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The Big Man’s Turn to Dance in Kenyan Bar-Rooms – Mbũgua wa-Mũngai

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[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 65 (March 2003), pp. 37-48]

THE BIG MAN’S TURN TO DANCE IN KENYAN BAR-ROOMS: WAHOME MUTAHI’S PARODY OF POWER

 By

Mbũgua wa-Mũngai[1]

How does an artist contest the misdeeds of power and at the same time evade the dungeons in a heavily policed state? This is more than a theoretical issue for a theatre practitioner operating in a society like Kenya where freedom of expression is still largely a contestable legalism and the authorities view art with hostility. In this regard, Wahome Mũtahi’s bar-room[2] theatre is striking in its attempts to circumvent the mines in a practitioner’s field and still speak directly to its audience. This essay examines three of Wahome’s unpublished plays with an emphasis on the interplay between their satire and simplicity of performance as an essential tool in persuading audiences to see issues from particular points of view.

This paper suggests that Wahome’s theatre operates as ‘tactic’, a concept employed by de Certeau to explain situations in which sly means are used for the achievement of goals. Tactic also presumes that individuals insinuate themselves into places to which they are not welcome. I propose then that Wahome’s is a scheming theatre where he devises trickster methods of addressing mal-government as seen in the plays: Professa Nyoori, Mugathe Mubogothi and Makaririra Kioro.[3] Tactic here lies in the utilisation of bar-rooms, which the authorities assume not to be venues for serious audiences, to convey subversive messages. Aware of the potential risks in his practice, Wahome takes care to issue cautionary disclaimers on the ‘unreality’ of the action in his work. Thus, for example, the narrator in Professa Nyoori warns:  ‘Mau muona haha rĩ, matirĩ maahanĩka… no kaĩ, matiaga kũhanĩka-ĩ.  [p. 21] [‘The events you have witnessed here have never happened… but, they are probable’].[4] Similarly, the narrator in Mugathe Mubogothi is quick to advance the injuction that ‘Rũgano rũũrũ rũtiahanĩkire tene na rũtirĩ rũratiga kũhanĩka.’[p. 2] [‘The events in this story did not happen a long time ago and they are still happening’].

Nevertheless, or in spite of the above disclaimers, distinctly Kenyan realities are recognisable. In this way, the playwright appeals to the audience to simultaneously indulge its fancies while remaining aware that such fantasy springs from immediate reality. This enables the interrogation of otherwise untouchable Kenyan issues. The use of a narrator, borrowed from Gikuyu storytelling as a distancing device, connects stage action to contemporary reality. Hare’s trickery in Gikuyu folktales is utilized here to hoodwink the authorities.

Notable about these plays is the near-predictability of their themes. Ridiculous-sounding titles, for instance, provide audiences with a general map of issues to be addressed and characters are types that could easily be switched between plays. Professa becomes Mubogothi in exile in the second play, and the Big Man character in Makaririra Kioro. The abuse of power and the comical struggles for favours among the dictator’s cronies are the dominant concerns of Professa Nyoori. Mugathe Mubogothi explores the former dictator’s nightmarish exile, tormented by the burden of past crimes. The most recent of these plays, Makaririra Kioro,[5] can be thematically situated between the others. A dream-analytical investigation of succession politics, it investigates the dictator and his cronies’ anxieties about his imminent retirement and the possible reactions of the population over whom the ruling cabal has lorded with a combination of nepotism and brute force.

These plays belong predominantly to the genre of political satire, a fact that audiences seem to be well aware of. Indeed, the single most significant differences between Wahome and other bar-room practitioners is to be found here. While other bar-room performers specialise in lewd comedies and seem to have bawdiness as the raison d’etre for their drama (Ndigirigi 1999:87), Wahome concentrates on humorous portrayal of the political. Thus, the topically political has become the trademark of his practice, ensuring that audiences seeking decent theatre can attend his plays without risk of discomfiture. However, this is not to say that social themes are not tackled in his plays. Indeed, both political and social content intersects in the plots, though the accent is markedly on the political.

Arising from these plays’ predictability, audiences are able to lift the thin veils draped over characters and to connect the masks to contemporary politicians, since the plots are not subtle. In fact, most of the plot action could easily be episodes lifted straight out of a regular day in Kenyan politics, and this backdrop enables quick identification of the real life actors.[6] This is an apt method given that patrons wouldn’t have much patience with subtle characterization since, as entertainment spots, bar rooms don’t lend themselves to lofty theatrical experiments. Further, since audiences are normally dining, such nuances in characterization would easily be lost.

By staging his plays in bar-rooms, Wahome takes the necessary step of going out of his way to meet his audiences, more or less like politicians who go on ‘meet-the-people’ tours, only Wahome’s trips are poetically camouflaged. This modus operandi was pioneered by the 1977 performance of Ngaahika Ndeenda at Kamirithu, which was the watershed in the struggle to liberate Kenyan theatre from the fetters placed upon it by the elite institutions to which it is affiliated. For the first time in post-independent Kenya theatre involved rural people in scripting, troupe organisation and performance. This participation enabled grassroots people to interrogate social issues directly. That Kamirithu was the pioneer of Gikuyu theatre in post-independent Kenya cannot be disputed.[7] However, as Ndigirigi has argued, “to the extent that Kamirithu was successful, it also gave rise to conditions that made it difficult to reproduce its success”(Ndigirigi 1999:73). One of these conditions was that the authorities became hypersensitive to criticism, especially in Gikuyu language art. As an heir to this legacy, Wahome does not delude himself that he has free rein with which to indulge his artistic fancy. Rather, he deploys bar-room space to subversive ends. By not interfering with Wahome’s performances, the state seems to be operating on the assumption that since this drama is merely a part of general bar-room fun, drunken audiences cannot take its messages seriously. It is in this crack that Wahome’s theatre operates.

The use of Gikuyu language in these plays is a significant factor. Even though it is just one of the scores of languages spoken in Kenya, Gikuyu is widely understood around Nairobi, where the bulk of Wahome’s performances are staged. Even though non-Gikuyu patrons may not be competent in the language, they have some grasp of it that allows them to follow the proceedings, especially as the chief characterization method involves the stereotyping of prominent public figures. Politicians and business people, often one and the same, are identifiable simply by listening to actors’ speech mannerisms rather than the words. This is then incorporated into the deeper thematic level at which the actual critique is aimed. This masking disarms the real life persons being lampooned since they cannot legally claim to be the persons depicted on stage and if they attend such shows, they tend to laugh along.[8]

This is significant given that Kamirithu Theatre was suppressed by the authorities not only because of the ideological issues it raised but chiefly because of how it raised them. The performers used bare-knuckled language and thus invited audiences to directly connect their poverty to the exploitative greed of multinational enterprises. Social injustices were staged in realist terms, and humorous episodes were few and not in any way central to the operational method of the play. Operating as organic intellectuals, the artists in the Kamirithu experiment were convinced that theatre should involve ‘the masses’ and directly mobilize audiences to change society.[9]  Wahome’s position seems to be that from his parodies of power, audiences will identify society’s maladies and devise suitable ways of dealing with them. Thus, the didactic element is embedded in the entertainment function. The effectiveness of either of these approaches to drama, each with its definite merits, is an arguable matter. It suffices to point out that in Kenya, artists who poke fun at the authorities seem to have a longer survival rate than those who lock horns directly with them.[10] Especially because theatre in the Gikuyu language is considered a priori anti-establishment, Wahome adopts the camouflage of laughter as both an artistic and self-preservation method.

At the extra-linguistic level, this theatre exploits costume as a characterization device. The personalities being parodied have distinctive dress mannerisms in real life and are thus easily transposed onto the stage. The ruling clique particularly stands out, besotted as it is with emblems and flashy attire as status symbols. Examples here are the president’s ubiquitous small baton, the vice president’s over-sized coats and the ruling party secretary general’s trademark Scottish deer stalker caps. Aware of their sartorial idiosyncrasies, audiences recognise these gentlemen and their interests even before a word is uttered. Also, audiences identify the personalities being ridiculed by their thinly camouflaged, often-ludicrous names. Their peculiar meanings provoke laughter since audiences are generally acquainted with them. Notable for their exemplary referential quality are names such as Professa Nyoori (Professor Club), Gakunia (the sack hood), Mureengani (saboteur), Kibuyu (plastic container), Mugaathe Mubogothi (his excellency the babbler), Gathuku (parrot), et al. Kinya, a word play on Kenya, in Gikuyu means a huge gourd, but in Kenyan political parlance means prison. This mask not only establishes the theatre in the realm of the imaginary but also hints at the follies of the ruling class. Kibuyu, for example, is a comic reference to politicians’ potbellies, so common in Kenya, that are presumed to be indicators of wealth and, consequently, evidence of theft since it is commonly believed that wealth is unattainable without recourse to corruption. Thus having overeaten, these politicians must constantly need to visit the toilet. Gathuku is the nickname of a former secretary general to the ruling party notorious for parroting everything the party leader said, even when it was patently ridiculous. Hence, the names’ hidden (hi)stories are a key to the coding of meanings, one that audiences rely upon to decode the plays’ satiric intentions. Wahome exploits this familiarity and only supplies words to shape the story.

These plays also operate with the bare minimum stage set. The best example is Makaririra Kioro where setting is used in a multi-purpose manner in order to avoid shifting props around. An erect board is used both to depict the inside of a toilet and a slogan-plastered street wall. Two chairs constitute the entire moveable props. Other than the Big Man, the other actors stand throughout, mostly frozen before and after their parts. An obvious problem that arises here, as Ndigirigi (1999:87) correctly points out, is that by dispensing with conventional technical stage details, bar-room theatre loses out in terms of production quality. A major problem in Wahome’s productions, for instance, is in the field of acoustics, since without the use of amplifiers actors are unable to project their voices to reach members of the audience seated farthest from the stage in the usually vast bar-rooms. Notwithstanding, his theatre compensates for this obstacle by using other extra-linguistic devices to communicate his works’ meaning. Their force hinges on audiences’ knowledge of personalities and events on the one hand and their stage caricature on the other. Besides, actors in Wahome’s troupe have polished skills, and the fact that his drama still attracts large audiences speaks for the nature and durability of his project. Technically the advantage here is that by reducing the set to just a few items audiences’ attention is directed away from spectacle and more towards the actors who are, in any case, the focal instruments of the parody. Dispensing with the sophistication of formal spectacle is in this case an appropriate staging method.

Further, the theatre pokes fun at the majesty of power by displaying some of its foibles, a noteworthy act in itself in a country where the lives of the mighty are shrouded in mystery. This is seen in Mubogothi whose peculiarities include heavy snoring, loud prolonged farting in his sleep and, consequently, his use of diapers.  This grotesquery is amplified later in Makaririra Kioro. Other than being a theatrical device, the toilet is intended to reveal the Big Man in his ordinariness; the banal is not the sole preserve of common folk. Here, Wahome addresses power in transgressive terms, especially when the country’s CEO is dethroned from the formal majesty of State House and dragged into the muck of a public toilet. There is significant cause for laughter in this transgression; this elevated company might just have to answer the call of nature in full view of one another, and the ever-intruding street girl. This comes very close to achieving the liberatory character of Bakhtinian laughter as the powerful become the object of ridicule. In this way, Wahome’s efforts embolden Nairobi residents against being awed by power, encouraging them to hold its trivialities in contempt and symbolically propel the power barons into the public toilet. This is in stark contrast to the past when virtually any public discourse critical of the state was criminalised.[11]

A noteworthy departure from politician-businessmen characters is the street girl in Makaririra Kioro who needs mentioning. The play’s action is based on a reigning Big Man’s nightmare about his future once he relinquishes power. Feeling insecure, he and his four cronies decide take sanctuary in a public toilet. A street girl finds them hiding there and threatens to expose them but through negotiations they convince her to ‘listen’ to what ‘the people’ think about them. Every entry she makes into the toilet is used to mark scene transitions. Hence, even though street people are a serious social issue in Kenya, it is clear that this girl is only essential to the play as a dramatic device connecting the buzz of public opinion to the terrified dignitaries. Additionally, audiences are titillated by the absurdity of powerful politician-businessmen finding themselves desperately dependent upon a vagrant and her power highlights the vulnerability of the presumably invincible. This is the supreme coup d’état executed in a public convenience, to the accompaniment of ripples of laughter in place of a military band. Street people, an exacerbating social problem, might one day hold the rest of society hostage, but the play seems uninterested in pursuing this theme. If the characters and content of Wahome’s theatre have social import, it is strictly contained within the political scheme of the drama. Audiences can therefore concentrate on the political content without tangential deviations towards the social.

Unlike the other two plays, song is used in Makaririra Kioro to very good effect and is initially deployed as a prologue. Since the audience is familiar with it, the popular Gikuyu religious song, Mĩrigo, is an appropriate device to set the mood of the play.[12]

Mũũrũ wa maitũ, mwarĩ wa maitũ,                        My brother, my sister,

ũigũaga  atĩa,                                                          how do you feel,

kuuma waiga mĩrigo thĩ?                                        since shedding your  burdens?

 

{Response}

Njigũaga, o-kũgooca,                                              I just feel like rejoicing,

Kuuma ndaiga mĩrigo thĩ.                                       since shedding my burdens.

 

Audiences join in enthusiastically, exploding into peals of laughter as familiar personalities are named and their ‘sins’ catalogued in turn. The song’s political nuances enhance audiences’ expectation of a political satire and in this way, even before the real action, they have already met the actors halfway. Towards the end of the play, the same song is re-deployed in a dream scene where the ‘people’ come to fetch the toilet refugees for execution. However, the song’s words are now given a tone of contrition. Gloom almost envelops the action here, but it is dispelled when the Big Man stirs from his nightmare.

The sombre mood is lifted by the American pop song “Who let the Dogs Out?” which, in stark contrast to the contrite ‘Mirigo’, provokes laughter, especially as the Big Man heartily mimics the dog’s barks in the song. Being the most heavily guarded citizen, his nightmares are an ironic comment on his guilt, and his feelings of insecurity remind the audience that he is, deep inside, just as ordinary as everyone else. In contrast, the childhood rhymes in the ensuing play-within-a-play depict his bygone days as a happy schoolteacher. Singing blithely along with the audiences, he inspires laughter as he plays beanbags with his pupils. When they are jolted back into the public toilet scene, audiences are shocked at these notables who gave up their happy lives only to end up rich but degraded.

At a different but quite relevant level, Wahome is renowned for his popular Whispers newspaper column whose caustic ridicule spares no one, not even his alter ego, Whispers. This prior acquaintance with the playwright impacts upon the communication process in his drama since audiences are generally familiar with Whispers’ pet caricature themes and characters. The journalistic satires thus condition audiences’ sympathy for, and identification with, the plays’ themes.[13]

Interestingly, Wahome’s theatre doesn’t say anything radically new. Doubtless, the plays examined here deal with what may be considered trite subjects in contemporary African writing, which have been handled in greater depth by playwrights such as Imbuga, Ruganda, Soyinka and others.[14] In fact, Wahome’s dictators seem to be agglomerations of the despotic characters depicted by these writers. We must then ask why Kenyans troop to these shows, sometimes repeatedly watching the same plays, despite the familiarity of content. What keeps pulling audiences to this theatre?

Part of the answer can be found in the compatibility between performance venues and patrons’ recreational needs. Due to the preference for open spaces, Nairobi entertainment spots are increasingly being designed to simulate an outdoor environment; thatch-roofed wooden buildings with vast windows and few doors. This is a reaction to the dull vastness of steel and concrete that Nairobi has grown into over the years, a situation exacerbated by infrastructural decay due to neglect by the City Council. There is a general depressing suffocation and by getting away to open spaces, Nairobi residents aim to escape from this stifling environment.[15] Thus, by staging his plays away from the city, Wahome caters for patrons’ desire to flee the claustrophobic clutch of the city and rather than wait for them in theatre halls, he seeks them out in their leisure spots. However, Wahome needs to develop his theatre away from its dependence on the patronage of the leisure-seeking middle class. Such a shift is particularly urgent if he intends to build upon the Kamirithu tradition, in which he partly operates, of using theatre to address the problems affecting society’s economically disenfranchised who cannot even afford the entrance fees to his shows.[16]

At another level, this theatre constantly reminds Kenyans of their symbolic power to laugh at the emperor’s nudity. Since Weru Muyoro’s rendition of Ngaahika Ndeenda in the early 1990s, many shows in Gikuyu have been staged around the country, but those communicating serious messages have run the longest. This is seen in the enthusiastic patronage accorded Wahome’s theatre since Professa Nyoori. Kenyans at last have the opportunity to be part of the processes of serious social critique, to find out how the mighty have stained Kenya’s linen and think of ways of cleaning up the mess. The mysteries of power are finally under the glare of public scrutiny. There is also a cathartic value to this theatre for Wahome, having served a year’s stint in jail for ‘sedition’. It is an opportunity to deal a blow against the system, the ultimate reward being the people’s last laugh. Through artistic subversion, the public is the victor when notables wallow in the stench of ‘ordinary’ human waste in a public toilet and given the hypersensitive nature of the state’s ego, this in itself is no mean achievement.

Through improvisation, this theatre incorporates political events as they unfold, and the texts thus vary from one performance to another. These improvisational dynamics enable the plays to fruitfully tap topical affairs. This device becomes like a running commentary accompanying news events; the mask of entertainment is adopted as a smoke screen and the distinctly political is singled out and elevated for ridicule. An apt illustration is Makaririra Kioro which, among other things, lampoons the opposition’s flirtation with Moi since it is deemed to derive from financial rather than ideological reasons. Contemporary political events shape the contours of Wahome’s parodies that in turn comment on the politics. This drama utilises a vast repertoire of fresh events and perspectives as they evolve, an advantage not available to published scripts that deal with subjects similar to Wahome’s.

In sum, Wahomes’ theatre effectively keeps audiences engaged with hitherto “dangerous” themes. This in a sense helps to expand the political space away from party politics to a situation where common people assume power, however temporary, to critique the authorities over a beer. This paper suggests that Wahome integrates into his drama the seriousness of social commentary while at the same time deploying humour as a trickster tactic in the critique of power.

Conclusion

Kenyan theatre has reaped tremendous benefits from the introduction of competitive politics in Kenya as artists become bolder in their interrogation of the state. It may not be claimed that the state has suddenly discovered a loving kinship with the artist, but the   state control of public discourse in the 1970s and 1980s has been disrupted.[17] To be sure, the state still attempts to muzzle freedom of expression, but it has abandoned much of the crudeness with which it used to do so and open dissent now flourishes in newspapers, on private TV and FM radio stations. Even though these are foisted on an unwilling state, they are far more intelligent methods of containment than the use of brute force, as was the case during the agitation for political pluralism in 1990.

Wahome’s project can be seen to fit into this relatively new scheme of controlled public protest, but this is exactly the point at which he outwits the state. Rather than merely being entertained, audiences attain a sharper awareness of the misdeeds of the authorities. In the end, the state is actually emasculated since it cannot do anything about the audiences delightfully flogging the hyena.[18] Those without the largesse necessary for party politics thereby have their laugh over a beer and mountains of roast meat as, in carnivalesque fashion, the rulers suffer from the role reversals.

There is immense potential for the development of this type of theatre into a formidable forum for social conscietization. Indeed, other vernaculars can also play their part since orality is the predominant mode of communication.[19] Also, seeing that vast rural populations have no access to the print and electronic media, theatre can be a useful communication tool. The government might also turn theatre to its advantage by supporting rural troupes to help, say, in disseminating information about practices that facilitate the spread of HIV/AIDS in order to encourage change in some harmful traditions.[20]

Within the formal curriculum, serious attempts to engage with non-institutional theatre as a learning resource must be made. The emphasis so far has been on institutional theatre as can be seen in the annual schools, colleges and church drama festivals. These festivals are laudable in that vernacular plays are staged, but they are modeled on institutional theatre. Even when outstanding plays from the festivals are used for classroom instruction, it is to emphasize the techniques of the formal stage. Furthermore, there is a tendency in these festivals to censor ‘sensitive’ subjects.[21] This must be changed if theatre is to meaningfully address the fullness of Kenyan experience, an issue that I see Wahome’s theatre as helping to redress.

Creative teachers in rural Kenya can help by tapping artistic talent in the first three years of primary school since the non-cosmopolitanism of rural populations allows formal instruction of/in vernacular languages. In this way, children with a talent for the stage can be nurtured from the outset to front for mother tongue theatre.[22]

University Theatre Arts curricula also need to be progressive and not just use Brecht, Shakespeare or Moliere, but also send students out to watch and study vernacular performers. Such courses should interrogate non-institutional forms of theatre as a viable learning resource. Examining non-institutional theatre alongside either non-Kenyan drama or formal theatre would open up unexamined dimensions in Kenyan literary epistemology. Thus, dry classroom knowledge could be linked to concrete experiences beyond university fences in order to achieve a fuller appreciation of the dramas, and their value in people’s lives. Wahome’s theatre efforts can thus be situated within the wider processes through which new fora for public discourse are opening up in an attempt to better understand Kenyan society and redress social injustices. The academy, if bold enough, is well positioned to aid in these endeavours.

 

Mbũgua wa-Mũngai was a lecturer in literature at Kenyatta University, Nairobi, and Saint Mary’s University, Minnesota (Nairobi campus).  In 2001 he began PhD studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Department of Jewish and Comparative Folklore Program.

 

REFERENCES

Bakhtin, M. (1984). Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

De Certeau, M. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kerr, D. (1995). African Popular Theatre. Nairobi: E.A.E.P.

Ndigirigi, G. (1999). “Kenyan Theatre after Kamirithu” The Drama Review, 43:2 (T162),  Pp.72-93.

Ogot, B. A & Ochieng’ W.R. (1995). Decolonization & Independence in Kenya. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Plastow, J. (1996). African Theatre and Politics. Amsterdam-Atlanta: Rodopi.

Ruganda, J. (1992). Telling the Truth Laughingly: The Politics of Francis Imbuga’s Drama. Nairobi: E.A.E.P.

Wa Thiong’o, N.  (1997). “Women in Cultural Work: The Fate of Kamirithu People’s Theatre” In Karin Barber, ed., Readings in African Popular Culture,(1997:131-138)

Wauthier, C. (1978). The Literature and Thought of Modern Africa. Nairobi: Heinemann.

White, A. and Stallybrass, P. (1986). The Politics and Poetics of Transgression.

Footnotes

[1] The following paper was submitted before the presidential election and transfer of power in Kenya at the end of 2002. The original version was presented at the Against All Odds Conference in Asmara, Eritrea, January 2000. The author wishes to thank Gicingiri Ndigirigi, Jane Plastow and Kesero Tunai for their responses.

[2] ‘Bar-room’ here means the entertainment places mostly built along the major highways in Kenya, especially around Nairobi. Many Nairobi residents attend performances there as a weekend family outing. Hooting Bay on the Thika-Nairobi freeway is a popular venue for the staging of Wahome’s plays, normally from Friday through to Sunday. Since these venues are quite spacious, actors are able to make good use of space.

[3]These translate as ‘The Club-Wielding Professor’, ‘His Excellency the Babbler’ and ‘They Shall Weep in the Toilet’ respectively. The Kenyan president, who carries a small baton, began his political career in 1952 and refers to himself as ‘The Professor of Politics’.  While the plays under investigation here are jointly authored, Wahome is mainly involved in staging them.

[4] Translations into English are mine and page numbers refer to unpublished drafts. In discussions with him, Wahome attributed the lack of standard manuscripts to the improvisational nature of the plays and to the fact that, sometimes, actors improvised ‘on the road’. This was especially so with Makaririra Kioro which, unlike the other two, had no available script. My comments on it are based on observations of performances in 2001.

[5] The action takes place in a public toilet and closely resembles Dambuzo Marechera’s play The Toilet/Blitzkrieg which parodies the corrupt Zimbabwe state. Public toilets in Nairobi are a veritable inconvenience due to neglect and are often criminals’ safe havens. Wahome’s role reversals often cause audiences, familiar with these toilets, to recoil in horror.

[6] Usually, at the plays’ end, I noticed that audiences gathered in small groups to post-mortem the plays.

[7]One of the most significant outcomes of the Kamirithu experiment was the realisation that people’s theatre could be used for direct social mobilization, and it is this that led to the banning of the play and subsequent criminalisation of theatre by the government. For a discussion of the triumphs and tribulations of Kamirithu, see Ngugi’s “Women in Cultural Work: The Fate of Kamirithu People’s Theatre in Kenya” in Karin Barber ed., Readings in African Popular Culture (1997:131-138). Further, and taking their cue from Kamirithu, theatre for development troupes have been using theatre as a means of addressing social and environmental issues, but it is too early to assess their success.

[8] In a different but related case operating by the same method, a popular troupe in Nairobi, ‘Reddykulass’, parodied almost every notable social type and personality in Kenya in a private TV prime time show from 1999 to 2000. That the programme was aired at all was stunning, but even more amazing was the fact that the performers got away with their act.

[9] I take it that Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ngugi wa Mirii and Kimani Gecau were fulfilling the function of the ‘organic’ intellectuals as discussed in Gramsci’s The Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci or the ‘conscientizing’ intellectuals in Paulo Freire’s  Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In their introduction to The Trial of Dedan Kimathi Ngugi and Mugo discuss their views on ‘committed theatre’, of which Kamirithu was an example.

[10] Notable here is the playwright Francis Imbuga. Dwelling generally on the same issues as those raised by, say, Ngugi, Imbuga has not been persecuted by the state. Thus, for instance, the president was able to watch the premiere of Imbuga’s Man of Kafira in 1979 and even laugh at the Big Man character depicted in the play.

[11]  Generally in the 1980s bar patrons all over Kenya avoided discussing politics due to the presence of state security agents, police informers and members of the dreaded Youth Wing. Thus, the politicisation of bar-rooms in the 1990s through theatre may be seen as a re-claiming of space that the state had dispossessed from the public.

[12] Mĩrigo means burdens, in this context, of a criminal nature. Shedding burdens implies making a break with the misdeeds of the political elite.

[13] Many first attended just to see Wahome in person and, upon seeing him, would gasp, “So this is Whispers, THE writer?” Others turned up because advertisements indicated that ‘Son of the Soil’, Whispers’ alias in the column, would be performing. Wahome is thus conflated with Whispers, the main character in the newspaper column, and expectations related to the column are transferred to his theatre.

[14] See Wauthier’s summary of the gamut of such themes in post-independence African writing in the subsection “Disillusionment” in his The Literature and Thought of Modern Africa, (1978:318-325).

[15] Nairobi has an approximate population of two million people but its infrastructure was designed for a much smaller population based on the ‘current’ city plan drawn up in 1948. This has led to motor congestion on the roads, inadequate services like garbage collection and the influx of slum-dwelling hawkers into the city. For many workers, it is natural to want to get away from the din, confusion and neglected refuse so characteristic of a five-day working week.

[16]  Plastow (1994) and Kerr (1995) have made insightful discussions on why traveling theatres and troupes associated with universities in Africa have either collapsed or not made any difference in the lives of those they seek to take theatre to.

[17] Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ngugi wa Mirii, Abdilatiff Abdalla, Micere Mugo, Alamin Mazrui, Maina wa Kinyatti, Kimani Gecau and Ngotho Kariuki are examples of writers and academics who have been punished, through detention or exile, for their ‘crimes’ against the state.

[18] In Gikuyu folktales, even when hyena temporarily outmaneuvers hare, he always pays the heaviest price as his schemes come a cropper.

[19] Obyerodhiambo’s musical drama Drumbeats of Kerinyaga has successfully fused many Kenyan languages in retelling the Gikuyu creation myth and expresses a vision for peaceful co-existence and development despite ethnic difference in Kenya.

[20] Some drama groups engage in such campaigns but since they are supported by NGOs, their funding is limited and they mainly operate around urban centers. Yet, owing to the paucity of information about HIV/AIDS and the relative immobility of populations, sexual behaviour in rural areas remains generally unchanged, amplifying an already calamitous situation.  In Uganda, theatre has been a key tool in addressing the HIV/AIDS problem. Kerr (1995) has ably demonstrated how the ‘cash nexus’ makes theatre troupes vulnerable to manipulation. While this holds for radical popular theatre, there is no reason for governments not to sponsor community-based theatre as a method of involving grassroots communities in understanding social problems.

[21] Writing in The Daily Nation newspaper in 1982, Wahome himself had observed this trend where ‘political’ plays were disqualified. In my experiences judging for both schools and church drama festivals, things have not changed much. On the censorship phenomenon in Kenyan theatre, see Ndigirigi (1999).

[22]For an engaging discussion of the disarray attending the government’s cultural policies, see Ogot and Ochieng’ (1995) Decolonization & Independence in Kenya.  Ogot’s “The Politics of Populism” and “The Construction of a National Culture”(pp.187-236) are particularly relevant to the arguments of this essay, especially the latter chapter’s interrogation of how a national culture can grow from Kenya’s linguistic diversity.

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