The Artists as the Managers of the
Transition in Kenya*
A paper by
*First presented at the KOLA Conference on East African Oral Literature,
Kisumu, Nov. 2005
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(a)The Kenyan Experience
Kenya, once described as an island of peace, has indeed know very little peace for the
man and woman of conscience. This individual has been faced with the task of society
mobilisation for change and development. The process of conscietisation of a community
or a nation must take in to consideration the “important questions about national or group
exclusivism and the impossibility of avoiding of syncreticism” (Ashcroft et al, 30).
Though here they refer to language appropriation, it is important for us to look at it in
relation to the political space in Kenya.
Some communities (and inevitably classes) were evidently left out in both the discourse
of community development as well as the material and resource mobilisation.
When the communities or groups of individuals rose to assert themselves, then there was
Kamiti, there was the Nyayo House cells, and there was a number of other outlandish
government sponsored atrocities. Consider here the crackdown on Mwakenya, on FERA
and that on the perpetrators of the 1982 coup that came before. The country was steep in
a plastic silence akin to that of isolated graveyards.
This was against the background of constitutional amendments that saw the declaration of
a one party state, the withdrawal of the security of tenure for judges, and the banning of
any other political activity apart from the praise to KANU –institutionalised as Mother
and Father of the nation.
Moi was a culture. He traversed the political, social and economic landscape like a
colossus. There were Nyayo Tea Zones, Nyayo bus, Nyayo pioneer car, Moi schools and
university…Moi this, Moi that. The state broadcasting station KBC took about one third
of its prime news time talking about the exploits of Moi. The whole country was
hypnotised by the presence of Moi. At one time when he had to leave the country to seek
medical attention and there was no reporting, the country was gripped by tension. People
demanded to know his whereabouts. It was not out of love, but out of conditioning.
Pavlov could not have done better.
Take for instance the Nyayo philosophy. It was not that there used to be no love or peace
or unity in this country, but when the president made those three the rallying point of
Moism, it started looking as if he was the one that had invented the words. In the advent
of multiparty democracy, he warned that there would be chaos, ostensibly because the
country was not ready for multipartyism. And indeed there was violence. The ethnic
violence that rocked the country in 1992 and 1997 (significantly around election time)
lend credence to his word. And he was re-elected on both cases to take charge of a ship
that could have sunk were it not for him.
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Pressure from the international community and human rights watchdogs led to the
repealing of the Chief’s Act in 1991 and the subsequent adoption of multiparty politics in
Kenya. This paper does not intent to cover the political rigmarole of the period preceding
and after. But for two five year terms, it was a multiparty of a single party, otherwise
called “Multiparty ya Moi”. This image was very important in that it captured the irony
of democracy in which one individual/party dictated the trends. This was occasioned by
the question of resource mobilisation and the use/misuse of state machinery and resource
in politicking. And thus the jinx had to be shaken off and the land cleansed.
This was the thought in the heads of civil society leaders and politicians who had been
locked out of power. They each had tried to go it alone and failed or made insufficient
impact and now they had learned their lessons. This led to the formation of four main
bodies in the civil society: CRE-CO, ECEP, CEDMAC, and the Gender Consortium
Out of these it is CRE-CO that adopted theatre as the foremost tool for implementing
civic and community education. The others also had theatre components but not as
significant as in CRE-CO. The mandate was to work towards sensitisation of the people
away from the characteristic lassitude. It took advantage of the expanded political space
to make it a reality for the people to achieve what they had yearned for and had not been
able to actualise.
(b)Something About the Civil Society Movement.
The civil society movement in Kenya had been bogged down by intellectualism and
extremism. The former gave birth to the later. The players in these societies saw the entry
point as the rampant abuse of human rights by the government and its organs. And so,
like the arrogant intellectuals that they were, they focussed on the extremist conceptions:
reviving the call for a second liberation, resurrecting the freedom fighters creed of
“Uhuru na Mashamba”.
They missed the point that the people’s apparent complacency had been brought about by
the continual betrayal by their leaders. Again, the most immediate need for the people
was reclaiming their lost space in terms of identity, that is, redefining their environment.
It is only after this necessary step that the impact of the environment on the person can be
addressed. Therefore, it was difficult for this crusade to be successful for it is only when
the affected people see the need to change their status (not when they are shown or told
about this need) that viable and sustainable change can be realised.
Many workshops and plays on educating the people on their rights have remained just
that: “supplantations” of information. Not that this was useless. No. It was a useful stage
/process in the conscietization of a disenfranchised people. But change is not external.
You cannot change people. People have to see the need to change.
Human rights activists, either went far too back in history or far too ahead of the people
into the present social dialectic (in regard to universalism and the locus of world trends)
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and hence were not in tandem with the target groups. Illiteracy has nothing to do with
this. Kenyan’s are a very resilient people. The question was whether the people had
enough will to act. The mundane issues of earning bread and the business of having sex,
giving birth, bringing up children and burying the dead were greater concerns than human
rights. An abstraction cannot beat the simple/usual things of life. Indeed it bores people.
The prevailing need was that the link between these mundane issues and their causality
relationship with human rights and the socio-political and economic situation had to be
made. And by the people. This was the entry point of IPCET.
Theatre in the four organisations named above, and especially CRECO, was a key
element. Its mandate was to adopt a language, mode and image whose metaphor would
be that of a people disenfranchised and which would then incite the people towards
taking control of the political aspect of their lives. It had to be simple enough yet
sufficiently complex to evade the still simmering heat of KANU’s tyranny.
The Power of Theatre.
(a)Cultural Expression and Identity
Kenya, on emerging from the dark ages of colonialism has never been able to find its
identity. The almost blanket adoption of westernisation has received more support than a
cultural renaissance. But for the postcolonial country, the reality of cultural hybridity in
the country’s expression is as inevitable as the presence of other artefacts of the
previously dominant culture. The artist is thus charged with finding the locus of culture
without necessarily antagonising the society. One of the things that the artists delicately
did was the choice of the forms of expression. C J Odhiambo’s observation in a paper
“New Wine In Old Wineskins: Exploiting Indigenous Folk Art Form In Our
Contemporary Pedagogical Practices In Kenya” that
the (con)temporary pedagogical practices must indeed, with all intent and
purpose, take cognizance the import of approaches of the “past”. For without the
past, the present and the future will be bereft of any meaning and significance
seems most significant in the CRE-CO play design, for it was an integration of forms that
the community had in their lore. In the nationwide campaign, the drama kept on remaking
itself. A skit that was ideally an offshoot of the original play was permanently called the
“Matrix” and could not get a Kiswahili replacement. This is what Ashcroft et al call the
use of code switching and transcriptions: a “most common method of inscribing alterity
by the process of appropriation” (72). Though in their book they talk of vernacular
transcriptions, it is clear that here the vernacular (strictly used here to mean local
language) appropriates and transcribes the English (foreign language). The skit was
performed in Kiswahili but the word was constantly repeated and never translated. It is an
uncommon word even among the elite. For non-academic set-ups like a village in
Mavindini where the people who are learned are teachers and the chief (and mostly the
word is not in their active vocabulary) this word worked wonders. Toothless old women
would see a drunk man talking nasally deflected English to his wife and would
immediately and unreservedly laugh at the stupidity of men, soon recoup themselves and
either give him a name or declare for all and sundry that such a man is wont to do ill to
The image of the learned individual as a leader and a community development mentor is
then interrogated vis a vis his quality as a person on the ground (not a heavy-vehicledriving-
grinning-son-of-so-and-so-who-wants-us-to-follow-him). In this case it was a
celebration of cultural bastardisation and or interrogation of cultural identity and the
acceptance of hybridity. Thus the learned and the “other” felt at ease in the interactive
Larry O’Farrel in a landmark paper, “Building a Better World Through Drama
Education: Educational Drama as a Catalyst for Cultural Identity and Community
Development” explores the use of ritual drama in community development. The school
model he uses is in tandem with idealist development agenda: the reinvention of the
society. He argues that:
the renewal of community is central to postmodern epistemology. The individual
exists, not in splendid isolation, but as an interactive member of a diverse
community, embedded in a matrix of traditional values and practices. In such a
complex the structural imperatives inherent in humanist thinking – the cult of the
creative genius, the judgemental bias of education, the strict separation of high art
from popular culture – all prove hopelessly inadequate as means to achieve even
their own central goal of liberating the individual. (5)
And thus the role of theatre as a cultural tool of reinventing the individual and of
reconstructing identity becomes imperative. The culture of hero worship and of fixity to
channels of communication that are ideally external, i.e. not in the interest of the person
to whom the communication is directed, had to be eliminated so that the community
could get a new lease of life.
Dan Isiko Kisense in his paper “A Theatrical Approach Towards Attaining a Barrier Free
World” argues: “theatre obliterates boundaries, cultural norms and offers the most
desired and most effective communication not only (to) the masses but also policy
The cultural situation in Kenya was (and is) no different from the one that Mzo Sirayi in
a paper “The Impact of a Cultural Bomb in South Africa” saw in South Africa. He says
that cultural groups were mobilised on short notice to perform on official functions, to
give them a face of inclusiveness whereas these people had not even been sufficiently
facilitated. And then when they performed, they played to the political axis and are not
essentially aware of the fact that that “delicacy” they give to state players can be their
own weapon of cultural reorientation. He says “South Africans have to be challenged
and conscientised about the importance of decolonising the mind and the indigenous
cultures and link them with development.”(42)
And this can only be done in educational drama. The reason is simply that drama
provides a situation in which the protagonist and antagonist share a space in which they
conflict and reconcile. Decolonising the mind, though it has often been used in the West
versus Orient dialectic by such scholars as Homi Bhabha, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and
Edward Said, in this case it applies to the challenge to the organs of discourse
“origination”. Mumma, in his thesis, observes that
Above all, in educational drama, the language of drama is accessible to the
participants themselves so that there is a certain understanding (on) how
they are progressing. Within the educational/theatrical/context (this)
provides for a vehicle of participation and a forum and focus for raising
and analysing problem; decision-making and collective action. (433).
Change is the product of the latter. Positive transformation of society is indeed
occasioned by the simplification of the points of conflict and the fragmentation of the
areas of difficult. The society therefore is able to view each vis a vis the social will power
and ability to handle them. Since it provides the opportunity to challenge dominant and
accepted values, drama thus is important in the creation of a counter culture.
(b) Theatre: Some Theoretical Precepts and its Practice in Kenya
Bill Ashcroft et al, in their book The Empire Writes Back, see the multiplicity of
linguistic and cultural forms of literary expression as the onset of a system of
conscietisation, a way towards the reclaiming of the empire from the self-imposed
emperor, a way of creating space for self-identity. Referring to new writings from
countries of the third world, they argue that, “Their literatures could be considered in
relation to the social and political history of each country, and could be read as important
images of national identities” (17)
This is important in the discussion of the artists as the managers of the transition. In the
first place, community theatre as has been explicated in the Boalian ideal is the negation
of the tetrarchial, and Aristotelian inundation of theatre as a whole, the removing it from
the monarchical and ruler orientation to its original place in the hands of the people:
Aristotle formulated a very powerful purgative system, the objective of which is
to eliminate all that is not commonly accepted, including the revolution, before it
takes place. His system appears in disguised form on television, in the movies, in
the circus, in the theatres. It appears in many and varied shapes and media. But its
essence does not change: it is designed to bridle the individual, to adjust him to
what pre-exists. If this is what we want, the Aristotelian system serves the
purpose better than any other; if, on the contrary, we want to stimulate the
spectator to transform his society, to engage in revolutionary action, in that case
we will have to seek another poetics! (Boal, 1979: 47)
These poetics are those of Community Educational theatre. Community theatre has its
inception in the postulates of epic theatre as envisaged by Bertolt Bretcht. Epic theatre
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entailed the defamiliarisation of the theatrical space, a reorientation of the theatrical
conception of the Aristotelian time in which the role of catharsis was a hallmark of the
tragic to the translation of theatrical images to the reality of the audience member who
becomes an active participant.
Community theatre as envisaged by Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal constitutes a devising
and or creation of theatrical scenarios by members of the community that are used to
launch inter and intra-personal dialogue on issues that affect the community with an aim
of correcting an anomaly or initiating a process of action and thus change.
Ngugi’s experiment at the Kamiriithu centre in Kenya has been oft quoted as a leading
example. Opiyo Mumma in his paper “Drama and Theatre as Modes of Creative
Learning” notes that
education for transformation will help people to become critically creative, free,
active and responsible members of society. In participatory education, participants
are recognized as thinking, creative people with capacity for action and hence it
poses problems in its dialogue and communication. (30)
He explores the Kenyan theatre scene from the 70’s upto 90’s. He notes the kind of
reception that Ngaahika Ndeenda and Maitu Njugira by the Kamiriithu Community
Drama (KCECC) got from the government forces who saw these texts as an affront to the
rule of (unjust!!!) law.
He further explores Aminata and the frustrations that the writer and artists went through
in the 90s when the democratic space was seemingly wider. This goes to show the plan
by the government, like all oppressive governments the world over, to thrive on the
ignorance of the people.
Mumma observes that, Francis Imbuga’s play Aminata “took a leading role in getting
artists together for debates on ‘the role of the artist in time of political change’”. The
Free Travelling Theatre (FTT) and Kenya Drama in Education Association (KDEA)
“formed Aminata as an argument to mobilise artists and cultural workers in the quest for
political change. In this set up, Aminata became a launching pad for futuristic action.”
(Mwangi et al 39)
This “futuristic action” that Opiyo Muma talks about is interpreted as the effort the
actor/teacher/learner and audience/teacher/learner, as participants in the process of
performance and creation of the theatrical piece, take to remedy the issues affecting their
lives (for this matter the political anomaly) that they find themselves in. Perhaps
deserving a special mention is a performance by Theatre Workshop Productions;
“Drumbeats on Mt. Kirinyaga”, a monumental play that used the symbol of the Gikuyu
and Mumbi story as a call for unity to the diverse ethnic communities of Kenya, a call for
reevaluation of our values as a people and to eat fruits together.
Other plays that were significant in the 1990’s were such as Kivutha Kibwana’s Kanzala,
Wakanyote Njuguna’s Kabla ya Dhoruba, Kithaka wa Mberia’s Kifo Kisimani, Wahome
Mutahi’s Mugaathe Mubogothi, Makaririra Kioro, and Mugathe Ndotono among others.
Though these plays lack specific merit as PET or even IPCET texts, they were
unconventional (some even compromising style for messagism) and they interrogated
difference and diffidence in community leadership. These writers as well were prominent
figures in the intellectual and human rights movements and hence had a lot of influence
in the course of action on the educational theatre scene. Their plays, among others, were
the precursors of the underground NGO movement that came up with the IPCET play.
The individual and really forceful activities of civil society organisations like Citizens
Coalition for Constitutional Change (4Cs), Centre for Governance and Democracy
(CGD), and Legal Resources Foundation (LRF) and a plethora of other organisations
suffered the same fate of being but information points for the community. Information,
we should note at this point, empowers, but it is only communication that liberates. And
this key issue was never sufficiently addressed. Art was severally massacred at the behest
of militant advocacy. The exploration of whether or not these interventions led to the
development of a unique form of art necessitated by the milieu of the time is beyond the
scope of this paper.
I would like to isolate the 4Cs and say the following. The organisation started off as a
loosely structured lobby group for constitutional reform. But for three years, its single
programme was theatre. The theatre group used the rich history of oppression in the
country to create a play “Five Centuries” later to become the name of the group. The play
was an interrogation of the suffering and pain the people of Kenya have gone through in
the hands of selfish leaders, the fact of an independence that never was, and the need for
this century to be a century of nation reconstruction and a new constitutional order. This
trend has survived across the years, at times faltering at the intersection of artistic
expressionism and political advocacy.
Towards behaviour change, the clarion call of Kenya Drama in Education Association
(KDEA) was either not well understood or treated as suspect. But on organising a
congress of world artists in the country, a new wave of change was envisaged.
Commenting on the activities of IDEA Congress in 1998, the then Kenyan Minister for
Education Kalonzo Musyoka in a Paper “Powers of Performance: What Theatre has in
Store for Educationists” said:
What I witnessed is testimony that drama is being used as a powerful
medium of communication to expose pertinent and sometimes disturbing
experiences in our society. For instance issues such as corruption, bribery,
immorality, jealousy, misguided ambition, treachery and so on, which
have featured in this congress, educate and challenge the society to
seriously review their attitudes and values. The aim of the student artists is
noble. (Mwangi et al 1999, 12)
Kalonzo also observed that Educational theatre had demonstrated “clearly that forging
unity and a sense of nationhood can easily be achieved”(12). It is in my opinion that the
artist educators were well aware of this and took the opportunity to actualise it.
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J B Okong’o, in a paper, “Fictional Constructs, The Theatrical Process and African
Communities in Development” observes that the “ participatory aspect between
facilitator and community enables for a fictional process that builds an understanding
through the cooperative construction of an imaginative world…in the process, the
creation becomes an inbuilt feedback system that tests whether communication is
effective.” (286). The artists therefore in the adoption of the IPCET model discussed
here, were sure that the message of change, the element of education had been shared by
both the actor educators and the audience teachers.
Theatre as a Tool in Kenya’s Transformation.
And thus the work of seeking to orientate the Kenyan people towards behaviour change
(from complacency/inactivity to active and effective decision making and
implementation). For this, the following theatrical modes were adopted and duplicated
across the country:
· Story telling
The story of the Lion and the Sungura and their conspiracy in the digging of a well.
In this story, the gullible animals are duped to dig a well and later the lion with the
help of Sungura as a think tank, repossess the well as a private property. The
dilemma is whether the animals should be silent and die in the drought or fight for
their right to access the well. This story was in over 90% cases cited by the audience
teachers as a case of the government fleecing the citizens. Every four out of five
people saw the lion as Moi. In a performance in Machakos, a team of artists was
arrested and spend a long time in the District Commissioner’s office pleading
innocence by asking the officers whether they had never heard the story before. They
had of course, for it is a common story. But they insisted to the chagrin of the artists
that it was mockery to the government. And then one lady artist asked whether her
great, great grandmother, who had told the story to their mother, had lived during
Moi’s era. They were released. Hurrah to the power of the story! In lauding the story
as a future form of Educational theatre, Opiyo Mumma said that:
The storyteller links incidents and events into a narrative construct that
echoes with similarities and a certain meaning. It allows the participants to
at once become the story, the constructors of the story, and the people
living through the story. (412)
· Simple Scenario Skits
1. Based on simple domestic violence against workers.
In this skit, the lady owner of the home gives just too much work to the house
help, including bathing between sessions) so much so that it looks
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melodramatic. When she goes out, her son makes sexual advances at the girl
and when rebuffed offloads his own share of work on her.
2. Marriage of a beautiful girl: “Mschina Mzuri”
Here a learned and beautiful girl who can’t apparently get a husband decides
to marry the village buffoon without consulting anyone. It was based on the
story told in a popular old song. This skit was useful in appropriating both the
old people’s political space and tradition and/or cultural interrogation.
· Song /dance — eliciting the joy and pain for the people who went down memory
lane, interrogated why we fought in MAU MAU, and catapulted them to the pain
of the present. As well it captured the positivism and negativism of the present
These theatrical pieces were strung together with the use of the Joker- a common
phenomenon in Forum Theatre and the Facilitator commonly used in TIE and TFD. The
multiplicity of form was to ensure maximum output. And indeed there was a great
impact. Theatre was voted the main (best) tool for education by the implementing
partners. Steven E. Finkel, et al in a paper “The Impact of The Kenya National Civic
Education Programme on Democratic Attitudes, Knowledge, Values, and Behavior”
“NCEP activities were effective in changing many important democratic
orientations, values, and behaviors; coupled with the findings from previous
assessments, there can now be little doubt that civic education can be an important
instrument for democratic change” (vi).
Educational Theatre was a major component of these activities and although the
programme was initially designed after a workshop orientation, the observation is that:
NCEP activities such as drama presentations, puppet shows, and public lectures,
also contributed significantly to changes in engagement and
competence…roughly equal, and in the case of efficacy and intentions to
participate, larger for the other NCEP activities than for NCEP workshops” (34)
This kind of deduction, coming from an assessment of a workshop oriented evaluation
matrix, is indeed a testimony of the fact that the people of Kenya remembered more the
theatrical symbols and images than the rhetoric of the
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