8 April

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.

This entry was published on April 8, 2014 at 10:06 am. It’s filed under Culture, People, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.


  1. Drumistgabu on said:

    Therein lies the dichotomy of concern of the what and the attention to the How in our theater. In our festival, How reigns high, the what being compressed into a theme that is only focussed on for an award. Theater in our schools is just that, which is a good thing i think. Beyond the concientization, lies the nurturing of creative excellence which would be prime for me

    • You have beautifully articulated the the challenge of reconciling the HOW with the WHAT in theatre. At this point in my life I am interested in their marriage, not one at the expense of the other. I taught high school for seven years and my story was different then. Now, the WHAT always leads the HOW, and if the WHAT is empty or non-existent, then so is the output, despite being wrapped in a shiny HOW. I have University students in Kenya ready to tackle the question of WHAT who have no container in which to put their artistic questions. They do not fit the HOW of the Festival. This is very interesting. Asante sana.

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: