March 4th General Elections Inspired Artistic Energies

ELECTIONS IGNITE ARTISTIC FIRES IN KENYA BY Margaretta wa gacheru Kenya’s forthcoming general elections have inspired a slew of artistic activities, including everything from feature films like the new One Fine Day/Ginger Ink production, Something Necessary and Ni Sisi by SAFE to plays like Heartstrings’Resolutions Broken in Kenya and the Phoenix Players production of The Jury. The latest live production which runs through this weekend at Phoenix Players is John Sibi Okumu’s brand new script simply entitled Meetings. Best known in the region as a TV commentator and interviewer, most recently seen this past week interrogating all eight Presidential candidates on KISS TV, Sibi’s first love is nonetheless the theatre as would have been plain to anyone who saw him perform over the years, acting as the lead in plays like Sophocles’ King Oedipus, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, or in films like The Constant Gardenerand Shake Hands with the Devil. During working hours however he teaches French at one of Nairobi’s more elite secondary schools. But after hours, he is usually busy either acting, directing or scriptwriting original plays, such as In Search of a Drum Major, Ripples on the Pond, and Role Play as well as his most recent production, Minister….Karibu. Like Minister…Karibu, his latest play, Meetings, is quite political, especially in light of the forthcoming Kenyan Elections. Not that it’s either polemical or partisan, but it does expose the way politics, especially electoral politics, can have a profound impact on ordinary people’s everyday lives. Meetingsdoesn’t dwell on the past, although it does portray the present day experience of two families, looking forward to the upcoming General Elections, at the same time as it reflects back on the past fifty plus years of Kenyan history, including four generations of one of them. The families come from radically different backgrounds, yet they are inextricably bound together, first by the younger generation who, despite coming from different ethnic communities, intent to get married irrespective of what their elders think. The other link is found in the youngsters’, Fauolata (JacklineNjoroge) and Zeke’s (Martin Githinji) fathers, one of whom, namely Gus (Samson Psenjen), was a radical student leader whose support of the failed coup d’etat of 1982 led to his being hauled away to Nyayo House where he was torture until he managed to flee the country for his life. The other, Meshak (Harry Ebale), is a wealthy contractor who was Gus’ roommate at college and the Home Guard-like traitor who’s believed to have been the rat who squealed on Gus, a reprehensible deed which led not only to the latter’s torture but also to 26 years of life in exile, first in Tanzania, then Norway and finally in the US. There’s little doubt that a number of Sibi’s characters mirror real life figures who have played significant roles in shaping present day Kenya. They include everyone from student activists who, among many others, were tortured under Moi’s repressive regime to tribalists, spies, opportunists and traitors who preferred sustaining the status quo since it promised them hefty benefits once it was their ‘turn to eat.’ But Sibi doesn’t stop with his implicit critique of the Moi era. Through his reflection on four generations of the family of Gus, he exposes the strengths and flaws of both pre-Independence Kenya which Gus’ grandfather benefited from as far as Western education is concerned, and post-Independent Kenya starting from Kenyatta through Moi to these last days of the Kibaki era. The play also mirrors the uncertainty of these times, what with none of us knowing what will ensue from the March 4th elections. But it’s significant that Gus has come back home after more than a quarter century in order to vote. It’s his arrival on the scene that precipitates all the ‘meetings’ and the unearthing of skeletons from the past. Gus comes home with his teenage son Samora (George Mulei), whose parents are both Kenyan, but whose identities shifted dramatically during the 2007-8 post-election violence. Sibi doesn’t shy away from tackling that troubling topic, tribalism, the bitter consequences of which didn’t just reverberate in Kenya; they also rocked the Kenyan Diaspora as well. Gus’ divorce was a direct result of that narrowing of loyalties, from one nation to one tribe. Two of the most critical meetings for Gus are first, one with the daughter Faoulata who was born after he’d fled, and the other with her mother Esther (Jane Gathoni) who didn’t tell him before he left that their child was on her way. Both of these encounters reveal how well Sibi knits the personal with the political, since Gus didn’t leave for lack of love for Esther, but as the political climate was toxic at the time, he had little choice but to flee for his life. Still, Gus carries a lot of guilt for all that’s happened. Ironically, we can see he’s not the only one with excess baggage. The one character who is unburdened with guilt is Gran (Lydia Gitachu), Gus’ mother and Faoulata’s grandmother. She’s a reconciler and a healer as well as a writer and actress in her time! She also embodies the sense of living history and memory that permeates the play. She transcends time-lines and the tribal barriers that nearly destroyed Kenya five years ago. It is she and her grandchildren who provide the hopeful promise of Sibi’s play, which is otherwise open-ended. Meetings must be Sibi-Okumu’s most ambitious play to date. Whether he succeeds in encapsulating the whole of contemporary Kenyan history in one work is for audiences to decide. So far, the verdict is still out. But Meetings clearly has my vote!

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