphere in which The Black Hermit was written was that of great optimism in the East African region as some of the countries had already attained independence from European colonialism.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote the book in 1962, and the play reflects the a strong aspiration or hope of the time that nationalism would trounce tribalism. Decades later the question can be asked as to the extent to which this has happened if it has happened at all.
The play starts out with Nyobi and her daughter-in-law Thoni discussing the departure of Remi, who is a clerk in an oil company and who has been a student leader and therefore a politician of sorts. Remi is the hermit who left the village for the city. Nyobi sees Thoni as a lonely maiden, and both want to see Remi back home. Unfortunately Remi is reluctant to do so.
At the heart of the play is the drive to have Remi not just end his hermit lifestyle for family but also for the sake of fostering nationalism and achieving economic prosperity, but will he manage?
Nyobi and villagers send elders and a pastor to the city to convince Remi to come back home. When the elders and the pastor arrive in the city they find a reluctant Remi who wants to dissociate himself from the village and its ways — including attachment to tribe and to its customs as well as to religion as represented by the pastor.
Finally Remi decides to return home and stop being a hermit, implying also dalliance with politics. Indeed when Remi arrives in his home village, he starts talking politics and people are keen to listen to him. At first he dismisses his mother and wife Thoni.
He had initially wanted to marry Thoni but she got married to his brother who however died and Remi had to inherit her in line with the tribe’s customs. Remi didn’t approve of wife inheritance and ran away to the city, but also it seems that she appeared to have rejected him for his brother.
Remi dismisses the pastor who he perceives to be using religion as opium to keep the masses weak and divided. The Marxist position on religion emerges in this play. It is suggested that the white colonialists hoodwinked Africans with religion and then took away their land as they entrenched the subjugation of the people of the continent.
It turns out that post-independence nations in Africa were ravaged by tribalism. The view of the post-colonial leader as a liberator not only from colonialism but also from want and all manner of afflictions emerges with most of the action revolving around Remi.
But even as we see the negative impact of colonialism we also get the impression that the post-colonial nation-state has underperformed. Remi is presented as capable of resolving the problems that came with the independent African state: he is idealistic, wants nothing to do with tribalism and age-old cultures and is also detached from the shackles of religion.