John Ruganda, who died in 2007, was considered a shaping force in East African literature, and his published plays – The Burdens (1972) and The Floods (1980) have, over the years, featured among the required texts for literature in English courses at high school level in Kenya and Uganda. The Burdens was first published in 1972 by Oxford University Press.
Set in post colonial times, the play touches on many themes, including education, politics, poverty, and violence. Wamala, the father at the center of the drama, is a man living in denial, unwilling to accept his slide into poverty, after he loses his post as a Minister in the government.
“………….he had found himself a minister, with all the licensed and unlicensed accessories befitting his office. The trouble is once you surprise yourself with this finding, you not only forget your former self but you also look forward to bigger surprises…..there is always an audience to cheer you until one day the axe falls and you are all alone…..”
Once at the top, Wamala feels humiliated by his inability to look after his family, and seeks solace in taking liquor. He blames his wife Tinka for bringing him down. But neither Tinka nor their fourteen year old son, Kaija, is prepared to let him off. Tired of sharing a bed with his bedwetting sister, Kaija feels that he is old enough to have a bed of his own, and pesters his father to buy him one. But the young boy’s pestering is met with silence …”a silence that gnaws…”
Wamala’s humiliation is further compounded by his isolation from his children, who increasingly lean towards their mother. Kaija, in particular, is very close to his mother, and the two enjoy a special bond that goes beyond the mother-son relationship. He always runs his mother errands, and keeps her company until late in the night, when Wamala returns home drunk. And he often stands up to defend his mother when she and Wamala get embroiled in their frequent fights.
The situation in the house is always tense. Tinka exploits sympathy from her two children to taunt and futher humiliate her husband. Rather than confront the present, Wamala looks to his happier past for solace – a denialism that infuriates his wife even further. In the end, the constant quarrels lead to a deadly climax.
The Burdens depicts many of the dysfunctions in post-colonial African society – at a personal and societal level, and is a brilliant portrayal by Ruganda, one of East Africa’s best known playwrights.