Aghan Odero: from actor-storyteller to dynamic arts administrator

(The editor refused to publish this piece claiming it was ‘too political’. but it contains valuable information about Kenya’s relationship with the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC and the Strategic Plan for the Kenya Cultural Center.) FROM ACTOR-STORYTELLER TO DYNAMIC ARTS ADMINISTRATOR By Margaretta wa Gacheru September 2012 While Aghan Odero’s anonymous detractors were spreading stories on the Internet about his ‘truancy’ from his job as Executive Director of the Kenya Cultural Centre, the man himself was busy working out strategies for the Kenya government to agree to take part in one of the biggest annual cultural festival hosted anywhere on the planet. “It may have looked as if I was on holiday since I visited Washington, DC twice, in 2011 and 2012,” admitted seasoned actor-storyteller turned arts administrator. “But what those spreading lies about me didn’t know was that I was with the PS for Culture (Dr. Jacob Ole Miaron). We had been invited to come familiarizing ourselves with the Smithsonian (Institution) Folklife Festival since discussions had already begun for Kenya to potentially participate in it.” On the same day that he was launching KCC’s brand new Strategic Plan (the other major project he’d been working on since he became director of KCC, including the Kenya National Theatre, in 2009), Aghan was explaining to Business Daily that the SFF annually partnered one American state with one foreign country. Last year that country was Columbia, recalled Aghan who was already planning for Kenya to become the chosen country for 2014. Selling the idea to the Kenya government hasn’t been an easy ride, especially as a number of politicians seem to believe the arts and culture are a waste of time and money; but having a supportive Governing Council and an especially helpful PS, enabled Aghan to negotiate an MOU between the Smithsonian (the largest museum network in the world) and the GoK last October. And as of May this year, a financial agreement was finally signed between the government and the Smithsonian confirming Kenya’s participation in Folklife Festival 2014! The fact that the 10 day annual event attracts on average over one million visitors a year was one selling point that the former thespian made when, in December 2011, he gave a persuasive power point presentation (accompanied by two senior Smithsonian staff) to all 57 permanent secretaries of government ministries. “It would be a big boon for Kenya tourism,” he observed. It would also allow Kenyans participating in the festival to market themselves and their country, and not leave it to third parties whose perspective on Africa and Africans is often shallow at best. KCC’S STRATEGIC PLAN Whether Aghan will be as successful implementing the brand new KCC Strategic Plan July 2012 – June 2015 that he, the KCC Governing Council and the PS put together is another matter altogether. “From day one [on the job], our plan has been to rationalize operations at the Centre, build effect management systems, and streamline everything so that it can live up to the mandate it had when it was first established by an act of parliament in 1951,” said Aghan referring to the multi-racial and cross cultural basis for building the cultural complex in the first place. That mandate was never fully realized because in 1952, the colonial government declared an Emergency, and all its resources were transferred to fighting the Mau Mau. The KCC and KNT had been completed in 1951, having been but the first phase of the broader blueprint which got waylaid by the war. But after it was over, the blueprint went by the boards. Technically, the KCC was built on Crown Land and established by an ordinance of parliament. “When independence came, all that Crown Land was supposed to be transferred to the Independent Kenya government. But it never happened. The actual ordinance was ‘misplaced’ by Barclays Bank. And so, without that document, the transfer was never completed.’ The Crown has never laid claim to the land, Aghan observed; but because the land and institutions were left in limbo until now, the Cultural Centre has not only suffered from neglect. Its status has been contested by the Nairobi City Council which claims the Centre owes land rates including penalties valued at KSh297 million. The newly launched Strategic Plan aims to rectify this issue of limbo and land rates. It also aims ironically to restore the original vision for the Centre as a multi-cultural Kenyan venue that caters for all the arts. This grand vision for KCC’s new role as a dynamic cultural player and policy maker has been greeted with relief by many artists who have waited long for the government to prove it actually cared about the artists. But it hasn’t pleased everyone, especially those supporting the status quo. “Entrenched interests” is the term Aghan uses to describe his disgruntled detractors who don’t want to see him or his Governing Council (chaired by Dr. Mshai Mwangola-Githonga) succeed in streamlining the Centre’s operations to make them more efficient, organized and responsive to Kenyans’ cultural needs. The most unhappy ones are apparently those tenants who have gotten away with not paying their rent for many months at a time, since they won’t be allowed to stick around anymore. For instance, the Wasanii Restaurant and Bar at the Theatre was recently shut down because they were in arrears on their rent by no less than seven months, according to Aghan. Hopeful that the Strategic Plan will get the same government support as the Kenya-Smithsonian Folklife Festival has, Aghan notes that not only has his governing council been reappointed for a second three year term. His PS is also liaising with the PS in the Ministry of Lands to straighten out all the issues associated with the land, the debt and the mandate of KCC. “We anticipate the Centre playing a far more dynamic role promoting and developing Kenyan arts and culture in future,” said Aghan who had been busy building vibrant Kenyan cultural institutions even before he went for a post-graduate certificate in Arts and Culture Management from University of Witswatersrand, South Africa in the late 1990s. Among the groups he worked to build were the Theatre Workshop Productions and Mzizi Players and Cultural Centre. Upon his return from Witswatersrand, he started up Zamaleo, the Kenya Storytellers Group. After that, he helped establish the Institute of Performing Artists, Ltd. based in Nairobi. ‘The South African course gave me greater insight into the vital role of management of Kenyan arts and culture. It especially showed me ways to work across disciplines to advance the arts in a more professional and business-like way,” he added. The course also equipped him to become only the second Kenyan, after Alakie Mboya to hold the position of KCC executive director. (Between Mboya and Aghan, it was a stream of civil servants seconded from the ministry of culture who sat on the seat.) After working tirelessly for the last three years to put the Centre on professional footing with a clean slate, Aghan feels confident that a fundamental transformation of the cultural centre is coming with the implementation of the strategic plan. Being both a pragmatist and a visionary, Aghan expects to see KCC eventually become the hub of Kenya’s creative industries in keeping with both the new constitution and the old ordinance of 1951. “KCC is Kenya’s oldest cultural institution and we aim to see it fulfill its legacy.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s