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My Kikuyu Frenn in These Trying Times

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Riding with one hand on the narrow  highway was not as scary as I had imagined. My right hand  precariously balanced my pretty red motorbike  as it wended  through  the dull Waiyaki Way. I begged Ramayana and Osiris not to cause “A Nairobi weather” on me now, since I wasn’t armed for a downpour. For no explainable reason my left armpit itched and demanded a scratch. I ignored the reflex as I focused on the delicately balanced pack that particular hand was carrying.
I had impetuously entered into La Mama and bought  some french pastry and coffee, with intention of surprising Dona. Now I was only regretting this act. I  prayed that Maasai cattle would not anomalously  jump on the highway as they sometimes do.
I did not inform Joseh. He would not have disapproved but he also would not have encouraged it. He would have come up with a  more sensible idea in which I would see every sense, then ignore . Joseh  is one of those few pals who knows when to have those locker-room conversation and when to listen to an embarrassing ‘falling in love’ situation that men find unsettling to admit to each other. The conversation about women is usually more interesting if it is about successfully getting laid.
As I neared Dona’s apartment, I remembered the last time I made an attempt to katia her and how that went.  I had bought a couple of groceries and decided I was going to cook for her. She left her busy work station in her small sitting room as if I was  her teenage son who had called out for her, the madam, president, from the Situation Room. She then  led me into a squeezed kitchen, quickly showed me where the pans and oils and  cutlery were kept.  As soon as she left, my mind went blank. I could not recognize anything in that kitchenette and  I realized that  I actually  did not know how to cook.
Yenyewe I panicked. I frantically called Joseh  whose phone had chosen this time,of all the  times in my lifetime, to be offline.
I came out of my body, slapped me and shook my shoulders asking me to get it all together. Once I was calm, I settled back in.
I had cooked that meal imagining what Joseh would advise me to do. He’d probably say, hapo umechoma picha johyou have burnt the photo my friend.  Yes, he would repeat the phrase in English as  a direct translation to make me feel how silly that move was. Then he would encourage me with our compelling slogan,
Love  knows no dignity and will make you pick litter, (as in go mad).
I’d mercifully beseech him to be serious and convince him that my world was coming to an end. It  felt like that actually. I really wanted to leave this tiny unfriendly kitchenette and pass Dona,  hopefully her head dipped in work in the living room, and wish she wouldn’t notice me zoom off.
What was I saying…yes. I imagined that Joseh was telling me what to do. He’d advice me to be myself, be wild, explore the recipe  and shit like that.  So I did. After a clumsy start I  begun to enjoy my guess-work. At some point Dona came in and opened a bottle of Shiraz. Her face is chocolate brown and smooth with a practiced stare meant to intimidate you. She is also  artsy and knowledgeable. What else do you need in a woman!  She explained different kinds of wine and how to taste and grow them. Somewhere along the lines she excited herself and became more enthusiastic so she climbed a stool to try and reach my level. I tried hard to concentrate  but I ended up watching her  lips  move hypnotically. She was now in a farm in the Rhone valley in France, where she was planting Shiraz grapes. Yes, she was simply a sexy, black, short haired farmer in  denim dungaree shorts, asking me to pass her the shovel.
She was actually asking me to pass her the wooden spoon. The food was burning.
She cooked the rest of it. Was not impressed by my effort and I had promised to  give it up but here I was balancing french pastry on one hand as I drove the bike to her apartment  with the other hand.

I have taken time to narrate  this  incident to you just to let you know who I run to when I feel like I seriously  need help. The crush I had on Dona was one of those ones that sneak up on you and leave you helpless. Its even more annoying because you understand the game being played, but you feel like a helpless teenager. It was a tough confusing season so only Joseh was allowed to have a glimpse and be involved in   this  kidogo embarrassing situation  of my life.

 

This example may sound petty but matters of the heart are usually the most crucial to us humans and we are extremely careful who we share them with. At least I am. Still, over the years Joseh and I  have seen each other through periods we now consider water under the bridge but emotional memory still remind me of the scars they left. Some of them made me stronger, some of them made me paranoid and in owe of the species of life that is the human being.

 

Even though he is a teetotaler, Joseh is still  my favorite company whenever  I plan to be   as high as a kite. I think his  brains simply adjust waves to my level of intoxication and soon we are laughing thunderously and sharing jokes that Einstein would have no luck decoding. A guy from Islando probably would.

 

Of course it is not always rosy, in fact our fights last an average of four years. The first ego to run out of gas may call to apologize.

 

So tribe is definitely not an issue between us. I hope so. We easily have locker room meeting and make fun of both wajathe  and kyuks with the same magnitude. We have supported either side depending on the economic opportunities available. After all we agree that thanks to the politician friendly  8-4-4 education system, Kenyans are still not in a position to vote in leaders based on issues.

 

As far as most Kenyans are concerned political parties are football clubs playing in a very important league. Their allegiance is to the club owners. Not the club or the players.  Once loved by Baba’s people, then he fell out  with Baba and wrote a book in which he described Baba’s crying melody.  Then loved by Uhuru’s people and now again he is adored by Baba’s people as a resistance memebr. Did that leave you dizzy?

 

I had  announced to Joseh that I was not going to vote in the August 8th election. He was surprised and thought I should exercise my right to vote. I argued that it was also my right not to vote. The system in my opinion was flawed and I was only going to waste my time on the line. If I knew I would have taken a polythene bag and packed githeri then stood with it on the line. We later met and made fun of our decisions. Then laughed harder at the rest of Kenyans who were going to vote along tribal lines. We laughed so hard at the silliness that Kenyans had refused to make sense of.

 

Then shit hit the fan and boy did the shit spray all over the space. I was furious that Jubilee had attempted to steal the elections. I was convinced and irritated. What happened to dignity? Joseh could  hear none of it. He was sure Raila had played everybody. He offered a convincing hypothesis of how Raila planned it and was  furious that Kikuyus were being targeted. I was furious that Kikuyus were feeling entitled.

 

Soon our voices were well projected and people were listening in keenly in the lobby not knowing how to join in this argument.

 

Then I wondered why  my point of view could only reveal Uhuru’s wrongs while Joseh’s only Raila’s phobia? Was this not the same situation across the country -and abroad -where even the most educated Kenyans could only contribute on a basis of ones owns ethnicity? On Facebook  I saw a disfigured face of a Kikuyu woman, who wrote, ” Look what my Otieno husband did to me when I said, ‘ Wembe ni ule ule.” I looked at her face agin and laughed. Kikuyu woman if you are reading this, I apologies from the bottom of my heart.

 

So  the question I had to ask myself objectively  was, what was this horrible thing about Raila that Kikuyus could see and the rest of us could not? Similarly what was this horrible thing about Uhuru that Luos could see but Kikuyus could not?

 

But thoughts and firts have something in common. They creep on you. So the other thought , thought, (I like that)  that perhaps as liberal  as we had been, or assumed we had been, we just had not escaped the seductive arms of tribalism.

 

Of course often we argue that we all grew up in the same neighborhood. Kikuyus and Lughyas together. In fact I remeber my mom scolding me whenever I was dirty, which was always, that why can’t I be clean like Githaiga. There is a flavor that a luo accent adds to a Kikuyu name that never leaves it the same. However, did we ever have conversations about tribalism in the house. Do we now? Do we talk to our children and explain that our their friends may be Kikuyu or Luo but that does not mean we should hate them or fear them? They will say they don’t but you will say, when you grow up and called upon to vote, you might.

 

Do we even tackle the genesis of this term tribe? Why are the English, Dutch, Scottish and so on not a tribe and yet they share a similar language and culture? Why do they become tribes when referring to Africans? How and why was the idea of tribes promoted by the colonial government?

 

I’m getting to philosophical so let’s get back to my frenn. By the way in case you don’t know its Ruto who calls people/rivals, my frenn.

 

So based on the history, kinship and identity we share,  no matter how liberal-minded you are, you will empathize with your own when they get murdered and this will evoke pain and  bitterness. Similarly if your community gets targeted and made to look like an  enemy and  oppressor, you are likely to feel unsafe and react defensively. Because the truth is ethnic groups are older governments that have survived for much longer than the fifty or so years this republic has existed. They are micro-nations with oral constitutions  masqueraded as traditions and customs.

 

Sow we have four years together of being Kenyans. Being wives. Being husbands. Being business partners. Being in -laws. Being best friends.

 

And we have one year of being tribalists.

So  what happened to Dona and the meal? *sigh*

Luos in Lamu, Part 2

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I had promised you (and myself) to post the second part of the above article, ‘Luos in Lamu’ by Sato. But I came from (please say with a jeng accent)…a long safarr … and I decided to release steam that weekend at my favorite pub. Of course I will never party hard again. I promise. For real, I promise. Thanks for understanding. Excuses are a good way to cope with the harshness of life and there is always one that comes in handy. Do not confuse excuses for lies though. Lies are bad. Excuses assist.

As a matter of fact, you are with me in this story because of an excuse I made at the beginning. Now you will have to read the previous article. Awesome.

Back to the story. I was just about to explain how Luos -or Nyikwa Ramogi or The Teargas -tan’go? Business Community – found themselves as stone-cutters in Lamu.

The story goes that in the early 1970s, a man only known to the coral-cutters as Muudhuri, who lived in Lamu town, traded in coral. He bought coral in Mombasa and sold it in Lamu town where there was a ready market as the town was expanding. He soon realized the huge transport cost from Mombasa to Lamu was consuming most of his income. So he went to a quarry site in Likoni called, Shika Adabu, where he persuaded coral cutters to try the virgin grounds of Lamu and Manda Islands. He was not very successful as the coral-cutters knew only too well how remote the Lamu archipelago was and how a non-existent infrastructure would do more harm to their livelihood. However, six men –all Luo – decided to go with him on the basis that he will smamia bus fare. These were On’gany Pala from Nyakach, Joseph Sana and Odongo Tana from Kano, Hezbon Owiti from Karungu, Nicholas Okoth from Alego and Aguk Jombi from Oyugis.

And so it came to be that in 1981 the first Luo migrants settled in the Lamu Archipelago at a place called Ras Kitau.  The following year Muudhuri brought them to Manda Island at a place called Maweni, eponymous for the many coral rocks that were visible. As the Luo population grew it was renamed by the Island natives to, Manda –Jaluoni, or as the white settlers would call it, Luo village.

Solo coral-cutters are barricaded in these pot-hole-like pits surrounded by debris of kokoto pebbles which are mostly picked by women. Inquiry on why women do not cut the coral stones is only greeted with blank chuckles. With a ‘fuck you’ undertone,I guess.

The solo mode of labour seems to be informed by the limited total earnings against production of one pit. The cutter explained to me how this works by giving me a personal example.

He wakes up at 3.30am to make sure that breakfast and everything else is set for his two children to go to school. He claims his wife left him due to the hardship on the Island so he has to do the housework as well. (Guys stop marrying for house labor.See what happened to owadwa ni?) He then leaves his hut at 4.15 am and walks to the quarry. His aim is to cut seventy stones of sizes 9x9x18, but he knows too well that this is simply a motivational ambition. On average he will probably manage fifty stones of this size or even of smaller size – 7x7x14 which he will normally sell at around KSH 13.  He makes sure he works hard and fast enough before the effect of the hot sun is felt from 11am when he will take a break. He uses the break to go have lunch and finish house chores, attend village meetings and other matters that require his participation. He then comes back to the quarry at 3.00pm and works until it’s completely dark. I leave him hurriedly digging out the first three feet of the coral, which is unusable due to its weak formation. He hopes that this will mean more time saved for the real labor tomorrow.

Walking back to the village, I visualize the common story of migration as experienced by the Manda – Jaluoni residents. It probably starts in the rural areas of Nyanza, with dreams of a better life . A relative then talks about the readily available stone-like material underground that one could extract and earn from. Apart from Ras Kitau, where the coral-cutters are employed on a salary basis, these quarries are free for the Kenyan citizens to mine.

Since more than half of the country’s population is unemployed, poor people are more than eager to come to this place where they hear stone-like things lie underground, ripe and ready, only waiting  to be dug out, cut and turned into money. I doubt anyone asks …or offers to warn about the poor living conditions. Perhaps they come from poorer places, who knows? No one tells them that they are actually coming to settle at a place where they will be considered pariahs by the native residents. Indeed even  poor Lamu residents consider stone-cutters as a low-status and most of them would rather avoid association.

We go to buy cigis in a store in which the shopkeeper’s son, who has been left to attend to customers, is visibly exhausted. Having no strength to pack our commodities, he throws them aimlessly onto the counter where my hands rest. They apologetically explain to me that he has just come back from school, which is a sixteen kilometres walk. Manda Primary, near Manda Airport, is the only complete primary school with all classes from standard 1 -8. The pupils are released at 2.30pm so as to start early their journey back home. During rainy seasons the roads are swamped causing the pupils to miss school altogether.

Yawi School, which is only a kilometer away from the Luo Village, is their best bet for reliable and affordable education. The guides are eager to show me the school. This leads to an exciting chat past different denominational church structures. I almost pass the school as I do not realize my guides have stopped. The small block has no gate or enclosed compound and one may mistake it for one of those political party branch offices in the middle of nowhere. I am informed that the block holds standard 1- 4 as they point to a standard 5 block that stands unfinished on the side.

“The CDF started this school as a nursery for the Boni community in 2005 but they soon abandoned the project. An NGO managed to build the school until standard 4 and the villagers fund-raised to keep teachers here,” one of my guides explains.

I study the derelict school and wonder. Wonder if education is really a human right. I’m afraid to ask if they have enough qualified teachers. I’m afraid to ask if they are content with the quality of basic education that is provided within these circumstances. There is nothing to say and nothing to give.

I ask to be shown the medical centre. There is none. Not even a chemist, yaani Duka ya Dawa! They only have mid-wives who help pregnant women during emergencies. Other emergencies have to be treated in Lamu town which means one must hope that a boat is available in the middle of the night when such an emergency occurs.

My new friends walk me cordially back to my boat as my mind develops an unsuccessful hypothesis. I wonder who is to blame for such a situation, where a pariah village provides a necessary service that maintains  this archipelago’s heritage and yet they live in mud huts, have little access to water and have no medical or reliable education centres.

Did those pioneer six Luos make a huge mistake migrating to a far off foreign land, a place where most Luos in the country have no idea about? …

Should the locals treat them with more respect, affording them better business deals and amenities or should the central and local government take responsibility by improving their way of life and make sure their thirty four year-contribution to the development of Lamu town is appreciated?

I am unable to draw into a conclusion as our boat rocks back to town. All I can see now are the beautiful architectural white-residents cottages and lush green mangrove attached to the mighty blue ocean. Knowing  well that behind all that is a faux pas. A  Luo village.

LUOS IN LAMU

Luos in Lamu pic

You know there is always that thing about an experience sounding more heavenly when told to you than when you are there in person. Such was the case when I visited Lamu. Actually everything visible was more beautiful and pleasurable than I had read or imagined.

It was just me and the chile. As in my relationship was rocky at that time and spending time in such a beautiful serene  Island gave me too much undesired time to observe my weaknesses. More clearly than I had solicited for.

So I shrugged it off and called a friend who had disclosed to me that there existed a Luo village in Manda Island. Whoah!, I mean, I know our ancestors had traveled all the way from Bahr el-Ghazal in the North-western region of Southern Sudan to Kisumu dala and its environs- but that was a long time ago. How did these ninjas  settle all the way up here in the land of the Oswayos ? It was simply the best excuse to run away from myself and  my chile troubles.

(I’m feeling it so I’ll continue in present tense.)

My friend patiently explains to me why it is the moon and not the wind that causes high and low tides. Unfortunately geography was merely a tolerated subject in school so I nod her on. She notices am not following and uses another method. (Yeah, I loved practicals) She brings my attention to the wet mangrove stems that explain the ebbing tide. The dhow heaves steadily, surging toward the Maweni shore on Manda Island. The kaskasi blows through my face, gently reminding me to wear my sun glasses as a congregation of egrets glide neatly over us, towards the Island. I imagine they will see the Luo village before I do. My excitement is uncontainable. I will finally know more about the Luo stone-cutters who, I understand, have called this lovely Oswayo  Island home for the last thirty years.

On expanding my view further to the Maweni shore, I notice that what from a distance  had looked like a neat arrangement of white cairns , is actually neat piles of peach corals curved carefully into equal rectangles, ready for shipment. A few men load them in old boats which will transport them to Shela and Lamu towns where the middle-men will sell them for more than thrice the original amount.

A robust, dusty, dark-skinned man marches quickly as if pressed, coming from the village. Heavy tall piles of corals rest gently on his shoulders. My first instinct is to go lend a hand- since I am somewhat afraid that he might stumble and fall. It then hits me that this is a full time job. So in a way, his profession, so he knows way better. As I step back to  make way for more porters, an unreadable woman who had noticed us climb ashore, calls out to a foreman who is supervising the transportation of the coral stones. She urges him, in dholuo, to come and attend to my friend and me.

I mask my aiwoshe  emotions as I am elated to hear my mother tongue being spoken this far away from home … in such  kind gesture. Checking to make sure my face is tight and stern not to expose this emotion. I don’t know why men do this but we do and we will always do. Full stop.

The foreman gives us a warm welcome and offers to give us a tour of the village. Soon he is joined by some of his friends who are visibly delighted to  discover that I am also a Luo.

We walk through a clean sandy path with brick-like rooms scattered on the side. Entering the village feels like being welcomed into a South African kraal.

But the joy quickly fades as I notice the dilapidated conditions of the shaky mud huts. Why would they extract coral for town residents then live in mud-huts? A soothing thought compares the huts to the ones in Luo Nyanza, suggesting how strongly connected they are to their ancestral home albeit being days away from home.

“The rain is definitely here”.

Our guide announces as he observes an awkwardly green acacia tree. It doesn’t look like it especially since its about 34 degrees Celsius. And the air is humid and musky. Jasho jembamba my frien’.  I relish esoteric knowledge so I curve my face to look curious.

“It will now become very hot for a few days then it will rain. And all the plants around us that look dry and dead will be green again. It’s just like hibernation.”

His eyes are stuck on the water jerricans that are being cart-wheeled to different huts and immediately I get it that his  hopes for rain have a lot more to do with  just  green flora. Fresh water of course. He confesses that the state of water supply is stressful. The water is ferried from Lamu Island by a particular business man. They then buy it five to ten times the usual price that an average Lamu town resident would get it for. The government fixed water pipes that brought water to Manda Airport but that is still quite the distance from the village. A few NGOs have also donated water-harvest tanks but they hope facets of fresh water will soon pour opened in the village.

It takes a short while for me to take this in. A whole community has not had  access to fresh affordable water for more than thirty years.

A few meters from the acacia I see the first coral cutter. As I walk towards him I notice a pattern of shallow pits surrounded by dry or thorny shrubs. For no specific reason I had imagined that the quarry would be a massive deep-pit. Perhaps because of the  the swampy quarries we would swim in that are still engraved in my childhood memory. We called them Kware and the activity, Dufo mpararo. Wonder who else was disappointed when they discovered that actually even normal clean swimming pools also pararisha you.

The coral-cutter is busy at work, cutting the edges of the pit with a machete. I can tell he is racing against the setting sun. His bare chest is dry and mottled with peach powder. Same for his face so it is not easy to identify him. On noticing me, he stops for a second and greets me cordially. I had not expected him to break out of work and I secretly wonder how he harbors the capacity to portray such altruism.

Could it really be that this village is always this kind to visitors or is there a concealed  frightful reason  that an outsider like me may not see? Again, I’m a paranoid gentleman.

I become only too eager to find out how and why these Luos migrated from the lake side to  the coastal end of Kenya. This  is a journey of more than a thousand kilometers by road.

Get back to work now …or whatever you were supposed to do…and catch the second part of this blog next week on Saturday.

Behind Luo Wall Hangings

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Gliding above Unending rows of hoary Clouds.

Turbulence. A battle zone for apprehensive passengers,

who miss the divine view: A sparkling orange sun.

Then marshy shores  of Lolwe

Then Luanda’s land unveils.

Luanda means rock

Volcanic rocks

that stand

On many stories

Told

Given by the old.

For the young to uphold.

Past Kisumu, 3/6/2016

 

In my Luo village, every wall hanging has a unique story that is special to its home dweller.  Unlike refined expensive hangings  in urban houses  that are extolled purely for aesthetics and value, each wall hanging often carry a piece of   intimate  family story.

The  uncertainty of having a family member live in the city only  in  search of  livelihood, never knowing when they will return – alive or dead,  requires great faith and often consolation by hanging their picture on the wall.

On entering a middle-aged woman’s hut, do not ask aloud what a dry and faded 1978 calendar is still doing on her wall.You might find  out that her husband who brought it from work at the beginning of that year lost his job on the same month.This misfortune meant that the last salary  he ever brought back home was that  calendar copy. He was  was unable to find another job until his demise.

A visitor never openly admires a picture of a family member on the wall. It may  be that the person whose image he was admiring only died recently and talking about them may   rekindle  memories of an unfair death. You don’t want to pinch a fresh wound.

I wonder why we luos revere death.It shows in our wails and many other funeral  customs and rituals. In deed the only thing we fear more than death, is burying the dead. Or more clearly, the cost of  a burial ceremony. Of course luos are known to have the most intricate and lengthened burial ceremonies in East Africa. However with an economy that has been going down the spiral lane over the last two decades, organizing burials is a logistical nightmare and a daunting duty.  To majority of Luos, the ancestral soil and body is still connected in ways they do not bother to explain to those with different views. Therefore making sure a relative’s body in Nairobi, Mombasa,Kampala, Dodoma, or even abroad, is brought back to Luo land goes without question. Logistics only come to mind ones the grave has been allocated.

Often they will kneel at the alter in a small corner of the living room, to say a prayer of, Misawa Maria. Many luos in the village are of Afro-Christian denominations, it would be of little wonder to see on a wall supporting the alter, the picture of a black Mary. A stern middle-aged woman with a hijab tightened around her dark face. This is the mother of the, ‘Messiah,’ Simeo Ondete, founder and spiritual leader of the Lejio Maria  an African Inland Church  with about three million members.

To solve the problem of financing the funeral, fundraising is held at the deceased home before the body is brought for burial. This is done during a night vigil fundraising called budho(boothoh). Budho has now evolved into night parties where villagers are encouraged to come and have fun and celebrate the life of the deceased. Since this does not fully qualify as thum (thoom)- which means disco, parents allow their adolescent children to go and join the fun.

On seeing a picture taken by the family in front of a coffin during a burial, one may reckon how some funeral and burial rituals have also been dropped due to religious factors as well as practicality. First, obviously with Christianity came coffins and crosses on the grave instead of covering  the deceased body with cow  hide. However, most luos still plant indigenous trees on the grave as it was done in the old days. The most common tree planted on graves is Siala. Other feared rituals -such as the infamous one where the widow is required to sleep in the same bed with her late husband’s body – are rarely practiced nowadays. However, family members of the bereaved  will still keep vigil, in a consoling night of butho, before the burial. This is now common and widely accepted as a tradition.

As one secretly admires and carefully studies the stories told by Luo wall-hangings, they discover that the Luo culture continues to evolve as modern luos, especially villagers, innovate pragmatic customs to meet immediate needs. Perhaps in future our hybrid customs will also qualify as traditions to a generation of Africans who will  call us  their  ancestors. Who knows. But for sure, Luo villages are some of the most enigmatic places to visit due to enshrined and rather obvious customs that are Delphic to outsiders.

NINI’S DESIRES

niniThe sunlight that cracked through a blanket of dry grey clouds, made the garden restaurant feel warmer than it really was. Dry fallen leaves scattered freely around the chic green garden and I spotted a table just a second before seeing Nini Wacera. She spoke with alacrity to a group of patrons on the next table. My first assumption was that they were long lost buddies but I soon realized they were mafans. She spotted me and immediately shouted a greeting as she walked over…I might be the one who shouted the greeting, can’t remember since I also have this habit.

I noticed she was reading, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. I absorbed the synopsis hastily and made a mental note to get it as I am a hunter-gatherer reader who depends on recommendations. The page she was at was marked by a large, dry deltoid leaf. Why had I never thought of doing that? I observed keenly as she explained how she finds the leaves. Actually it was very simple- She finds a dry leaf from wherever she visits and replaces it with the previous one. It was the combined intensity and simplicity of how she explained her view point that I found fascinating. Her soft skin and beauteous face did little to cover her tough but gentle demeanor. Still, I wondered, why? Why had I never thought of using a dry leaf as a bookmark? I was soon to find out that there are many things that this former capital FM radio presenter thought of and did differently from the rest of us.

We looked through the menu hoping to find delicious vegetarian dishes. By now half an hour had passed with us completing each other’s thoughts and philosophies and basking in her epiphanies. This is when I knew the interview was never going to end. Every sentence we had started gave birth to baby sentences each with its brothers and sisters. So quickly we settled on Indian vegetable curry, sending the waiter with a strong message that the food better come out as good as he had described it. As she gave back the menu we quickly took it from where we were which was actually nowhere and everywhere, (please tell me you know what I mean).

“Those extra-ordinary people like, Jesus and Buddha, chose to view their world from within them and in the process defy the realities of the societies at that time. The society saw them as different or even troublesome, but they simply chose not to join the robotic thinking of the society and therefore in turn changed the whole society’s perception,” She emphasized as she continued to explain how she viewed life. Her cunning and optimistic nature saturated our space and I easily understood why she had a constant bout of Midas touch in her acting career. She had co-starred in Dangerous Affair, a local film that was arguably the most popular in recent history until, Nairobi Half Life, – which she also featured in. Her name was probably propelled to the Kenyan masses through her antagonist charismatic role in, Wingu La Moto as Susan. She  featured in many more popular shows including Changes, Kona, Desperate Housewives Africa and Sense 8 but I do not intend to list down her CV for you. Check her Wikipedia…hehehe.

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 Back to the “Interview”. I became curious to know the epoch of her artistic journey.

“Why acting ?” I asked her.

She remained thoughtful for a moment as the sparkling hazel eyes behind her glasses riveted on mine.

“It’s the feeling. I love the feeling it gives me. It is like discovering a really good dish. Will you not order it again next time because it was too good the last time?” She explained as I warmed up to her story.

Nini Wacera had taken interest in theatre performances in school where she would represent, Kahuhia Girls, at the National Drama Festivals with solo verses or stage performances in which she landed on male roles. After school she joined the USIU. This was during the Safari Cats and Five Alive phenomenon. She wanted to join Safari Cats but her father would not let her. This is when she and her friend Lorna decided to form a  dance group, and called it Karisma. They had their share of fun as they were hired to dance in major events and for several famous artists including  FIVE ALIVE!

In the midst of it she found herself juggling dance and theatre at the Phoenix Players…and of course college…yes of course, college. One day she came to the Phoenix and found a long queue of beautiful female models. She found out that they were auditioning for a major role in an upcoming film. Nini, got excited as her secret desire had always been to act for screen. She was however nervous because she was not dressed for the role and felt intimidated by the beautiful elegant models on the queue. She had to go in last as she had not been invited. She entered the room to find a tired and frustrated looking panel of producers including Njeri Karago. They explained the part to her and she soon got into the character and enjoyed the audition. That is how she landed on the role of  Kui in Dangerous Affairs.

Her acting career was definitely been a fulfilling one and continued to be. She pointed out that part of the reason why her generation produced strong actors was because theatre directors of the time were committed to training actors as opposed to simply putting up a play. She acknowledged James Falkland’s influence in her career. This was a super opportunity to talk about what I actually really wanted from her. Earlier we had talked about the need to train our actors. I had done three workshops and thought of her in the fourth one. To my pleasant surprise, this had been Nini’s burden and desire as well.

In the recent five years, she has embraced a career as a casting director for tv, films, and TV commercials, Nini Wacera has found herself stuck in an all too familiar territory: Dealing with untrained actors. She explained her frustration of how she has had to audition the same actors year after year and every year only one or two of them come back improved. Most of them remained flat if not worse. It was clear to both Nini and I that our country had very talented actors. But talent was not necessarily translated to skill and therefore the delivery was wanting. If we did not train our pool of actors, then we had no case to put across whenever international films shot a Kenyan story and cast American or British actors to play Kenyan parts.

nini-arojiThe meeting ended with a decision to hold monthly workshops to train actors. For the first workshop with her, we agreed to  give an introduction class, foundation course and a Master Class.

Two weeks later the workshops happened and the results were astonishing. I discovered that Nini Wacera was an adept at the Meisner technique and very passionate about being truthful to the moment. Meisner technique is a style developed by American theatre practitioner, Sanford Meisner that mainly promotes the actor’s impulsive response to what is happening around him or to an imaginary object.

Watching the actors ‘become’, day by day was a tearful experience. Nini balanced technique with teacher’s intuition to a point where the students were compelled to dive deeper into their personal lives and tackle obstacles that prevented their impulses and imagination.

The intensity and physical demand of the sessions got hold of me on the last day. I turned to see if Nini felt the same. If she did, it was hard to tell. Her spirit was bubbly as ever. She embraced tightly with the actors who had now become family. She received more testimonials as she added more life lessons. Nduta Sialo, the incoming Secretary of the Kenya Actors Guild gave a vote of thanks that made me feel rejuvenated.

“This is exactly what we need!” She told Nini then turned to the rest of the class.nini6

“I am impressed with the high level of the training and the final outcome of the course which has ensured our total development, not only as actors, but as confident and beneficial members of the society. We hope to promote your courses as KAG across the country so that our members in other parts of Kenya can also acquire the important skills of acting on screen…”

As Nduta spoke to the actors, I looked at Nini and asked her of only one factor that would make her want to do this (training) again.

“There is no actor playing truthfully…acting is not pretending.” She said.

******************

Here is the information about the next workshops:

FOUNDATION IN ACTING COURSE

3 day workshop running for 3 consecutive weeks @ ksh 9,500.

Course schedule:

Tuesday 1st, 8th & 15th Nov 2016

Thursday:  3rd, 10th  & 17th Nov 2016

MASTER CLASS IN IMPROVISATION TECHNIQUES

1 day workshop @ ksh 4,500

18th Nov 2016

Above workshops will be held in Nairobi. Venue to be provided after booking.

Book through:

Mobile : 0797 730 083

Email: anactordevelopsstudio@gmail.com

REVIEW OF KENYAN THEATRE AND THE 2015 SCENARIO, Courtesy of International Theater Institute (Japan)

REVIEW OF KENYAN THEATRE AND THE 2015 SCENARIO, Courtesy of International Theater Institute (Japan)

Last year, I was invited to contribute an article in The  Theatre Year Book  by the  Japanese Center of International Theatre Institute (ITI), a performing arts-oriented organization under the umbrella of UNESCO. Here is an english version of what was published. Photo credits go to, Darlyne Komukomu, Virani Media, Sitawa Namwalie, JSO.

 

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Mkamzee Mwatela, Mogambi Nthinga & Nick Ndenda star in, ‘Room of Lost Names’.

Omuwanga is fiddling through files behind the counter, fulfilling his eternal administrative duties. He is tallish and lean with a stern face that could slip into a frown. A sudden bellow of patriotic litany tears the silence making Omuwanga flinch and turn to see his colleague Gumali rise up from the ‘office’ desk as he cheekily continues singing. He pesters an irate Omuwanga to join him in singing the nostalgic patriotic song. The situation is saved by a worrisome youthful lady who pops into the ‘office’ to look for help. Soon she discovers that she is –as a matter of fact- dead; and is in a passage ‘office’ administered by deities. Omuwanga who is the god of light and goodness and Gumali the god of darkness and evil are meant to lead her to eternity. However, there is only one problem: she cannot remember her name. The gods are troubled as they cannot find her file and  without it she cannot be led to eternity. This Kenyan woman had encountered psychological and physical abuse that eventually led to loss of her life and alas, the loss of her name as well.

 

This is the plot of Sitawa Namwali’s Room of Lost Names, a play which perfectly summarizes the Kenyan theater scene.  Although Sitawa was clearly inspired by the story of Mercy Keino- a college girl who was allegedly killed after attending a party organized by a powerful Kenyan politician- the play also metaphorically depicts the current state of a blotchy Kenyan theatre due to the culmination of political interference that has inhibited a thriving popular theatre since the neo-colonial era. This has led many thespians and intellectuals to pose the question: Has Kenyan theatre been on its death bed for the last thirty years; and if so, why has it refused to die?

The provenance of the insidious misfortunes of Kenyan performing arts sector is in the history of the Kenya National Theatre. After the independence of Kenya from British rule in 1963, local intellectuals and performing artists applied pressure to the government to allow Kenyans to have more control of the Kenya Cultural Centre, incorporating the Kenya National Theatre which had been a white dominated affair from its opening in 1952. Thus a new board of directors with a black majority was appointed with Seth Adagala becoming the first Kenyan executive director in 1968. However the powers that be managed to penetrate the board and hence continued to control the KNT performance calendar.

Relentless intellectuals and theatre activists led by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Ngugi Wamiiri and Micere Mugo continued agitation against white theatre domination. As a result the seventies and early eighties record highest activity of a thriving theatre culture and engendered African/Indigenous literature. The movement inspired the rise and effectiveness of popular literary theatre. Most memorable was the University of Nairobi travelling theatre (later the Tamaduni National Theatre) that used local languages towards local audiences in their plight to radicalize theatre in Kenyan communities.

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Kenya Police Band preparing to welcome President Uhuru Kenyatta during the re-opening of Kenya National Theatre.

One of the inspired communities was a village in the outskirts of Nairobi called Kamirithu, which was created by the British as an “emergency village” to house Gikuyu peasants who had been uprooted from their homes in an attempt to cut the line of support to the Mau Mau freedom fighters. As prof. David Ker chronicles in, ‘African Popular Theatre’.  In 1976, a group of peasants and workers formed the Kamirithu Community Education and Cultural Centre. Through one of their sub-committees, believed to have been run by illiterates, they built a syllabus for themselves based on problems of the village. Sympathetic radical intellectuals like Ngugi wa Mirii and his cousin Ngugi wa Thiong’o later joined the committee and were commissioned to develop a script based on the autobiographies of the newly literate peasants. That is when an extraordinary phenomenon occurred.

Villagers- some of whom had never once been inside a theatre- designed and constructed an open air theatre complete with a raised stage, roofed dressing-room, stores and an auditorium with a seating capacity of more than two thousand persons. Under a production team led by Gatonye wa Mugoiya, they experimented with matchsticks on the ground before building a small working model on which they based their final complex.

In other words, a village center whose majority were peasants, built a 2000-seater amphitheater! The play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I will marry if I want to) ran for several weeks attracting not only a wider interest in the community but also national and international news media. The local government was unnerved by the popularity of this play and begun to frustrate the Kamirithu Movement by making it difficult for the group to get performance permits. The struggle culminated in Ngugi Wa Thiong’o arrest and detainment at Kamiti Maximum Prison.

The action succeeded in suppressing the spread of the Kamirithu movement but the spirit of the center itself was unbroken.

Uhuru and Ngugi

From  right: His excellency Uhuru Kenyatta , prof. Ngugi Wathion’go & Prof. Micere Mugo

On his release from prison following the death of President Jomo Kenyatta, Ngugi wa Thiong’o returned to Kamirithu. The next play was based on Ngugi’s original piece ‘Maitu Njugira’ (Mother sing for me). It used formal narratives of a girl asking her mother to teach her old songs of 1930’s, about the struggle against British imperialism. As prof. David Kerr observes: the sub-committee had decided that the next play should avoid the dangerous material of contemporary story. Little did they realize that the regime in place was quite aware of the modern variants of imperialism that were strongly in place.

The play was never legally performed in Kenya as Kamirithu was denied a license to perform it. However, the group staged rehearsal at the Nairobi University theatre which caused stupendous excitement and drew crowds that the current shows can only dream of. It is recorded that there were such crowds that the Uhuru highways were blocked each afternoon. Rehearsals begun at 6.30 pm but by 3pm all the seats were already occupied; people sat on the stage, in the wings, on the stairs and even in the light and sound rooms. The corridors and stairways were crowded and those who could not get inside sat on the grass outside and listened through open doors and windows.

This however was a short lived experience and a past glory that present thespians have failed to re-live. The government felt that intellectuals were using theatre to incite the masses and quickly flexed its muscles. The Kamirithu amphitheater was razed to ashes and erased from the memory of the immediate generation. Great thespians and activists of the time ended up getting jailed or seeking exile to save their lives. It was at this point that Professors Micere Mugo and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o among other activists left for exile.

Protest theatre was actively discouraged and theatre arts in general dismissed as a non-productive profession to the public. This made parents skeptical about their children pursuing arts careers and artists given a pariah status in the Kenyan society. The censorship board at the infamous Nyayo house building (where government torture chambers were discovered) frustrated artists as they frequently banned shows on opening nights or even in the middle of a running. It is reported that the officials of the censors often knew little about literature and drama and hence personal ignorance dictated the literary palates of Kenya. This went on until the late 1990 when Miujiza Players obtained a court order declaring that no one could stop artists from staging a show. However the damage had already been done and the equivocal audience had found ‘better things to do’. As a result, thespians still struggle to fill up seats to date.

However other forms of theatre continued to flourish and sustain the performance sector. Keep in mind that Kenya is an ethnically diverse culture with many communities having ritual theatre routed deeply in their traditions. It was therefore inevitable that Kenyans would still maintain a desire to use the theatre spaces already built by white settlers during the colonial era.

Despite the exit (or retirement) of European actors and promoters; plus a white audience diminution in the 1990’s, the youthful Kenyan thespians continued to promote staging of original African performances. Such plays survived self-funding, insufficient rehearsal periods, low audience turn out and constant fear of potential political interference. Even though their aim was not wholly political in comparison to the Ngugi Wa Thiong’o-Kamirithu era, these new generation thespians argued that theatre was a more satiable and effective media if they were empowered to tell their own stories. As easy as it may sound, this has been a difficult idea to promote mainly due to the colonial hangover in our modern cultural lifestyle and scarce resources. Never the less, 2015 exhibited a renewed zeal to fulfill this exigent dream.

Dr. Zipporah Okoth’s TIGO, forthrightly displayed a candid desire by sixth generation Kenyan thespians to tell their own stories. The play was staged at the Phoenix Players, a small theatre space at the heart of Nairobi city center and also the oldest repertoire theatre in Kenya. TIGO is a musical drama and a contemporary adaption of African mythology on the Nilotic migration from Sudan. This is a story about three brothers Labong’o, Nyikal, and Bor who get into a conflict because of childhood rivalry that has grown into their adulthood. Dr. Zipora clearly wanted to explore the relevance of traditional values to the current lifestyle. As a result, she used both traditional songs and contemporary (mostly) Kenyan cover songs. The dances also had a mix of popular traditional dances like Kalapapla and modern afro-pop dance routines.

 

Wesely and cast

Original cast of , Radio Play’, from right -lying down- Michael Sengazi, Herve Kimenye, Elizabeth Senja Spackman (Showing back) and Wesley Ruzibizza) .

As if to remind this enthusiastic generation of our current woes relating to freedom of expression, Rwanda‘s Amizero Kompagnie staged RADIO PLAY at Story Moja Hay Festival and at art activism space PAWA 254. Radio Play is a dark comedy written by Elizabeth Senja Spackman and is about censorship on the radio. It talks about the unsaid stories of people’s lives and the secrets we each hold and how they affect us.  The Nairobi version included two Kenyan actors– Sitawa Namwalie and Mugambi Nthiga– who joined original cast members Hervé Kimenyi and Elizabeth Senja Spackman. They later staged the play in Addis Ababa at the culturally-hued Crossing Boundaries Theatre and Conference Festival.

Another political play staged was KAGGIA by John Sibi Okumu which was back by public demand after its run in 2014. It’s an autobiographic play about a Kenyan freedom fighter and anti-corruption hero Bildad Kaggia (1921-2005).

In KAGGIA, John Sibi-Okumu continues to explore what he labels ‘The Kenyan Condition’ and in this particular instance, the playwright is exercised by the themes of romantic and patriotic love.

Bruce Makau right plays Kenyatta opposite Harry Ebale's Bildad Kaggia

Hale Ebale (Lefts) as Bildad Kaggia & Bruce Makau as Jomo Kenyatta in, ‘Kaggia’

The historical sweep of the play covers the period between 1921 and 2014, the year in which it was written. Two young filmmakers, Stacey and Xan, seek to resuscitate the lives of Bildad Kaggia and his wife Wambui as they consider possible scenarios for a film anchored on their personal lives. The most powerful scene was the meeting between Kaggia (Played by Harry Ebale) and president Jomo Kenyatta ( played by Bruce Makau).We see two powerful men meet face to face  and stand their (ideological) ground despite one living in a state palace and the other in a slum. Unfortunately the enchanting actor, Harry Ebale, died of medical condition towards the end of the year leaving a forlorn theatre fraternity.

However, the opening of the renovated Kenya National Theatre was the most symbolic event of the year. Professors Micere Mugo and Ngugi Wathiong’o, who had been persecuted and forced to exile in the seventies under the watch of the first president Jomo Kenyatta, had now been invited as guests of the state and shared the platform with Jomo’s son, President Uhuru Kenyatta. Could this signify a realization to the state that literature and theatrical expression are indeed significant medium of social reflection and intellectual discourse that can actually help the government in its ‘Vision 2030’ development agenda? Only time will tell.

Aroji Otieno is a performing artist and writer based in Nairobi, Kenya.

 

KIZINGO Takes Averted Curve of Film-Distribution

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Fatuma Ali and Jakes Israel as Soni and Johni

 

When celebrated director, Simiyu Barasa, swung his spectacles from the front of his eyes to his bald head and broke the news to me, I thought it was something he was only considering; Only to find out that it  was an ongoing project. He had teamed up with the prolific (producer)Betty Kathungu-Furet, to produce the film, Kizingo.

In a country where film making was introduced as early as the 1950’s with marks of approbation  for its first president being a featured extra in one of those films, it is a considerate surprise that not much stride has been made towards making film an industry as well as a culture. All intricate challenges however point to one major impediment: Distribution.

Still our best hope is on the independent film maker who prioritizes an artistic aim and desire to connect with his/her audience. One may wonder how to categorize an indie from a mainstream film maker in Kenya. This argument is substantial as film making is still not a main source of livelihood in the country. Based on numerical availability,we could refer to  N.G.O and donor funded films as mainstream. A few are usually free to explore an authentic narrative while most are purely meant to proselytize or sustain a didactic social awareness theme.

The main reason why most film makers seek refuge from N.GO’s is purely financial. However, the only way they can create their own financial independence is by creating a consumer market. This is not a brand new idea neither is it a solution that I have just thought about and offered. It has been discussed in the film circles for as long as I have been in it. Unfortunately, no one has ever given it a serious try. Not until now!

“With Kizingo, the mission is to make a high quality film and then go on a countrywide tour to make sure that it is screened in all the counties via box office. The film makers will attempt to disapprove the myth that box offices only exist in Urban cities in Kenya, in film theatres. With a laid out plan to bring Cinema to the people, we aim to take the film to social halls and other screening venues across the country.”Said Simiyu.

In deed the two film-makers have kept the vision and laid the ground work. The film will premiere in Machakos People’s Park on the 5th of August 2016. Not only will this be the first feature film of national allure to premiere outside Nairobi, it will also be the first film ever, in Kenya, to show simultaneously in 8 counties from the premier date to the 7th of August, 2016. Logistically, this means that in future it will be possible to rank films according to box office performance.

What this also means is that Betty and Simiyu will inevitably  make a distribution channel which other film makers can follow later on. I love  that he stressed that the film will be of high quality. He expounded on how he would go about it:

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Mohammed Juma Said as Roba.

“Kizingo is a Kiswahili comedy drama about two bumbling thugs, KAUZI and ROBAA who lose their loot to two kids, SONI and JOHNI. Attempts to terrorize them and retrieve the loot turns into more comedy than horror. What is more , by picking children who have never acted on screen before, and mixing them with seasoned actors from Nairobi and Mombasa, the film not only aims at showcasing raw exciting  talent, but also creating partnerships between Nairobi and Coast film productions. Plans are also in place to work together with film producers in  Kisii, Embu, Nyeri, and the coast .”

In deed  the film is a good cocktail of stars and newbies. Evans Isaya, who stars in Sumu La Penzi and Lies That Bind as well as several Zamaradi films, and commercials, has a major role. Pretty Mutave who is based in Mombasa and  has built a following from the TV show, Arosto is also starring in it. Eleven year old Fatuma Ali and ten year old Jakes Israel are soon going to be the darlings of film. Other cast members include Muhammed Juma Said, Ali Shahibu and Julian ‘Mwazele Tindo’.

It is of course challenging to work with new actors whether young or old since acting is a profession as any other. But one could argue – or hope – that when you discover natural talent and place it in the hands of a creative and talented  director like Simiyu Barasa, magic is made;(remember Abraham Attah as Agu in Beasts of No Nation).I am positive that independent distribution is the way to go and Kenyans will later appreciate the trailblazing structures that this initiative will leave.