Wednesday, December 10, 2014

'Problem with no man 
Before Black, I'm first human 
Appetite to write like Frederick Douglass with a slave hand'
- Wyclef John, 'How Many Mics' (rap song) 

A poem by Alexander Nderitu
(From the book 'The Moon is Made of Green Cheese'

I had a dream.
I was walking down a street in downtown Harlem,
The stirring strains of jazz in my ear,
When I bumped into Martin Luther King, Jr.
It was drizzling and darkness had fallen
And I said: ‘Perhaps you could help me, sir.
You see, I’m looking for the Golden Man.’
King said, ‘What do you want them Orientals for, brother?
Say it loud – I’m Black and proud!’
I explained that the Golden Man has no particular colour;
He equates racism with ignorance and doesn’t bother
With petty prejudices, seeing humanity as one.

King said: ‘How long have you been searching, son?’
I said: ‘Quite some time now, more than a year.’
‘Have you ever heard about the “Conference of Birds”?’
‘Yes – some birds made an epic flight to see their God
But when they reached Heaven, a big mirror was all they got!’
‘Exactly,’ said the leader of the Million Man March in D.C.
‘Maybe if you looked in a mirror, you’d find the man you want to see.’
‘Me, the Renaissance Man? That’s a good one!
I’m just another face in the crowd – Nobody knows my name!’
King said: ‘The biggest living thing is the General Sherman tree
But, strangely enough, its seed is the size of a flea!
Tell me, what does your name mean?’
‘Well, in English, it means “defends mankind”.’
‘Now isn’t that strange! Don’t just talk about change –
BE the change that you want to see!’

James Baldwin appeared just as I was parting with Martin Luther.
He smiled broadly and placed a hand on my shoulder:
‘When I was starting out, nobody knew my name, either.
Later, they were calling me “the greatest Negro writer.”
The dream becomes a goal when you start working
Towards it. Visualise your goal and start walking!’
I thanked him for his advice and entered a nearby bar.

It was warm, stuffy and as crowded as a slave ship.
In one corner, a small TV was showing the evening news.
Poet Gil Scott-Heron was nursing a beer when I joined him at the
He turned and said, ‘You the boy from Africa?’
‘Guilty as charged,’ I said as I ordered a Budweiser,
‘I live right next door to the Maasai Mara.’
At that moment, a hush fell across the bar
As the TV showed two White cops flaying a Black youngster.
Gil Scott-Heron switched off the TV and started shouting:
‘Fear not, for the revolution is coming, my brothers,
And the revolution will NOT be televised!
The revolutionaries will not talk to Larry King
Or crack jokes on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
The revolution will not be available on cable,
The revolution will not be sandwiched between commercials,
The revolution will not be yet another Reality TV show,
The revolution will NOT be televised!’

After Gil Scott-Heron’s tirade, order returned to the house.
Billie Holiday took to the stage amid a groundswell of applause.
When everyone quieted down, the lady sung the blues:
‘The Very Thought of You’ was her first song.
Gil Scott-Heron looked at me and said, ‘What’s wrong?’
I said that the song reminded me of my wife.
‘More than the love of my life, she’s the life of my life:
The very thought of HER is enough to make me want to return.’
Gil patted my back, saying, ‘Black Love is so beautiful!’
I said, ‘I didn’t know love had colours, my good man,
And, by the way, there’s no such thing as an “African American,”
All people come from Africa or so the anthropologists say.’
The uproar that ensued drowned out Billie Holiday;
I had to escape before they lynched me.

Standing outside, still ruffled by the earlier hostility,
A young hooker in a micro-mini and stilettos approached me.
‘Looking for some action? - Anything goes,’ said she.
Barely had I finished saying, ‘No, my sister,’
Than she cocked her head, snapped her fingers
And said, ‘Yo sista? You betta change your glasses, Mista!’
And with that, she spun round and sashayed away.

At that moment, Marvin Gaye materialized seemingly from ether.
He lamented: ‘It’s things like that that make me wonna holler!
Our sisters selling their bodies like illicit drugs,
Our brothers turning into gangsters and junkies.
Even in these United States, we are kept on the periphery.
I’m talking about the inner-city blues. The powers that be
Have money for space shuttles and foreign wars
But they can’t shelter the homeless or feed the poor.
If this is the American Dream, I’d hate to see the Nightmare!
Taxation without representation. Yeah, makes me wonna holler!
Let’s raise our fists and shout, “Emancipation!” ’

Malcolm X was even more impassioned than Marvin Gaye:
‘You say nobody knows your name, brother?’ -
His glasses were reflecting the neon lights as he addressed me -
‘Forget the slave name and put an X after your first name.
And if you want to see any form of change – any –
Then you have to take the bull by the horns, as they say,
And impose your will by any means necessary.
I understand that, like me, you’re a writer:
Remember that the pen is mightier than the sword.
You see that tall man standing in the corner?
That’s an FBI agent pretending to be an idler
And I’m sure that, somewhere, there’s a sniper
But I’m not afraid of becoming a casualty of war.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there is some corner of America that is forever Africa!’

As I left Malcolm X, I pondered his last words
And somewhere, soft as the hiss of sprinklers,
Was the sound of a search helicopter.
Could I, like Malcolm, use my pen to stab at social injustice?
They kill outspoken writers, don’t they?
Look at what happened to Stokely Carmichael, Ken Saro-Wiwa …

I had just started to run down the drizzled street when the helicopter
Leaped over a skyscraper and focused its blinding searchlight on me.
I stopped and stared blinkingly at the light, saying my last prayers.
The searchlight morphed into the sun and familiar sounds flooded my ears.
I looked around and realized that I had woken from my nightmare.
Grateful I was, but the memories of that weird dream would not let me go
And I knew in the last that even in waking life,
I would have to continue my search for the Golden Man…

- Frederick Douglass: Former slave who became the most important black American leader of the 19th century. (And inadvertently one of the pioneers of Black literature in English).

- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: Famous African-American Civil Rights leader. At the age of 39, he was assassinated on the balcony of a motel room.

- Critically-acclaimed author James Baldwin wrote a book titled, ‘Nobody Knows My Name’

- Billie Holiday: Popular but troubled singer who died of a drug overdose at the height of her musical career.

- One of Marvin Gaye’s best-known songs is the blues hit, ‘Makes Me
Wonna Holler (Inner City Blues)’.

- Malcolm X: Legendary Black Nationalist who was eventually shot and killed

- Gil Scott-Heron: African-American poet best known for his poem ‘The Revolution Will Not be Televised’ . And even though scientists have proved that a person's melanin count is not barometer for his worth, racism continues to be felt in many parts of the world. The search for Golden People continues..

Friday, September 26, 2014

Hotuba ya Prof. Wole Soyinka katika kikao cha Storymoja Festival, mwaka wa 2014

Prof. Wole Soyinka's Lecture at Storymoja Festival 2014


Nairobi, Kenya

Trees bring out the whimsical in a variety of human sensibilities. Also the lyrical, the rapturous, or the simply reassuring, as in family belonging. Lately however, that is, in the past decade or two, trees have attained apocalyptic dimensions – sitting in judgment over humanity – will the proceeding end in a reprieve, or a death sentence on the planet itself? No wonder I have also been lately struck by the fact that, even without their newly conferred powers, trees have played an intimate, even dynamic role in the evolution of human culture – and history – especially on this continent. To go all the way back to beginnings, it would not be out of place to speculate that it was under one such an accommodating canopy of boughs that our great forebears  underwent the earliest formulation of community. That seems quite plausible, even inevitable, since trees offer not only land bearings, but shelter against the sun. This primordial subconscious, I propose, is why we are hardly ever content to let a tree be - a tree - just a tree in itself and for itself, a replete presence in its own right. Apart from obvious utilitarian ends that the tree offers  - shade, protection, food, material convertibility etc etc., we even impose on it the burden of reference points, metaphors, ethical abstractions and injunctions in forms of proverbs, analogies, celebrate the tree in reams and reams of poetry, entrenching it in social consciousness through the painterly arts and numerous other forms of cooption to the ends of aesthetics and iconography.   Following on the heels of painters, trees remain irresistible to possessors of the latest, state-of-the-art gadgetry – everyone seems to possess one these days, even if it is no more than an i-phone - those ubiquitous objects that make every individual an instant photographer, with or without a sense of arrangement, texture, light or occasion, conferring only the right to intrude. Unlike humans however, trees do not appear to mind – you can click away a thousand times on your i-camera and they won’t complain. The more discerning wielders of those gadgets however, are so struck by such a singular, often dominating phenomenon known as a tree that they seek out the dramatic angles, search out the best position for capturing and preserving, not just the physical attributes of a tree, but its elusive, ephemeral disposition – some indefinable essence that quarries into hidden depths of the human psyche. Permit me to indulge in the unique facets of the tree for a few more moments.

One would concede that mountains and other picturesque vistas – gorges, waterfalls, rivers, sunsets etc – exercise equal, and even often more spectacular powers of seduction, but among the special claims of a tree is that it seems more companionable, more snugly fitted into the human sense of proportion and dimensions. That is a subjective claim of course but I think it is sustainable.  Of the myriad Nature self-expressions, the tree possesses, in my estimation, just the appropriate size, so that one can actually think of physically embracing, or reproducing trees. And we do. It is within human scope. You feel you can put your arms around it, around any tree, however huge. I cannot imagine anyone who would think of embracing the Kilimanjaro mountain, or attempting to recreate one from Ground Zero.  Or transplanting Victoria Falls to Abeokuta where I live. By contrast you can actually reproduce an Australian fir tree in Nairobi - well, at least provoke Nature into collaborating with you in the effort. The art of the bonsai, for instance, cannot be transferred to any other feature of Nature – just try reproducing the Jos plateau or the famous Lebanese grottos in your garden or in a pot on your window sill – the absurdity of it hits you right away. A tree on the other hand – simply Google for the nearest a Japanese bonsai artiste.

Film directors cannot resist them – and not just in westerns where they come useful when the battling cowboys need to duck behind a cover and re-load their six-shooters.  The insatiable cineaste will milk trees endlessly for effects – recall how many shots of leave-taking at sunset you have seen as the camera turns boughs - leafy or dessicated - into refraction devices for one last, lingering wistful statement on all that has gone before. The camera is never satisfied simply to daub the screen in seductive tonalities, no, it will point its lens at an intermediary tree through whose branches the sunset is filtered, squeezing out the last emotional drop until not a dry eye is left in the theatre. And so on and on.

There is of course the reverse side – several, in fact. For instance, I sometimes wonder whether trees should not be held responsible for capital punishment – if they were not around, perhaps no one would have conceived of hanging as a way to place human beings permanently out of circulation.  No, on second thoughts, I am certain we would still have found other ways of desecrating Nature  – thrown our problematic members over cliffs perhaps, or tied stones around their necks and drowned them etc. etc. – except of course if they happen to be women – then we would simply bury them up to their necks in earth, and stone them to death, for the earth shaking crime of begetting a child out of wedlock. Or even for more heinous crimes – such as showing an inch of flesh in public.

We shall return to that theme in a moment. For now, let’s steer away from negative distractions and place our accents on the productive. I hinted earlier at that positive, indeed creative tendency of humanity towards drawing out ethical pointers or exhortations from Nature, and here is one, tailor-made for what became Wangari’s life mission:  “A tree does not make a forest.” Depending on whoever is speaking, to whom, and the occasion, that could mean a dismissive, put-down commentary, such as - don’t think one solitary achievement makes you anything special. Or, let us say a cabinet minister comes to declare open a village clinic and goes on and one about it, you might indeed shut him up with - Mr. Minister, one tree does not make a forest, meaning of course one clinic does not amount to a national health service. Such an admonition from Wangari Maathai would of course be a distinct call to action, to be taken literally:  get on your hands and knees and - plant some more trees! We need reforestation.

I had to get that message in somewhere before getting carried away by my incursion into histories and even lessons from both the obvious and not so apparent lives of trees, since I must confess to being an unrepentant, even mildly obsessed tree advocate from childhood. And let me state that my affair with trees began long before I encountered the devotional verses of Joyce Kilmer, rendered in that unique subterranean rumble of a voice by Paul Robeson – I think that I shall never see/A Poem lovely as a tree.  Somewhat sentimental, even treacly admittedly – I have come across some irresistible parodies of that poem - but I doubt if there exists a child who hasn’t been drawn to, and drawn a tree. Trees define the earth in the mind of most children all the way from infancy. It is only afterwards that the tree loses its innocence, diversifies, becomes so many things to many people. At the beginning, it simply spells, unambiguously  – Nature.          

Land speculators – even when disguised as government - are of course a breed apart.  When they see a tree, they see an obstacle – to be eliminated by the most efficient agency – the bulldozer. On the other side of the divide are the fanatics who  have to be restrained  as they watch the bulldozer ripping through a green belt without a thought for the void that is brutally opened up in a landscape that has become an integral part of what we are – or, if you prefer – a landscape of which we have become an integral part, through which we sense ourselves as breathing objects and thus, a meaningful part of a humbling network of Nature actualities. This claim is made without prejudice to negative evocations for others with painful histories, histories that some of us also share vicariously. The plantation slave, for instance, is part of the total canvas of American history – we cannot escape these gloomy recalls, which is just as well, since they have not completely vanished from our midst, even in our so-called era of renewed enlightenment. For the slave descendant in the so-called New World for instance, the tree, any tree, was a brooding, menacing presence. In the head of a black descendant, even today, Paul Robeson’s song of praise would ring in antithetical cadences to Billie Holliday’s  eerie blues - “Strange Fruit”.

 Even in this post-slavery era, a visitor to the United States, with an average capacity for empathy, on encountering the overpowering fragrance from a tree for the first time, and learning that the source is none other than a magnolia tree, may actually undergo an involuntary shudder, since the ‘strange fruit’ of Billie Holliday’s dirge refers to the putrifying body of a lynched slave – sometimes several.  It does not require much exercise of the imagination to project the interior lives of the African slaves themselves, unable to escape that symbol of arbitrary terror and dehumanization. The luxury of internalizing and celebrating relationships with trees is therefore not quite as universal as one would wish, even among poets, artists and mythologists.  History and memory remain primary tributaries of art and its symbols – again painfully demonstrated in Toni Morsion’s Beloved, where the weals on the back of her protagonist have taken on a life of their own and formed a pattern permanently embossed on her back in the form of a tree. I am carrying a tree on my back says the main character, Sethe. That is, I carry a permanent reminder of my status as a being born without a voice, without volition. It is a disfigurement, not merely of the body but of the spirit, one that reminds us of what it is like to be born into that sole destiny – no different from a tree, open to being scarred, abused, amputated and cut down at will, just one among other owned utilities. 

Toni Morrison, and Wangari, both of the female gender, are products of far more enlightened times. They could order and re-order their lives. They could and did enrich the lives of others. Both transcended their antecedents – colonialism and slavery being siblings of the same human disorder, not forgetting that additional gender disdain that still does not quite know itself as part of the family of misbegotten human relationsips. Even those who considered Wangari’s commitment as eccentric at best, or  obstructionist and subversive at worst, acknowledge the utilitarian value of the very cause against which they ranged their priorities – they simply would have preferred that she went and planted her trees elsewhere. Those who, even today, still fail to appreciate the larger context of her work must be totally immune to the world of anxieties, having unbelievably missed out on expressions of concern such as climate change, ecological degradation, holes in ozone layers, global warming, melting of the ice cap etc. etc. - all now household expressions. But does one even need such incantations to remain mindful of the communal role of the tree in mundane existence? We take it for granted.  The virtues of that sturdy unit of Life extend in multiple, infinite directions, deeply and extensively, so that when some of us conceive Nature, we apprehend her effortlessly, as a rich, ordered medley of growth that reaches into infinity, a medley into which we immerse ourselves for sustenance, and for healing, as a canopy of serenity that restores us after the depredations of modernity on our frenetic existence. The tree still stands as a primordial presence, but now it has also become an eloquent critique of ill-conceived and often, ill-fated social engineering experiments that involve human uprooting, are based on the text-books of ideologues who fail to relate social theories to the precipitates of accumulated history, human psychology, a reality so simply but profoundly captured in Jeremy Cronym’s lines to which I often make recourse, even to the point of seeming addiction:

                      To live close to every tree you had ever planted
                        Our century has been the great destructor of that,
                        The small and continuous community, lived in solidarity
                        With seasons, its life eked out around
                        Your fore-mothers’ and -fathers’ burial-ground
            ‘Our century’? Jeremy Croynm wrote those lines in the last, so he was referring to that century, not the present.  If he and similar poetic alarmists scattered round the globe had been heeded, Wangari may have been spared to expend her energies on other concerns. She would not have needed to abandon classroom and begin re-planting trees that should not have been cut down in the first place.  Not that she minded – that is, minded such ‘lowly’ chores. On the contrary, Wangari declared:

Although I was a highly educated woman, it did not seem odd to me to work with my hands, often with my knees on the ground, alongside rural woman. Some politicians and others in the 1980s and 1990s ridiculed me for doing so. But I had no problem with it, and the rural women both accepted and appreciated that I was working with them to improve their lives and the environment. After all, I was a child of the same soil. Education, if it means anything, should not take people away from land, but instill in them even more, respect for it, because educated people are in a position to understand what is being lost. The future of the planet concerns all of us, and we should do what we can to protect it. As I told the foresters, and the women, you don't need a diploma to plant a tree

Perhaps the most easily apprehended distillation of the affinities we bear to trees – as poet, teacher, activist and so on, or just plain citizen -  is that, even when ignored, taken for granted, even neglected, trees transform the environment, just like humanity. They metamorphose. Like humanity, they pass through transformative stages – from seed where they may be tended in a nursery – the very expression we apply to infants - to the young shoot, to shrub and eventually to the majestic entity that creates its own aura – alone or with others. Both can enhance, degrade or dominate the environment. Trees carry their own diseases and can infect other trees, just as – as we have reminded ourselves from history - they can enhance or degrade both environment and humanity. We could claim that both are socialized phenomena, not inert, not passive. On the contrary, both are productive and dynamic. Humans have even appropriated the very image of a tree to encapsulate their family line – known as the family tree – a narrative of the surviving, the missing and the deceased.  And finally, most poignantly when a death is considered untimely – through diseases, violence or accident - untimely that is, in human expectations, we then resort to the same common expression – felled. Yes indeed, both organisms age, both submit to stronger forces from nature – storms, floods and subsidence – but, at other times they are  simply – felled. Like Kofi Awoonor.  A poem lovely as a tree, intoned Paul Robeson. And that was indeed what was most often voiced   about Kofi both individually, and by those who gathered to mourn his demise:
     “A mighty tree has fallen”

A great tree has been felled. A great and lovely tree that yielded a constant harvest of poems to engage the minds of the world. That is, the world of the mind, of freedom of the  imagination. Poems which, however, cannot be felled, that continue to echo in the vaults of the mind.

And so we should not remain too long within the chamber of loss since, in celebrating the tree, we celebrate the man, and in the way a Community reads in its favourite tree the scroll of a collective self-affirmation that reaches beyond the physical, a repository of the Community’s vital essence, embodying and reflecting its fortunes, its soul and history. You need only see how a town or village responds when a revered tree is felled – here, if only to interject a milder tone, is one episode from my part of the world, straight out of the colonial narrative, in the year just after I left secondary school.

With that habitual insouciance that comes with a contract to build a fly-over, a bridge or a factory, this British construction firm moved into an alien environment and began to level everything within sight. Alas – in this instance, the company failed to reckon with one nondescript tree with gnarled roots and branches, an overgrown head in dire need of the services of a cosmic hairdresser.  Never mind that, to all appearances, the tree appeared to exist solely for its generous shade and a permissive base that served as a makeshift market, the Britishers soon learnt that even if, where they came from, a rose is a rose is a rose by any other name, in some parts of their possessions, a tree is a tree is a spirit is ancestor is guardian is a deity is shrine etc. etc. Touch a hair of its head and  - well, why don’t I simply read you an extract from the archives on that incident – the felling of the tree of Emotan:

In 1951, the British colonial administration officials injected the tree with poisonous chemicals and uprooted it. This action almost led to a violent mass reaction. After which the {37th} Oba Akenzua II  (of Benin) -1933-1978 - vehemently protested the destruction of the Emotan shrine. This  tree had been there since the 15th century. Consequently, the colonialists acceded to the request for a replacement. A life-size statue was cast by Mr. J.A.Danfor in London from a clay marquette modeled by Enomayo, professional brass caster from the Igun-Eronmwon.
The new Emotan statue was unveiled amidst pomp and pageantry by the Oba Benin, Akenzua ll on March 20, 1954.

Mind you, opportunism is never fully absent in such matters. Indeed, such outrages have proved powerful tools for political re-positioning  - in this case, holding the colonial powers to ransom and extracting some concessions from them.  Why not? Wangari Maathai would have cheered, identified fully with what we might call – the Spirit of Emotan.  She was one of that breed who transcend the sturdiest of trees because they gave birth to them, and thereby to a movement, and far beyond mere sentiment or totemic impulses.  Maathai planted trees, yes, but trees were not simply environmental ornaments or historic bookmarks for her, or a defence of eco-diversity as a faddish undertaking.  The tree meant – livelihood. Sustainable and self-renewing source for the reproduction of human existence – most especially for women, a tool in their empowerment.  In short, economic asset of a hard-nosed, quantifiable kind, one that could be measured in material returns. For her, there was no self-indulgent separation between ethics and aesthetics.

Let us not de-emphasize this – indeed, for a being of such a combative temperament it would be a crime to fail to admit that the tree also served her as a political tool, one that drove, and was driven by, her dedication to humanity, to equality of man and woman and the uplifting of the downtrodden – all were inextricably interwoven. Her humanity was wrapped up in the dignity of the humanized environment – a preoccupation that was holistic – no one should have been surprised that her career and political trajectory ran parallel with that quest for a humanized existence that was not alienated from its living space. Harrassed, hounded, subjected to sexist abuses even from high places – President Arap Moi personally had some choice, unpresidential expressions for her -  she chose to plant her trees at the feet of the very  thugs who had been sent to intimidate her, enduring humiliation and physical injury in the process. However, Wangari was not one weak sapling that could be wilted by all the poisonous chemicals of sectarian politics or indeed the storms of crude power that uprooted others. She was one sturdy tree that spread her seedlings far and wide, transforming, revitalizing –  and not from the detached rostrum of her classrooms and international podia but, right among the people, on her knees,  with her hands deep in earth and dirt.  Until, like an Emotan matriarch, Queen mother of the kingdom of trees, she succumbed – but to an internal frailty. 

Unlike trees however, the felling of the human is only a trick of absence that leaves no void. Tree or poem, the product of mind and will remains.  That is a message we have to pass on to the gloating psychopaths bestriding our earth, yes – This Earth, my Brother  – in Kofi’s salute to earth - no matter what axe they think they have to grind with the world before wielding the literal axe – or its even more deadlier modern versions - with reckless abandon, indiscriminately, and with fanatical zeal. Those killers are the bulldozers of our earlier identified land speculators. They bulldoze humanity in the name of an illusory land development – clearing the ground for a vaporous Paradise. What they are however, is no more than tawdry, material speculators in the stakes of salvation, their heads and minds swollen with the promise of sensual pleasures in the afterlife, for which the present is disposable. And that should raise the question: what becomes our duty whenever one or more of us are unjustly felled, since we, as community, also undergo a felling by attrition, through an arrogant exacerbation of those palpable and psychological blows that we daily endure, blows which then reach into the very basis of our collective being, a depletion of the aspirations that constitute one’s self, one’s own self-cognizing, one’s relevance to community, environment and humanity? What becomes our duty?

Let us mull over that question as we shift geography and, at the same time, restore the balance between the palpable and the symbolic – not that the two are trapped in a dichotomy - but first, come with me on a visit to yet another tree of history, a contemporary one, at once a symbol and a life-preserver. Permit me to turn your gaze backward a decade and a half to that iconic tree – for the African continent at least – an image provider that rounded up the twentieth century, was beamed round the world from a continent trapped in the yet unrelenting vice of brutalizing conflicts. Invited by a Dutch journal at the turn of the last century to nominate what, for me, would be the prime candidate for the defining image of the twentieth century, I unhesitatingly opted for that intensely narrative symbol of hope that was however a product of Nature’s malevolence. Perhaps you can already recall – once you focus on the fact that that it was indeed a tree!  For believers, it was the kind of image that would be designated a Divine Sign. Still, believers or not, we all converge on one destination – humanity. That image – let me relieve you of further uncertainty – that image was pressed upon the landscape when the banks of the Limpopo River burst in the year 2000, flooding vast areas of the African eastern seaboard. Mozambique took the brunt. Its capital, Maputo, was flooded, as were hundreds of hectares inland. Major road arteries were cut off, making relief inaccessible to many. Over a thousand human lives were lost, with thousands of heads of cattle and other livestock.  Schools were washed away, hospitals inundated, over a hundred thousand households wiped off the land. Those are no mean statistics! It was a flood of epic, biblical proportions, reputed to be the worst flooding ever experienced in Mozambique for over fifty years – of which over three decades had been spent on warfare!

It was within that flood – most of you will recall - that a woman was marooned up a tree, surrounded by nothing but water. She gave birth in that tree. That iridescent image was flashed around the world and overcame the viciousness of the cyclone and the destruction it wreaked. It also overwhelmed a destructive past.  I found it an image that asserted, in the very circumstances of its emergence, an unassailable right of being and compassion ranged against all other images of denial that compete for place on the continent. It administered, it struck me at the time, a transcendental rebuke on that infant’s adult progenitors who, like others after independence, had chosen to inaugurate an even more intense, more brutal civil war for sixteen years, following ten years of armed struggle for the liberation of that now inundated land. That second war had ended barely two years before, and thus the Nature affliction found a united people, enabling them to cope, in a manner that would have been considered hitherto unimaginable, with a catastrophe of such proportions. That deluge may not have produced a Noah's Ark, but it did materialize a helicopter out of the skies, a helicopter from a historic adversary, apartheid South Africa – but this time, it was not on a bombing raid.

Yes, an inundation from horizon to horizon. A solitary tree.  A woman and her new-born infant. A deus ex machina - but unmistakably of human counsel and ingenuity - rappelling down from whirring blades to the rescue of the hapless pair.  Yes, that was inevitably my chosen image of the twentieth century, and  as yet unsuperceded, a symbolic harbinger of the yet elusive people’s resurgence, the much awaited restoration of an African Humanism.

Now come with me to Northern Nigeria, to the land of Boko Haram. Not the most comforting of exercises but, have we any choice? I invite us to picture the Lake Chad overflowing and inundating Borno State, or a sector of the River Benue overflowing its banks and cutting a destructive swathe through the states of Taraba or Adamawa. I want us to picture a woman stranded in the branches of a baobab tree, that champion for longevity in the arboreal kingdom. The Chad waters rise, and swirl around Borno, moving towards Maiduguri. Now picture a band of the new would-be liberators and purifiers of the African soul passing by, and encountering  this despised object – a female - clinging to life, and a baby clinging to her in her near nudity. Well then, what do you imagine would take place?

First of all, you should be aware that she has been guilty of haram  - the forbidden – her exceptional circumstances notwithstanding, her religious affirmation irrelevant. Not merely unveiled in public domain, but rendered virtually naked into the bargain. She has transgressed the commandment of Allah – as transmitted by the prelates of Boko Haram - that is the sum and interpretation of an image of which, for the rest of us, would constitute Allah’s gift of compassion, a transfiguration. Now, let us conjecture the nature of their response, for which we can only go by the examples and pronouncements provided us by these self appointed spokesmen of God. So, how would they react?
No doubt whatsoever in my mind, but that a roving band would instantly riddle her with bullets for polluting the sight of God. Or perhaps they would gleefully settle down to some entertainment, some stoning exercise to see whose missile would bring down the rotten fruit. If a choice was made to rescue her, it would only be to conscript her into service as a sex object, or else turn her into a walking bomb to purify her sin-saturated existence in a Maiduguri market, taking with her fellow sinners whose sole crime is to eke out a bare living from the products of their hands. Nothing strange about this in the history of soldiery, but others do not cite their scriptures as divine authority for such secular depravity.

For those who consider my projected scenario an exaggeration, a writer’s resort to poetic licence, I invite you to browse through the abundance of narratives from Algeria’s own history of trauma, one from which that nation is yet to fully emerge.  The account of this – among a hundred allied episodes – is amply detailed in one of the most recent of the courageous narratives of those years - it bears the unambiguously defiant title: Your Fatwa does not Apply here, its author - Karima Benoune, a woman professor now teaching in the United States. This specific event took place in – of course - a girls’ school,  overseen by the Virtue Vigilantes – or equivalent – who kept watch outside the school gates.  Now, the pupils would not dare leave their homes for that barely conceded learning institution without their hijab. Once within the school confines however, they could take them off, which they routinely did. On this day, the school caught fire, which spread rapidly. With smoke billowing everywhere, the girls made the instinctive rush for the exit, hijabs forgotten.  Not by the Virtue Vigilantes however.             They pushed the girls back into the building and, as the pressure increased from the inside, latched that sole exit against them.  Several perished in the inferno. These, and like records, are in the public domain. Well then, what do you think would have happened to that naked woman so sinfully isolated in the tree against the skyline of Maiduguri?

My dear colleagues, friends, fellow earth inhabitants, it is time we stopped beating around the bush, or debase language into a mere palliative, least of all by those of us who live without direct daily contact with the effects of this human aberation, what I have tried to bring starkly to your consciousness in its total, inhuman and dehumanizing horror – that episode in Algeria - summarizes the moral delirium in which Boko Haram exists, not merely declared in barely translatable rant, but fleshed out in the act, daily, hourly at the cost of thousands of lives,  and not only for Nigeria but as the agenda for the vastness of this African continent. This is the meaning of Chibok, and the Sambisa forest where over two hundred school girls are still held prisoners and slaves. It is the meaning of al Shabbab and its godfathers like al Queda. It is the meaning of the death of Kofi Awoonor far from his home in the distant mall of Nairobi. It is the meaning of cold deaths in London underground, the meaning of the shredding of human bodies in the Central Railway station of Madrid – same as for the Nyanya motor park in Abuja, Nigeria, in which same city the conferred immunity of the United Nations Headquarters was violated. It is the recurrent language of human putrefaction that is being forced down the throat of humanity by something that calls itself ISIS or ISIL. It is the language of the fate of the minority Yazidi, an ancient people of Iraq, and of the people of Bama in the land of Boko Haram, their men methodically slaughtered, virtually to a man, their women preserved only to bury the dead, serve as drawers of water and sex chattels.

Let us not be complacent, and let us not be foolish. Let writers and all who still boast a function of the mind understand that the occasional would-be shoe bomber is not an aberration that is soon contained, nor imagine that the most sophisticated policing and detection gadgetry emplaced by their governments will be effective substitute for that internal purge and massive re-orientation – on a universal level - that is now mandatory for the enthronement of free beings in the free world. One pin-prick alone, then another, then another soon expands into a quilt-work of mental occupation by alien forces through methodical indoctrination and/or forceful conversion, building up to the  massive subjugation of the human will through the agency of terror.  Fear destabilizes society and debilitates its collective will. It is time that the words complacency and  rationalization should be expunged from the dictionaries of all languages.

Do I address governments here? Regional alliances? The framers and executors of national and international policies?  Am I addressing our familiar enemies, unrepentant inheritors and would-be perpetuators of the imperial mandate, east or west of the vanishing ideological divide? No, not at all. We know them. The people of this continent have fought them internally and externally. We have liberated ourselves from them – incompletely obviously, but in a process that is irreversible, otherwise the greater shame on us. Since the so-called independence of African nations, we have continued to fight their internal surrogates, the petty dictators and butchers of their own kind, and if they think to profit by a situation of global apprehension and shotgun alliances for self-preservation, then we must also do battle with their treachery.

I am however addressing none of these, at least not primarily. Today I address my fellow crafters of images by which we render the world of reality tolerable, even dignifying, as well as allied members of my creative tribe, and today, very specifically, I call on the moslem writers among us – I speak to the of the testifying breed – heirs to the legacy of Tayeb Salih, Ousmane Sembene,  Amina Sall, Tahar Djaout, Naguib Mafouz, Mariama Ba and others : you cannot afford to tire, or fail to raise your voices unambiguously,  in commitment to the purification of what is being mangled and distorted in your Scriptures, restoring it to a healing, from a killing book. I address my colleagues of the intelligentsia some of whom, for decades now, often responded to our raised warning voices with emotive religious demagoguery. On behalf of the creative mission which is life, we must continue to assail the attempted impositions of retrogressive world-views that impinge upon, and seek to curtail even the choices of outsiders to that faith. “You cannot condemn this or that act since you are not one of our faith. You cannot even comment. You cannot fault our position in this or that, otherwise it means that you disrespect, or even insult our religion.” That era of religious blackmail is over, of exclusionist tactics in order to lay claim to immunity.  It never existed. It was always a delusion. Just when did one cease to be a member of the human community? And a writer at that.  Some, even where we invoke history, our history as recorded and as verifiable within living memory, have accused us of conspiring to re-enslave our own people in the interest of an East-West contest for the recovery of old grounds. So easy it is to wallow in historic elision, where one wears an eternal eye-patch and refuses to see what is not immediately in the line of vision. This has been largely the regard of African immediate post-colonial history where colonization has been presented for viewing only as a uni-directional phenomenon. That is a fallacy, and the chickens of that elision have come home to roost.

Today, we must understand that there is no covering fire for murder, for humiliation, for deprivation of volition and dignity. If we say, it is degrading to compel a woman to sheathe herself from head to toe, leaving only slits for the eyes, as long as we do not pounce on her and  yank the tent off her body, do not insult our viewpoint and deny our realities by attributing such sentiment to foreign teaching – first obtain a truthful picture of our pre-colonial, pre-christian, pre-existent actualities, especially as reflected in the contemporaneous arts and literatures of that era. If we claim that it is cruel and repugnant to bury our mothers, our sisters, our daughters up to the neck for some infraction and stone them to death, we are merely declaring that we have stayed faithful to the humanity of our traditions, for whom humanity remains indivisible, and that we feel for woman or man, just as we feel for ourselves, for our own bodies, for our own realities and aspirations. And if you insist that, for such articles of faith, we deserve to be blown up and our children have their throats slit, then we, on our part, must come together and take needed measures to defend our own right of belief and right to exist – by whatever means. Before Islam, christianity existed, and before christianity, the spirituality of the orisa  of the Yoruba, and even before the orisa, how many shall we count in the search for the pathway to Ultimate Truth?

There is always an irreducible core of universalism wherever the human organism is placed at the centre of existence – which is where we choose to place it. Similarly, we have come to a pass where we insist that Reality must be founded on what is proven to be the undeniable animator of  humanity, its  existence and continuity, a common, palpable, ageless denominator of the very phenomenon of existence –the creative urge in humanity and its sustenance.  Just as a tree does not make a forest, so does one gender NOT make humanity. And when you compromise, when you pander to fragmentary notions like cultural relativism, you are merely opening wide the gates to your own destruction. You have taken the first step – however long it takes – towards yourselves of becoming relative and thus, expendable. This is when you wake up to discover that you have become first-line designated victims. The world salutes all those who, like Kofi Awoonor, did not betray their calling to accommodate evil under this latest guise of religious permissiveness and the spineless language of Political Correctness. They may be victims, but their spirit in the language of affirmation for humanistic values did not bow to the slavish wind of double-talk and glamorization of surrender.

Let me solemnly affirm that, bitter and lacerating as is that memory, it is not the murder of our colleague, the late Kofi Awoonor that has instigated these remarks. They are reminders – sadly – mere reminders of what has been said often, what has been warned  against  ad nauseum, but appear to vanish rapidly into the slip stream of memory, no sooner uttered. But History is the reality into which we were born, and that History has already fashioned its template, and there is no deviation between its oscillating axis of impulsion – Power at one end, Freedom on the other.  The spores of religious fundamentalism are everywhere, flying invisibly across nation boundaries, taking root silently, watered by past masters of extreme indoctrination, until blossoming time when, towering above complacent spires, steeples, cupolas and ivory towers and lately, even silencing and pulverizing minarets, they belch out their flowers of evil. And the process continues - those spores momentarily vanish into one obscure spot, only to erupt on the other side of the globe in sanguinary fountains – Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, al Queda, ISIS and all, generic mutants of one another, striving to outdo the last in degree of butchery, human degradation and insolence.          

But at least, I believe we can claim some measure of progress, moving towards  abandonment of the language and conduct of  “holier than thou”, the canonization of ego against  ‘the other’ as the fundamental basis of human and communal relationships, dooming that other, or conceding it to the disposal machine of the “holier”, and thus buying oneself a space of immunity. Sooner or later, along will come others of a far more viciously uncompromising tendency who burst upon your routine, your occupation, your domestic and/or professional complacency, who break through your protective carapace that is no carapace at all but a mere fragile, holding device. The newcomers conclude that you have deviated from the strict path of adhesion. They employ a narrower gauge of definition and an enhanced language of separatism that you had once administered to ‘others’ . They declare – “Holier? What is that? Purer, that’s what we are. We are purer than you.” Thereafter, you join the ranks of  theunclean. Of those who blaspheme by their very existence, even by silence. You are herded together and labeled: for arbitrary disposal.

Do not be deceived however, they who preach that their gazes are solely fixated on the hereafter, that this present world holds no attraction for them – they are liars! It is the present that actually holds them in thrall. The domination of that coveted space, that humanity in the here and now – otherwise why do they bother to enslave, to kill, to destroy? Why not the option of detachment, the silent abandonment of the “impure” to their ways till Judgment Day in the hereafter?  As writers, we must debunk these pretentions. We must tell them they lie in their teeth, that the dominion of their quest is not in the thereafter but in the power of domination in this most palpable present.

There is no in-between. The unstated religion that animates all truthful creators – human freedom – is indivisible. And perhaps it is about time that we adopted the language of those very enemies of humanity but, this time on behalf of humanity – fundamentalism. Yes, perhaps it is high time we declare ourselves fundamentalists of human liberty. Not libertinism but simply - liberty. Freedom. Either this is what we fought for on this continent – against foreign invaders, against enslavement, against imperialism – or else we have fooled ourselves. We have fought merely to hand over the millennial keys on our chains to a new set of imperators. In that case, it may be admissible to begin the rounds of history all over again, to accept that the first, second and subsequent cycles of enslavement have yet to run their course.

This is the reality of widening swathes of the Nigerian environment today. It is the predicted scenario that overtook Northern Mali whose initial insurgents, with genuine internal grievances, first committed a near fatal error: they made common cause with external religious predators and together easily overran the northern part of that nation, threatening the capital Timbuktoo. Those outside forces of religious imperialism, ousted from elsewhere  – Libya, Afghanistan, even Egypt – or simply seeking territorial expansion, responded greedily to the prospect of a prostrate nation ready for occupation and poured in from all corners. And what was their priority?  To turn Mali’s historic centres of culture and learning – and of Timbuktoo especially - into deserts of the mind.  They raced to turn its treasures, largely of islamic genius, into rubble and ashes, and its people into serfs. Yes, that especially, to weigh them down with the brutality of laws that had become their trademark everywhere, laws under which the human personality is degraded and the gift of freedom is nullified. The acts of these invaders often portray them as aliens from outer space, since they do not conform even to the minimal expectations of a humane regard for the autochthones whose land they have invaded. Alas, they are only too real, only they are mutants.  Mutants, yes, but programmed. They have become veterans in the automatism of terror, and they understand that suicidal mental cast of settled communities, that tendency to shrug off the distant flickers of flame with the words: “It can never happen here”. My dear friends, it can, and it has. It will again. The mission of enslavers is never ended.

 In seeking a clarity of direction, let us, whose race has only recently begun to emerge from centuries of disdain inflicted both within the continent and without, ask ourselves some questions, backed helpfully by projected images. Such as: those who gunned down Kofi Awoonor and - are they different from the plantation masters of the Americas? Are their ideologues separate as a breed from the Ku Klux Klan of the United States of America? Are they different from the slave merchants of Aleppo, Cairo, Marakesh, whose pre-european enterprise littered the Sahara with the bones of our ancestors?  Are they different from the torturers, gaolers, murderers of Apartheid South Africa?  That Limpopo tree – attempt its transformation in your mind in a different historic role and geography: a runaway slave ‘treed’, as the expression goes, by bloodhounds, clinging to its top branches for safety. The slave hunters know it is only a matter of  time before exhaustion sends him plummeting down into the slavering jaws of the animals. Their owners love the sport.

When is tyranny? What colour does it wear? What race does it claim? The answer is: None, and All. Is there ever a graceful way of succumbing? When those tree images are faithfully superimposed, the African continent will be left with only the irreducible in the choices that guide her destiny – not as theory, but as pragmatic indications to what our present times demand. Where lies the difference between those ancient slave camps and that camp currently retaining our children in the midst of a sparsely forested enclave called Sambisa, right in the heart of a once thriving state – Borno, in Northern Nigeria?  Are we not also held slaves in that enclave? The rest is superfluous -  images of shredded humanity in teeming motor parks, markets and motor garages in the heart of a nation.  But perhaps we are the kind who are easily lost in numbers, overwhelmed by the daily accumulation of statistics, needing the aid of one immediately recognizable, non-anonymous statistic in the midst of mass carnage, yet representative of a general, but intimate humanity. For all such, there was a poet and citizen known among us whose name is Kofi Awoonor, a tree that was felled in the glass and metal jungle of Nairobi.

It is true, a tree does not make a forest. There is however, one tree that is common to every forest, visible to some, invisible to others, visible in some seasons, shrouded in others, but a presence, a landmark, a beacon always and a destination for all beings of dignity and volition. It is a tree for all seasons, visible or invisible. Rare is that school pupil who never read of it in history classes or never heard it invoked during seasons of political turmoil, always in the context of a famous saying which is just as often misquoted. The beginning however survives all distortions, the part that reads “The tree of Liberty….” That  invocation remains constant, and no wonder - it is the very heart of human history. Regarding the rest, you know what kind of potion – it warns – with which that tree has been watered throughout human existence.

Writers do not preach violence. There is always the exception or two but, writers consider violence the last recourse of failed humanity. Writers however – and again conceding a meager handful of exceptions – writers understand that the Tree of Liberty provides the roof under which we shelter – just like our progenitors - in the forest of creativity. We have a profound call to arrest and neutralize any hand that is raised to cut it down, no matter what label is embossed on the rampaging axe – that of secular ideology, or of religion. We must protect that tree, or we cease to be what we claim to be. We must rally behind its banner – since it is the home of our universal Muse. We must adopt whatever needful means and strategy to protect it, since it is the sturdy growth from the bodies of our own martyrs, our mission, our very reason for existing. We must fashion and re-fashion the weapons of resistance, but also break through the repetitive, sterile cycle of aggression and self-defence.  The Muse of Creativity remains our common deity. It is time we took the battle to the infidels.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Alexander Nderitu events at the StoryMoja Festival (17th - 21st September). 
Full details available at http:

Saturday, April 19, 2014

KENYAN THEATRE: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

First and foremost, let me clarify that by ‘theatre’ I am referring to professional stage productions (whereby the players expect to make money) and that are open to the general public. Excluded from my sphere of research are school dramas, talent shows and any theatrical production that is sponsored by a religious organization or NGO.

Contrary to popular belief, Kenya National Theatre (affectionately known to artists as ‘KNT’) is neither the oldest nor the largest theatre in the country. However, it is the most culturally relevant and the only one seen to have a national outlook. Reportedly, the Kenya National Theatre was initially built as a place for soldiers, brought in by the British Empire to quell the Mau Mau rebellion, to be entertained. However, given its size and location, it probably had a larger billing than that ie. was meant as an entertainment centre for the growing White community. It is a stone’s throw away from the Norfolk Hotel (a mecca for the who’s who of colonial times) and Central Police Station (of course then controlled by the colonial gov’t). KNT is now part of the Kenya Cultural Centre which also includes The Kenya Conservatoire of Music. Literary titans Wahome Mutahi, Francis Imbuga and Ngugi wa Thiong’o have all staged plays there.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s KNT plays included The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (co-written with Micere Mugo) and Ngahiika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Choose).  Maitu Njugira (Mother Sing for Me) was supposed to be stage there but was denied permission and banned altogether.

Francis Imbuga (recently deceased) is probably the best-known Kenyan playwright (as opposed to other types of writers) and his most notable work is Betrayal in the City which was made a KCSE set-book. His other titles include Aminata (a KCSE set-book), Shrine of Tears, Man of Kafira and the Burning of Rags[1]. Imbuga was a Professor and lectured at Kenyatta University. In his younger days, he was an ardent actor for both stage and TV.

Uganda’s John Ruganda must have been a very huge fan of Prof. Imbuga. Ruganda authored a book entitled Telling the Truth Laughingly: The Politics of Francis Imbuga’s Drama. Ruganda is himself a noted playwright, director and actor. He worked with the Makerere Travelling Theatre, Nairobi University Players and co-founded the Makonde Group. Ruganda’s own plays The Burdens, The Flood, Music Without Tears and Game of Silence have all been performed at KNT.

Mombasa's Little Theatre Club recently clocked 60 years of existence, although, according to a KTN TV report by Ferdinand Omondi, there isn’t much to show for all those years of being. It was initially a club for Royal navy sailors after World War II but was later leased out for various functions, including serving as a hospital. In 1952, White settlers leased the space and established ‘The Little Theatre Club’ for their own entertainment. Performances ranged from stage plays to choreographed dances. Jazz legend Louis Armstrong (Coal Cart Blues) performed there in 1960! The Little Theatre is still considered the home of culture and art in Mombasa (it’s the best-known spot for Coast-based thespians), but has a chequered history. It nearly faded into insignificance in the last decade although there now appears to be a spirited effort by stakeholders to restore its lost glory. The government has gazetted it as a National Monument.

Phoenix Theatre was established in 1983 by the fabled James Falkland and is the largest and oldest repertory theatre company in East and Central Africa. Their 120-pax auditorium is located in the Professional Centre on Parliament Road, Nairobi. Phoenix ‘alumni’ include Ian Mbugua (TV’s ‘Judge Ian’), TV presenter Jimmi Gathu, radio presenter Edward Kwach, Charles Bukeko (TV’s ‘Papa Shirandula’), poet Caroline Nderitu, thespian/writer John Sibi-Okumu[2], TV host Sheila Mwanyiga, thespian Millicent Ogutu, TV presenter Julie Gichuru, former TV presenter Lorna Irungu, actress Lupita Nyong’o (the first indigenous Kenyan to win an Oscar award[3]) and the current Phoenix Theatre MD David Opondoe, among many, many other well-known personalities. Its name symbolised the return of theatrical performances – a rising from the ashes – after the nearby Donovan Maule Theatre (est. 1947) was burnt to the ground.

Other popular venues for stage plays include Alliance Francaise, Goethe Institut, Braeburn School and the Courtyard Theatre, all in Nairobi.

And as we discuss theatre, let us not forget the sizeable Asian community in Kenya. ‘Kenindians’, as they are sometimes called, hold many staged events, including Hindi/Gujerati performances but unfortunately (and it is unfortunate), they are still perceived by Black Kenyans to be isolationist and therefore rarely do the majority of other Kenyans bother with them. Often, you will only see reviews of these performances (some of which include artists from mother India) in the ‘Asian scene’ section of the papers. The bi-annual Asian Mosaic of Society and the Arts (SAMOSA) Festival is one of the few platforms that bring together artistic performances from the Asian community and the original Kenyans. SAMOSA Fest was founded in 2004 in an effort to bring better understanding between the Asians and Kenyan tribes. The last SAMOSA festival highlighted the Sidis (African-Asians who live in India). The Sidis are descended from a group of Africans who were transported to India in historical times. They were initially known as the ‘Bombay Africans’ and chief among them was a man called Sidi, after whom the entire clan is now named[4]. Performances included a play called Tides, by Kouldip Sondhi. Kenindian plays include Pehli Preet (First Love) and Dhabakta Haiya (Throbbing Heart).

‘Africa has wrote no discernible changes in them. So it is with most East African Asians. They have remained spiritually intact: That has been their greatest strength; and their fatal weakness.’ – V. S. Naipul, North of South


‘I want theatre in Kenya to be truly professional. You, as an actor, can be a brand. And make money…The quality of the shows has really gone high because the professionalism of the performers.’ – David Opondoe, Managing Director of Phoenix Theatre,
speaking at an Arterial Network event in August, 2013

‘You have devoted your life to bringing laughter to the masses, including me. Yet, to the educated, you are the pre-eminent post-modern humourist. Your act has hints of Harold Pinter[5] and Samuel Beckett – ‘‘Theatre of the Absurd’’; shifting between the surreal and the slapstick. -  Actor Gary Busey in The Comedy Central Roast of Larry the Cable Guy

Some theatre groups, like Heartstrings Kenya and Festival of Creative Arts, have found formulas for staging successful plays. Their productions are usually critically and commercially successful. Heartstrings Kenya is uncanny in its ability to attract hordes of play-goers to the Alliance Francaise where they usually perform. Heartstrings plays are usually comedies with very localized themes and colloquial language. Some of their many hits include Dare Kenyans To Love, News Made in Kenya, Divorce Made in Kenya, Kenyan Playboy and 50% Kenyan. One of the key people behind the group is radio/TV star Daniel Ndambuki aka ‘Churchill’ (TV’s Churchill Live). The ticket price is usually about Kshs 500 (USD$ 5.8) which is fair for a Nairobi city audience. When I was a magazine writer/editor, our office was situated near Alliance Francaise and I would often go down on Fridays to buy a ticket for various plays. What impressed me about Heartstrings shows was how often the first shows would be entirely sold out and I would have to book for later dates.

In December 2013, President Uhuru Kenyatta commissioned the rehabilitation of the Kenya Cultural Centre incorporating the Kenya National Theatre. KNT was one of the landmark facilities earmarked for renovation as a way of commemorating 50 years of Kenya’s independence. It is due for a major facelift after the Kenya Breweries Limited allocated an estimated Kshs 500 million (US$ 1,1 million) for its refurbishment. During the launch of the project, President Uhuru Kenyatta said:

‘The first ever refurbishment of this building that would turn it hopefully into a modern building worthy of its name and the history that it carries with it.’

On his part, Nairobi governor, Evans Kidero, revealed that the Nairobi County government would relieve the KNT of most of the monetary dues it owed the county government:

‘We did agree and I accepted to write off the 96 percent of the amount owed to the county government.’

Details of the intended refurbishment were also posted on the president’s official website.

On January 16th 2014, an article entitled ‘Youth Fund Boosts Theatre with Kshs 100m’ appeared in the East African Standard, story by George Orido.  According to it, the chairman of the Youth Enterprise and Development Fund, Gor Semelang’o has announced a Kshs 100 million stimulus package for theatrical arts, to boost live theatre, in tandem with film and music which are due to receive Kshs 600 and Ksh 300 million respectively. Mr. Semelang’o: ‘It will also excite quality performances on stage and as a result bring a huge paying audience back to our theatres.’

Phoenix MD proudly says that the First Lady, Margaret Kenyatta, attended the show For Coloured Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf which was staged at Phoenix Theatre in 2013. The play – which contains deeply personal poetic narratives by several African-American women characters – was written by America’s Ntozake Shange and was only the second play by a Black woman to reach Broadway. Ntozake Shange also wrote other successful plays, including an adaptation of Bertlot Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children (1980) which won an Obie award.

The 2013 For Coloured Girls... show was directed (and starred) stage veteran Mŭmbi Kaigwa. Interestingly, Mŭmbi had acted in this very play, at Phoenix, back in 1987. In the 2013 revival, she starred alongside her daughter, Mo Pearson. 

‘One thing I don’t need is any more apologies. I got sorry greeting me at my front door, you can keep yours. I don’t know what to do with them. They don’t open doors or bring the sun back, they don’t make me happy or get a morning paper.’ ― From Ntozake Shange’s, For Colored Girls who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf[6] (a ‘choreopoem’)

In 2010, the Oyier Brothers – Peter and Paul Oyier of Sterling Entertainment Productions - staged the famous South African musical Sarafina! in Kenya (with a local cast) and even brought ‘Sarafina’ herself – SA actress Leleti Khumalo - to the premiere. Sterling Entertainment has also staged various other high-quality productions such as Gentlemen in Concert and Ladies in Concert, which involved media personalities and other familiar faces. This yearning for international standards might just be the catalyst we need to propel live theatre into the league of mainstream entertainment. Many thespians, especially in Nairobi, are not satisfied with high-school-type acting-for-fun arrangements. They want to be taken seriously and they won’t to be involved in serious productions ie. they want theatre to put food on the table, place a roof over their heads and (hopefully) open doors to other acting opportunities such as TV and films. In short, they want it to be like Broadway whereby top actors became famous (in the theatre community), earn good money, receive recognition (awards etc) and often cross over to other entertainment fields. Broadway is so mainstream that numerous movie and film stars participate in it or revere it. Screen actors who are deeply involved with Broadway include Neil Patrick Harris (TV’s How I Met Your Mother), Hugh Jackman (X-Men), Oprah Winfrey (The Colour Purple), James Earl Jones (The Lion King) and the late tap-dancing Gregory Hines[7] (TV’s The Gregory Hines Show). Neil Patrick Harris and Hugh Jackman have both hosted the Tony Award ceremony. Increasingly, Kenyan troupes are putting out quality performances: from the acting to the productions values.

‘Radio theatre’ used to be popular on KBC radio but appears less so in these days of FM radio warfare. However, the BBC World Service has regular, and very high quality, radio plays contributed by listeners from all over the globe. They run an International Radio Playwriting Competition (with plenty of tips on their website on how to write for radio) in which local scribes are ardent participants. Kenyans who have won the BBC’s Radio Play competition include Crystal Ading’, whose winning script, The Game Plan, was brought to life by players from Kenya’s The Theatre Company.

 Theatre Awards – Theatre awards are back! The Sanaa Theatre Awards were launched in 2013, as Kenya celebrated 50 years of being a republic. Kenya hasn’t had any major awards for professional theatre since 2004, when the Mbalamwezi Awards went under. Apart from Sanaa Theatre Awards, I have it on good authority that there is at least one more theatre award franchise that will come on stream in the near future. This is great. Theatre awards will not only bring excitement to the scene and motivate performers but will also help in the financial department eg. If a certain producer has a string of award-winning shows, it will be easier to seek future funding for his/her projects. Similarly, if a certain actor is winning accolades across the award ceremonies, then critics and fans have no choice but view him/her as something special (since the award committees are independent and often rivals). The actor will then be in a better position to negotiate preferential acting fees or leverage the acclaim to seek roles in TV, film and advertisements.

Below is a partial list of the 2013 Sanaa Award Winners. The full list can be found on online at

Best Actor
Simon Oyatsi - The Theatre Company/Uzinduzi
Best Actress
Nice Githinji - Festival of Creative Arts

Best Director
Sammy Mwangi, Victor Ber - Heartstrings

Best Set Light And Sound Design
Elements by John Sibi-Okumu

Best Costumes
Shackles of Doom - Butere Girls

Best Production
Wanjikus Dilemma by Oby Obyeodhyambo

Best Comedy
Kenyan Pig Cat and Dogs - Heartstrings Kenya

Best Tragedy
Eulogy of A Rich Man - Uzinduzi Productions

Best Musical Theatre
Mo Faya by Eric Wainaina - Godown Arts Centre

Best Dance Theatre
Flamingo Flamenco by Kenya Performing Arts Group
Best Play In English
Wanjikus Dilemma by Oby Obyerodhyambo

Best Play In Kiswahili
Operesheni Linda Utu - Malindi High School

Best Play In Local Language
Ruhi Ruhiu - Johari Productions


‘Dear Kenyan theatre companies...please stop sending me invitations to watch your "latest hilarious rib-tickling blockbuster comedy" - "Run For Your Wife" or "Birthday Suite" or "Bedside Manners". Those are farces written in the 50s and 60s for British audiences, which you bastardise by changing character and place names - "Kenyanising", you call it. It doesn't work, and it's actually illegal! We're tired of repeats of old British plays! I don't want to see "Boeing Boeing" again - it's outdated! We're in the age of mobile phones and the internet, two things which would make those plays very unfunny in a second! Stop being lazy and create something original!' – A scriptwriter and former thespian (name withheld), ranting on Facebook

White Man’s Country? - Phoenix Theatre has in the past being accused of being ‘elitist’ and catering to mzungu (White) audiences. In recent years, the repertory theatre company has done a lot to counteract this impression. They have also been accused of having above-average ticket costs[8]. The players attribute this to the relative small size of the auditorium although the average punter doesn’t see why they can’t seek another venue (there has even been rumour that there are plans to demolish the entire Professional Centre that houses Phoenix and build a skyscraper in its place, so they might be on borrowed time anyway). But more pragmatically, if, say, a lawyer with an office in Victoria Park Towers, overlooking Nairobi’s Central Park, were to keep complaining to you about how expensive it is and how he is being threatened with eviction, wouldn’t you advice him to put his ego aside and move to a more practical office? For how long will Phoenix continue ‘struggling’?

Obsession with British farces/foreign material - If there’s an aspect of Kenyan theatre that drives audiences to distraction, it is the industry’s obsession with foreign plays. Critics have complained about this countless times but most of most players seem to turn a deaf ear to the criticism. The constant re-hashing of European bedroom farces (with a few minor changes to the names, places and locations in order to ‘localize’ the content) betrays a lack of originality. Some of the most popular playwrights in Nairobi theatre are Ray Cooney (Not Now Darling, Run for Your Wife, Husband for Breakfast, Wife Begins at Forty), Marc Carmoletti (Boeing Boeing) and Derek Benfield (Bedside Manners). Never mind that Kenyans don’t know these foreign writers from the man on the moon.

The stock answer given to critics when they ask why foreign plays keep being regurgitated is that Kenyan scripts/playwrights can’t match the ‘quality’ of their foreign counterparts. It’s a lazy answer and it can’t withstand cross-examination. How do you explain the runaway success of Heartstrings Kenya which specializes in local content? How do explain the rise of vernacular (especially Kikuyu) plays in recent times? How have scriptwriters like John Sibi-Okumu (Minister Karibu, Role Play, Meetings) and Cajetan Boy (All Girls Together, Backlash, Benta) managed to earn positive reviews from critics if their writings are not up to par?

Plays like She Ate the Female Cassava by Jimmi Makotsi[9] and Betrayal in the City by Francis Imbuga have become Kenyan classics and received wide critical acclaim. (She Ate the Female Cassava won a National Playwrights Award in 1980). Don’t you honestly think that Kenyans would be more interested in stories/characters they can closely identify with? The problem is that they rarely get that opportunity.

Short runs - A Broadway show typically costs millions of dollars to bring to reality and can take months or years to actually get on the Broadway circuit. For example, US TV personality Roseanne is said to have sunk $10 million into the production of gay singer Boy George’s musical, Taboo[10]. So how does one recover so much money from a stage play – and make a profit? For starters, Broadway tickets are usually very pricey: a single ticket for a popular show like Wicked or Les Miserablés can cost $100 or more. But the larger strategy is to have the show running for years – either all on Broadway or on tour. A typical show has hundreds of performances (hence the importance of understudies, in case a major character is missing or on a break). Many shows (especially musicals) have had thousands of performances (If it’s a good show then the reviews, hype, word-of-mouth etc will always make new people want to see it). Some shows like Andrew Lloyd Webbers’ Cats ran for years without a break. Another good example is the classic British musical Me and My Girl (a coming-of-age story about a poor Londoner who inherits a fortune and has to learn how to be a ‘gentleman’) which ran for 3 years on Broadway[11], covering 1,400 performances. What a challenge to Kenyan theatre troupes!

Most Kenyan productions last only one weekend and then they are buried for good (On Broadway, revivals are common, there’s even a category for them in the Tony Awards). Even if you make a profit during a weekend run (of 6 – 8 performances), imagine how much money you would have made over 100 performances (different venues, if necessary). Remember that the cast has already memorized, rehearsed and performed the play. Why waste it? Let them do more shows! Get event organizers, marketers, booking agents etc. But don’t waste a good production on a few shows. Some companies like Heartstrings Kenya will occasionally revive a show ‘due to public demand’ and this is an indication of the business sense that makes them succeed where so many others have failed. Think about it: a musician can record a song once and rest assured that thousands will hear it by buying the CD, downloading it from the Internet or hearing it on radio. Similarly, a stand-up comedian like Kenya’s Eric Omondi, Nigeria’s Basket Mouth or South Africa’s Trevor Noah can give a single live performance for a DVD recording and never repeat the act because any number of people can buy the DVD, watch it on YouTube or catch it on TV. But live actors have no such luck. They can only perform effectively to relatively small crowds (usually below 500), so to make any serious bucks (via ticket sales), they have no choice but to have a show that is so great, so evergreen, that it bears repeating dozens, hundreds or even thousands of times. The up side to this is that it creates truly professional actors – people who earn a living on stage (because they’re always working).

Some local productions culminate in a single performance.  All that time and effort spent on an original script, memorizing (ie. ‘cramming’), rehearsing, travelling, venue, decoration and so on is wasted on a single production. There’s no way it can possibly pay enough to inspire multiple future productions. The cast and crew can only do this for the love of theatre – the camaraderie, the thrill of being on stage, the living out of a childhood dream/fantasy etc. But otherwise, everyone involved had better hang on to their day jobs.

Poor marketing/promotion - Playwright and Kenyatta University theatre arts lecturer, David Mulwa, has pointed out that one of the factors hampering the success of theatre is lack of proper marketing. He avers that (book) publishers should call for stage scripts and hold workshops with writers on how to market them.

Zimbabwe has a vibrant six-day performing arts extravaganza dubbed ‘Harare International Festival of Arts’ that takes place annually. Why don’t Kenyan thespians have a similar festival in order to uplift their art? (Zimbabwe also has a famous annual Book Fair that leaves Kenya’s Nairobi International Book Fair standing.)

Lack of professionalism                                                 
Shortly after the movie Benta, based on Cajetan Boy’s play of the same title, premiered in Nairobi, the actress who starred in it gave an interview to the Buzz pullout of the Sunday Nation. In it, she revealed that when production began she didn’t know she was the designated star and was late to arrive on set. She said Cajetan called her on cellphone and told her that if she wasn’t there in the next few minutes, her role would be re-cast. This kind of thing happens all the time – actors either missing rehearsals or turning up late or taking the production as a hobby rather than a job.


‘Grandma said it was an outrage. ‘‘One of two terrible things will happen,’’ she predicted. ‘‘She’ll either kill herself, or worse yet, she’ll get along fine and end up in vaudeville’’.’
– Louise Baker, Out on a Limb (A Biography)

‘And finally, don’t thank your parents (after receiving your award). If you were raised in a nurturing environment, you wouldn’t be in show business!’ 
- Comedian Conan O’Brien hosting TV’s Emmy Awards

Veteran thespian/filmmaker Lee Kanyare of the Nyeri-based A.C.T Theatre Group has many tales about the theatre. He has been involved in theatre since the 1960’s and personally knew most of Kenya’s pioneering thespians. A sad story that Kanyare tells revolves around a young male actor who used to be part of their troupe when they used to perform at KNT with the likes of Wahome Mutahi. This particular aspiring actor came from a rich Nairobi family but his sole ambition was to become an actor. His bourgeois family wanted nothing to do with his foray into theatre and refused to support him in any way. Struggling financially and otherwise, he would make regular appearances at KNT but when it was time for lunch, he would go to a nearby bush and take a nap. He didn’t have money for lunch and, coming from the suburbs, he was too proud to beg from his lower-class artist friends.  Eventually, he got sick and died from a treatable illness – all because he didn’t want to prove his parents right and he was too proud to seek assistance from his peers. Following that incident, the ageing Lee Kanyare now likes to make sure that all performers in his productions are OK (they have food, bus fare etc). He has often dropped actors off in his own car.

Theatre in Kenya has long been considered a ‘hunger art’. Actors’ remunerations are often pitiable and most thespians do it for the love of acting (in other words, out of passion) or as a springboard to other ‘real’ acting opportunities in TV, film or commercials. Quite a number of top TV and celluloid stars cut their teeth in the poverty-stricken theatres. These stars (some of whom went on to generate millions of shillings) include Charles Bukeko (star of TV’s Papa Shirandula), Daniel Ndambuki (mega star of TV’s Churchill Live),  Joni ‘Ras’ Gathui who appears on Citizen TV’s Mother–In-Law, ‘Peter Marangi’ (seen on Dura Coat paint ads), singer/actor Size 8 (who has acted in various KBC TV shows in addition to making it big in the music industry) and TerryAnne Chebet who was an actor with Caroline Nderitu’s Poetry Lab stage group  before acting in the KBC TV show Reflections and then moving on to be a TV business anchor and national celebrity. The hit movie Nairobi Half Life, directed by Tosh Gitonga, drew almost all its actors from the world of theatre (the company of Heartstrings in particular).

But for the most part, theatre in Kenya remains a ‘hunger art’ and many thespians are struggling to make ends meet, especially if they have no other means of generating an income. Due to lack of funds to produce shows, many theatre groups rehearse in public areas such as Uhuru Park and the Nairobi Arboretum. And as you might expect in a city with one of the world’s most alarming crime rates, when the stakes are there, the producer or somebody else often grabs them and runs. An example is a young man who wrote in to the papers to complain about a particular producer who is notorious for denying actors their dues after the fact. In one anecdote, the angry young man told of how the producer transported his entire cast to a series of shows in Western Kenya. After the run - which grossed slightly over Kshs 200,000 - ‘the guy picked up his girlfriend and went MIA for several days. He wouldn’t even answer his phone.’ This is not an isolated incident. Quarrels over gate receipts by disgruntled actors are par for the course in Kenyan theatre. An even worse scenario is when the turn-up for a play is poorer than expected (for whatever reason), resulting in a financial loss for a theatre group that had put in so much for marketing, not to mention the time and energy they used up in rehearsals and performances.

Apart from individual actors and companies, even the playhouses have been through rough financial times. According to an article in The Standard, the Nairobi county government once demanded rate arrears from The Kenya Cultural Centre (incorporating KNT) amounting to over Ksh 400 million and threatened to auction away property to recover the monies. Phoenix Theatre, on the other hand, is often described as living up to its name by nearly going into extinction severally but magically rising again. During Ian Mbugua’s tenure as MD, it briefly closed its doors (in 2009 – 2010).

[1] Filmed as The Married Bachelor – it’s original title
[2] Has acted in about 40 stage plays since the 1970’s
[3] For the Steve McQueen-directed Hollywood movie, 12 Years a Slave, based on a non-fiction book of the same title
[4] Full details and photos available at the Rabai Museum in Mombasa. E-mail:
[5] Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature
[6] ‘Ntozake Shange’s poetry approaches the force of a whirlwind’ – Encore American & Worldwide News
[7] Tony Award Winner for Jelly’s Last Jam
[8] Phoenix Theatre tickets are now pretty much the same as other major venues in Nairobi ie. around Ksh 500
[9] Published by Heinemann, London, England, 1988
[10] A show whose preparation was marred by conflicts between her and Boy George
[11] Incidentally, it was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, winning 3 (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Choreography)