A Man of Many Worlds

The story of my life would not be complete if I did not tell you about my foremost love. Theatre.

My professional life of choice is science and I am a trained entomologist. I love bees and am an avid beekeeper. But it is theatre that I adore. It has transformed me and made me into whom I am. I have lived an active and rewarding life in theatre where I have excelled as an actor, director and writer.   My creative writing goes far back to 1975 when in high school and I wrote my first play, titled Me, Myself and I, which won awards at the schools drama festival and was later screened for Voice of Kenya (VOK) Television (1978) under the direction of the well known TV Producer Mambo Hazary.

My life took another orbit when in in May, 1984, I was declared the winner of the first Kenyan Radio Play Writing Competition organized by the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) Cologne and the Goethe Institut, Nairobi, with my play Why? In the Name of God. I was catapulted into fame when I pioneered in HIV/AIDS awareness play when, while a student in New Zealand scripted the play, Beer… which was broadcast by the African Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on 20th December, 1987, and by the WDR, in 1988 and produced by the Nairobi based Miujiza Players in 1994 under the direction of the grand old man of Kenyan theatre, the late James Falkland.

After a personal tragic loss in early 1995, I wrote four episodes of a serial, named Towers of Babel: The Times and Tribulations of Naliaka, the Housemaid. The first episode of the serial was declared third overall in the 1997 BBC African Playwriting Competition and was first broadcast on 13th March 1997. The Gearbox Synchronizer was written in January and February, 1997 and was declared the runner up in the 1998 BBC African Performance competition and broadcast in March, 1998. The Gearbox Synchronizer was later translated into German and broadcasted by WDR in late 1998. Towards the end of 1997 I wrote an emotional drama that discusses the issue of ethnic or tribal clashes in Africa titled The Night-Long Conversion of Shehu Abdin. The play was translated into Swedish and broadcast by Swedish (Sveriges) Radio in 1998.

My sweetest reward came in 1999 when I wrote, produced and directed Falling into Place at the Kenya National Theatre. It is this production that would discover Charles Bukeko (Papa Shirandula) as well as a host of other artistes. I recall penning a tribute to a fallen hero, the late Mwalimu Julius Kabarage Nyerere (1922-1999):

`The preparations for this production began in September as news began filtering in of Mwalimu’s struggle with leukemia. Our meetings always ended with ears alert for news from St. Thomas hospital, London. It was a real blow when we learnt that he had departed from us. Most of the rehearsals for theses play took place during the 30 days of official morning.

I visited Mwalimu twice in his beautiful home of Butiama near the shores of lake Victoria, in January 1994 and 1995. We had made it our pledge to visit the wise old man for advice before embarking on our yearly activities. It was a joy sitting with him and his family for breakfast and listening to his experiences. He chided African government with their pathological preoccupation with security. I remember the story he narrated to illustrate his point. With twinkle in his eye and a plenty of his characteristic lough, he recalled how an African ambassador in London would diligently make newspaper clippings of any news that touched upon his country. This would be shipped back to his government under the cover of ‘confidential’ for your eyes only.

I forgot which country that was, but does it matter? That was Mwalimu: helping us to see the log in our own eyes.

Earlier, I had worked with James Falkland to launch Miujiza Players. I directed their very first production, Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again and was invited to comment on theatre in Kenya in an article titled `The Miracle That Miujiza Is’:

It seems to me at least that over the last two decades or so, I have been involved, in one way or another, in contributing to new initiatives in theatre. This goes back in 1976 when the Eldoret Theatre Group begun a limited run. The MTC Folk and Culture Club (Nairobi, 1977), religious and activist groups such as the Dalit Rangabhoomi (aimed at uplifting the Harijan community in India), and Maori theatre (dealing with complicated race issues New Zealand). In all these cases the driving force has been an urge to communicate relevant information to the people in an entertaining manner using the unique medium of creative drama. I certainly see the parallels and similarities with the emergence of Miujiza Players.

The theatre in Kenya today is at a crossroad. Almost thirty years into our independence we are yet to agree the kind of theatre we wish to see develop. Arguments and counter-arguments have evolved around the institutions of the Kenya national theatre. Drama groups have cropped up, flowered and withered usually surrounded by financial controversy. The Kenyan writer writes less and less for stage and standard of local productions have been getting lower and lower and yet the school and college drama festival continues to prosper churning out incredible talent year by year. The university has had its share of contribution to the local theatre movement today in periodic bursts such as the famous Nairobi University Travelling Theatre days and the recent rejuvenated Kenyatta University Cultural Week. In nearly all cases the government has not yet agreed on what policy they wish to promote. Memories are still fresh of the banning of the Kamirithu Cultural Center and the more recent frustrating and stifling hand of the censor.

They say that society is like a lizard- if it loses its tail, it soon grows another one. The era of the multiparty democracy is here and the artistic muse is doing his rounds again. On this wave rides, Miujiza Players Limited located at the new Rahimtulla Theatre Library at Mfangano Street. Miujiza is located at the heart of the city next to the busy Bus Station and Matatu centre. Miujiza has been built in a very Kenyan way based on the Harambee spirit by individual and corporate bodies. Miujiza aims at providing the predominantly African repertory theatre at affordable prices, using mainly African plays acted by Kenyan actors.

 I discovered that consultation with peers was the way to best develop a solid script. In the early evening of Tuesday, 28 November 2000, I sat at a favourite watering hole, Hotel County, with my friends Kigara Kamweru, Christine Nduati, Kilonzi Kimanzi, Samuel Karimi and Muthiora wa Thiong’o, listening to the `one-guitar’ musician, Kafel Maina, strumming his wires as he relived renditions of the rich past of Kikuyu pop hits. Earlier in the day, the Swedish radio, Sveriges Radio, had just indicated their interest to re-broadcast my 1997 play The Night-Long Conversion of Shehu Abdin on 4 February and later on 10 February, 2001, thereby giving those of us who participated in developing the script some finance for the Christmas goat. It was painfully clear to us that we had not done anything useful (dramatically speaking) the whole of 2000, especially after our successful run of Falling into Place that was performed for charity as a celebration of the end of the last millennium. BBC had just announced their seventh international Radio Playwriting Competition for 2001, and we were already discussing what we needed to submit as an entry. The muse was awake and demanding. What would we do? Kafel gave us the answer in his enthusiastic rendition of Joseph Kamaru’s late 1960s hit that propelled him to national status and on his way to stardom: Ndari ya Mwarimu (The Teacher’s Darling). I think we quickly built consensus that this was it, more so since the media had been screaming over the last three months about the rising incidences of teacher-student relationships.

The well-known Kenyan musician Joseph Kamaru wa Macharia produced Ndari ya Mwarimu in 1967. The song was an instant success, but which caused a huge furore among the teaching community in the country. So notorious was the issue that it was raised in Parliament. It is said that teachers accosted President Jomo Kenyatta, demanding action against the musician. Kenyatta’s answer was prophetically typical of him: `Let him who is aggrieved by Kamaru file a case in court (…He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. John 8:7). Kamaru was gracious enough to grant us an interview on Tuesday, 30 January and later on Saturday 17 March, 2001 and openly discussed the circumstances that surrounded the song. The story goes that he later retracted his stand somewhat, recognising the importance of teachers in society by singing Ndari ya Mwarimu Part II, soon thereafter which included a memorable line that in part said, Mwarimu ti Maigoiya (A teacher is not toilet paper!).

A quick survey of the rich musical past of Kenya show that there are a number of popular songs in Kiswahili, and other vernacular languages that actually discuss the subject to some extent. Some of these are Veronica (John Ndichu, 1988 Kikuyu), Julietta (John Mwale, Swahili).

Right from the outset we agreed that we needed to consult widely, with teachers/lecturers and students, with parents and counselors, with NGOs and institutions with interest in this issue. The Internet was visited regularly as well as taking opportunity to listen to real stories told by the `accused’ and their `accusers’. We practically talked to everybody who had interest in the subject. It is quite apparent why it was necessary to do so. This is a topic that is extremely current as it is controversial. It has always been. Parents submit their children to school (at Primary, Secondary or College level) to be educated with explicit instructions that they fastidiously follow what their teachers say (for their own good…). Teachers gradually become dominant figures in the lives of these young ones. It has to happen. They spend so much time together. The dynamics of human interrelationship can be overwhelming. The children are growing. The teachers are exposed to blossoming individuals. Cecilia Kamuyu writing in East African Standard, October 7, 200o, had this to say about what male teachers see on a daily basis:

the girls today look quite attractive, even in school uniform. The traditionally drab uniform is a thing of the past. Instead the hair is styled, the pullovers are more stylish, the shoes, you name it…

The chemistry of closeness is set to happen. Passions arise. Fantasies struggling to burst free. If you consider boiling these interrelationships on fires of marital disharmony, parental neglect, peer pressure, negative cultural influences etc, then you might begin to understand why things normally go haywire.  Whom do we blame?

In our discussions, several issues kept coming up from time to time. The major debate revolved in resolving the question of `Why does he do it?’ (Is he a `marauding beast?’). `Why does she fall for it?’ We all agreed that the subject matter was of vital importance, extremely interesting and that it had an international appeal. What we could not resolve was how to generally categorize the subject. Age and consent became a benchmark. Some felt that at primary school level, it was a clear case of child abuse and molestation. At secondary school we would be dealing with taking of undue advantage. Most cases at college level could be regarded as romance though there were instances of scheming to obtain favours, i.e. better grades. Society has put the blame squarely on the authority figure as represented by the teacher/lecturer. However it was quite clear that there were predisposing forces such as poverty, child neglect, bad company etc. What we did not seem to quite get a grapple on is what was the effect of these relationships on the later life of the student (or for that matter, the teacher/lecturer). Do they go on and live normal functional lives?  There is of course the question of how society should react to these relationships and what socio-legal mechanisms need to be developed to adequately address the issue. It is important to note that girls are still greatly disadvantaged in the school systems and in their later professional lives. Teacher-preying tendencies seem to be a further load and stress factor in their already over-burdened lives. At about this time, I was browsing in a favourite bookshop when my eye caught a most curious book titled: Why Good Girls don’t get ahead… But gutsy Girls Do: Nine Secrets Every Career Woman Must Know by Kate White (Arrow Books, 1996 ISBN 0 09 939951 2). Somehow I felt it was the best gift I could give a young woman keen on `healing and developing herself. We harp on about choice-making for our youth without realizing that that option is virtually non-exist ant for our girls, especially within the African context. Nearly everything in their lives is predetermined, from clothing (`why trousers?’) to jobs that they can hold (secretary, receptionist or teacher) to the control of their own sexuality (rape cannot occur within a matrimonial home…) etc. How can our women escape this vice grip? Several excerpts from the book explain why it made such an impact on me as I was developing the script.

… I was the antithesis of a good girl, someone who broke the rules, didn’t give a damn what people thought, made quick bold decisions, and delegated all the grunt work to others (keeping control of the delicious, exciting stuff for myself)…

… To be a good girl you had to follow the rules, act nice to everyone, and never talk back to your elders or superiors. Over time we learned to keep quiet…

…You may, for instance, have come to feel the stress and strain that occurs from always trying to please, from constantly playing it safe, from being the one who never fails to get stuck with the dirty work…

…being a good girl actually undermines your career and prevents you from achieving maximum success. Sure, doing exactly as you’re told, being nice and acting modestly worked at home and in school, but once you get out into the world of work, the dynamics change and you need to approach matters in a whole new way. The rewards go to women who make their own rules, take big chances, toot their own horns, and don’t worry if everyone likes them…

…A gutsy girl isn’t a bad girl. She can be conscientious, hardworking, kind to her subordinates, and respectful of authority. But she also takes risks, carts her own course instead of doing exactly what she’s told, asks for what she wants, gives the grunt work to someone else so she can focus on what’s important (and fun), makes certain that the right people know of her accomplishments, and doesn’t spend every moment trying to please people….

I then knew that’s the kind of life I wanted my daughter to lead.

As Kigara has pointed out, you could look at the breach of trust from a larger context. We have appointed a number of leaders into important positions of responsibility from whom we are getting poor service and returns. There is also the Clinton-Lewinsky saga and what it represents in terms of gender relations, especially where there are clear-cut norms and rules of etiquette.

Just as we were drawing our discussions to a close, the Daily Nation of 29th January, 2001, published within its  `Blackboard’ column an interesting article by the late Betty Caplan that attempted to explain the classroom relationship from the point of view of both parties, and largely summarized our own findings (it is as if she was attendant at our brainstorming sessions!). The article refers to David Mamet’s play Oleanna where a lecturer makes advances to a young female student, which she interprets as sexual harassment. Caplan also quotes from J. M. Coetzee’s famous book Disgrace where `a burned-out, dried-up college professor seeks consolation in the arms of a not-particularly willing student called Melanie, who similarly cries foul and brings his professional life to an abrupt end.’ The article explains:

`…Educational institutions tend to be hot houses, where people are thrown together for short intense periods of time in an enterprise, which engages their deepest desires and feelings. It is dangerous because it is like the parental relationships. For the pupils, the need to be valued and cherished is uppermost. The child places absolute trust in the teacher. She fondly believes that he will always act in a highly professional manner and put her needs before his. But as we all know, this trust is often misplaced. The teacher has his own needs, which can be very pressing. But there is another side to this, which is usually never taken into consideration—teachers get very little recognition outside the classroom. Though he is surrounded by others in the classroom he is a lone adult, and the structure of the teaching profession does little to bolster his self-esteem. Thus he becomes prey to the adoring gaze of his female students who, of course… are extremely attractive without being aware of the effect they have on others. Male teachers often get carried away with their own fantasies, when they tell the girl that they will  `chase their wives’, they probably mean it. They would love to replace their old model `vehicle’ with a brand new car. They probably dream about `starting over’ with someone else, and wiping their slate clean. But they usually make a terrible mistake if they allow their fantasy to become reality because the girl is innocent and immature, and unable to make a reasoned decision based on experience…. But as the teachers, the needs are also often unmet, and the desire to be admired by their peers remains unsatisfied. Meanwhile the work remains relentlessly difficult and demanding. The next generation is put into their hands in a somewhat slapdash, uncaring way.’ 

I have been blessed to have such an intimate involvement with theatre in Kenya and have build a number of institutions that has stood the test of time. The Council of Performing Arts in Kenya (ProPerArt Trust www.properarttrust.co.ke) has already shown what it can do to spur development of the performing arts.