NAIROBI -- The actors in a local Kenyan theater group thought they had come up with a sensational idea late last year when they decided to put on a play called "Shamba La Wanyama."

The play was a satirical parable about the hardships of life in a totalitarian society. Set on an African shamba, Swahili for garden or farm, the parable featured in the leading roles actors playing animals, including a horse and a pig.

The troupe felt certain the show would appeal to thousands in this agrarian east African country, even though it was adapted from an English-language novel titled "Animal Farm" and was written 46 years ago by a Londoner named George Orwell.

But then something odd happened.

Someone, somewhere, in an unknown ministry of the government of Kenya heard about the play and the troupe's plans to perform it this month in a Nairobi slum called Kangemi. Officials decided the play was just too inflammatory for the public to bear and promptly ordered a revocation of the theater group's license to perform.

Thus the play was canceled.

This cancellation came just a couple ofweeks after a similar ban by the Kenyan government on the performance of a local play titled "Ngahika Ndenda," written by Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong'O.

Thiong'O, a former University of Nairobi English professor who was jailed for nearly a year in the late 1970s for being too critical of the rule of President Daniel arap Moi, has been living in self-imposed exile in Europe for the last decade or so. Still, the 12-year-old Moi government considers him a dire threat to public security.

Like most cases of censorship, these two cases in Kenya seem to say as much about the authority issuing the ban, and the society it governs, as about the creative works involved.

At a time when popular movements for democracy and calls for more political freedom are gaining power across Africa after decades of repressive, authoritarian rule, Kenya's moldy single-party state repeatedly has invited its people to join this trend, and then prevented them from doing it.

More than a year after they were arrested for advocating political pluralism, for example, three Kenyan politicians remain in jail without charge. Another dissident, a prominent lawyer and publisher of a monthly legal rights journal here, remains free on bond pending sedition charges that could put him in jail for many years if convicted.

His crime? Publishing the views of government opponents.

Sometimes, the Kenyan government's paranoia over its enemies, seen and unseen, verges on the ludicrous. The other day, an elderly tomato farmer in the central town of Nyeri went on trial for subversion and disorderly conduct charges after he was picked up by police for wearing a V-shaped badge on the lapel of his tattered jacket.

The V-sign is a popular symbol of those advocating more political parties and an end to legally mandated single-party rule here. Facing state prosecutors, the gray-haired suspect protested from the dock that he was illiterate, didn't know what the V-sign meant and had put it on only because "I thought it was handsome."

The trial goes on.

But perhaps one of the surest ways to measure the degree of tolerance and openness in Kenya -- or any country for that matter -- is to consider the manner in which artists, writers, musicians and intellectuals are treated. In this regard, Kenya's track record is not an enviable one.

Science and liberal-arts professors alike serve the nation's universities only at the pleasure of the state, a restriction that results in an unsurprising dearth of academic creativity, security and independence.

Once renowned for its brilliant works of fiction by native writers such as Thiong'O, Mwangi Reheni and Meja Mwangi, Kenya arguably hasn't produced a single literary creation of any significance since the 1976 novel "Going Down River Road," Mwangi's poignant tale of life in Nairobi's slums.

Critics say this sad creative void largely can be attributed to the nation's shrinking civil and political freedoms over the last 13 years, a condition perhaps best symbolized by the government's recent official crackdown on "subversive" Kenyan music.

This campaign began during last year's violent demonstrations sparked by calls for democracy in Kenya's slums, when more than 23 protesters were shot to death by police.

In their intensive search for ringleaders of the protests, Kenyan security forces concentrated, for some reason, on the music pouring forth from cassettes on public buses and vans, known here as matatus.

Several songs by Kenyan performers were deemed subversive by the authorities because the Swahili-language singers happened to complain about poverty, homelessness and unemployment while moaning over unrequited love.

The police pounced on the matatus, tearing out the cassettes, smashing them on the pavement and hauling numerous matatu drivers off to jail. Recently, the government banned the playing of music from public vehicles altogether.

One form of performance art that is encouraged and well supported by the Kenyan government is choral music, an art form predicated on group unity and regimental harmony. Kenya probably has more choirs per capita that any country in the world.

Most of these choirs are church affiliated, but many are sponsored, as well, by government ministries and semi-public corporations such as Kenya breweries, railways and prisons.

Recently, the nation's top choirs performed for the president at a basketball auditorium in the nearby town of Kasarani. All of these singing groups, swaying in perfect unison, featured original songs in praise of the president, including Swahili-language titles such as "Moi, Our Great Pilot" and "We Thank Heaven for Our Leader."

Mark Hamilton, an agent with the London-based literary agency A.M. Heath, which represents the George Orwell estate, said he was surprised to hear of this most recent suppression of "Animal Farm."

" 'Animal Farm' has been published in 63 different languages. For many years, it was banned in the Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe," he said. "The novel is a sharp attack on all forms of totalitarianism -- communist, fascist, Nazi."

It wasn't until the communist political system fully began to open up, about two years ago, that "Animal Farm" was finally allowed to be published in the Soviet Union, Hamilton said.

He added that he didn't know of any other country, besides China perhaps, where the book -- or the play and movie that were adapted from it -- were officially suppressed.

In Kenya, the recent theatrical cancellations here generated some outraged voices in the nation's press.

"Censors should realize that drama is not expected to pamper ill institutions," wrote journalist Wahome Mutahi in an unusually scathing column about the theater cancellations published this week in Kenya's Daily Nation.

"{Drama} has the right to provoke. ... Sad will be the day when theater will be turned into a deodorant to sanitize rot in society."

So who banned "Animal Farm," anyway?

A woman at the Kenyan ministry of culture and social services said her agency had nothing to do with the banning and referred a caller to the Kenya board of censorship.

A spokesman for that agency said, no, he dealt only with the curse words and nudity in foreign films entering the country.

"Have you tried the ministry of planning?"

There, a man gruffly said the caller had been given a bum steer and simply hung up. The ministry of information and broadcasting was telephoned next, but an official advised the caller to try the office of the provincial commissioner, and party headquarters.

The telephones were out of order at the headquarters of the Kenya African National Union, so a visit was made in person to the ruling party offices, located downtown in a grimy brown high-rise called Nyayo House. There, a man named Isaac Lukallo amiably introduced himself as an executive assistant to the provincial commissioner of Nairobi District.

Regretfully, Lukallo said that he didn't know anything about the banning and that the PC himself wasn't in town.

"Maybe you should try the ministry of finance," he said.

This suggestion -- however inexplicable -- proved a winner.

"Yes, we banned this play," said an official answering the telephone at the ministry of finance.

"We are responsible for licenses and taxation. You need a license to perform in public in Kenya. We heard about this play and told these people they could not perform it."

Why?

"Have you read this play?" the official went on. "It is very dangerous. It ridicules people in authority."

Pause.

"You know, these actors wanted to perform this play in that section of Nairobi where there were many disturbances among the people last year. My superiors in this ministry felt it just wasn't a good thing to do."

Pause.

"Look, this really isn't a permanent ban. We have just taken the license away while we review the script. Maybe one day it will be allowed to go on.

"But you must not use my name, okay?" the official asked, before hanging up. "I could get into trouble for talking to you."