Yesterday the Kenyan National Drama Festival kicked off in Nyeri in Kenya. I hope to be able to attend some of this week-and-a-half-long event to learn about Kenyan arts and culture.
The festival’s theme is celebrating diversity for national unity. The festival objectives include developing, promoting, preserving and revitalizing Kenyan culture. Thousands of students will compete in various categories from primary through secondary to university level. There are Narrative, Choral Verse, Solo, Dance, and Play categories. The secondary school categories are especially exciting and competitive. A gala performance of the winners in various categories will take place on 15 April. The newspaper yesterday shared the following: “Among the topics to be covered are corruption in the police force, terrorism, drunk driving, and political squabbles within the county government.”
Kenyans love to laugh at serious problems. I suspect that people will only laugh at the topics above, poke at them, but not really look at them seriously. But is this the place for a serious look at real issues? I don’t think so. It should be a colorful celebration. The fear and chaos of life is fodder for jokes and comedy. ‘If we didn’t laugh we would cry.’ This is the culture and the norm.
And that is my struggle, my confusion, my problem. I remember watching an impromptu rehearsal of a duet scene for the Festival from Kenyatta University in Bishop Square a few weeks ago and as always in Kenya I struggled with the humor as an audience member because my point of reference was so useless. The students around me laughed in approval. Two students told a story side by side, sharing the exact same moves and facial expressions, trading lines or saying them together. They were a performance machine. They were ‘ON’. It was like they had switches in their backs and BOOM- the performance started, well oiled, big, asking for laughs with self-awareness. The piece was about a head boy at school and poked fun at topics clearly known and recognized. Everyone laughed when the head boy was revealed to be a cheater, they laughed at his corruption as he used his power to get more food and took bribes, and they laughed at caning as punishment.
But in the back of my mind I knew that in the KUMINAMBILI rehearsal we were about to start we would share the story of a student receiving 72 canings in one day in high school, in three different doses, spread out over breaks, for being the funny guy in class. He couldn’t turn over in bed at night because of the pain. We would not ask for laughs. We would just say ‘this happened.’
Last week, on 2 April a boy in secondary school in Kirinyaga County in Kenya died after a caning by a teacher. He was hit in the back of the head and killed. Six days ago.
The Drama Festival is a glorious celebration, and the young students who attend are talented and positively affected by the experience. It has an important history and has a place of pride and impact in Kenya. But can University theatre and film students separate themselves from this competitive festival mentality and begin to ask more serious questions in their work, with humour, yes, but also with candour? As the student who was caned wrote to me: “We need to inspire and open up secretly closed doors in people’s lives.”
There is a time to laugh and there is a time to look seriously at society. From what I have seen Kenyans do not want to use theatre to look seriously at society. And that has been my struggle. I understand balance, and time and place, and I have no answers. I can only report the context of my life in Kenya. I love to laugh, but I am not afraid to cry.