Keynote Address Abstract

Women International Playwrights Conference 2006


Identity, Language and Culture

by Mũmbi Kaigwa


I will speak a little about preconceptions; about cultural liberation, language and identity in East African performance and I will touch on these subjects as they relate to our art, our theatre and our music.

There is evidence of cultural liberation in East Africa, the region’s performing artists and their followers have a view of themselves as culturally liberated, express themselves freely in their own way of working and are innovative and constantly refining the form which their art takes.

The issue of liberty implies freedom; none of us is entirely free. However, it is my view that we are imprisoned when we cease to be constantly aware of our surroundings; when we seek only the easy answers to our differences.

The theatre is a place where individuals can see themselves reflected. The work of many East African writers and performers has been marked by a conscious return to the past; many of our performances are taking modern ideas out of the theatres and off the stages and back to the villages, onto the streets, into the bars and the social halls; we are combining music, dance and theatre in our original performances as opposed to staying with the traditionally European idea of theatre as a separate entity from music and dance.  In this way, we are able to comment originally and critically; using culturally relevant skills.

African theatre has been around for centuries. Children sitting outside smoky huts with nothing for light but the stars as their grandfathers and grandmothers spun tales of times past and legends of great mythical heroes. Cautionary tales of the trials and tribulations of tortoise, the tricky sungura mjanja, Kweku Ananse the wily spider, and the fox for the memories of the youth of a certain generation. The vibrancy of songs and dances filled with messages; songs of birth, dances of circumcision and rites of passage, a harvest, a feast, rain, a lion hunt, a foolish leader. Storytelling as an art form is honed by Africans – everyone is a born actor.


Keynote Address

Women International Playwrights Conference 2006


Identity, Community and the Role of Diversity

“sometimes when you try and tell somebody about a dream… you’re trying to get them to visualize what you’re seeing when possibly they’re seeing something different; it’s as if there’s always been a conversation outside of me about WHO I am and instead of watching me and getting to know me there are somebody else’s theories about WHO I AM… they’re putting those theories into my head and … using that lens to look at me and to deal with me;they’re hardly ever dealing with MY REALITY. because when we talk about our dreams, we’re talking about our relevance in the world – we’re looking for ourselves

so we look / we look …  

we look inside.”






I will speak a little today about preconceptions; about cultural liberation, language and identity in East African performance and I will touch on these subjects as they relate to our art, our theatre and our music.

There is evidence of cultural liberation in East Africa, the region’s performing artists and their followers have a view of themselves as culturally liberated, they express themselves freely in their own way of working and are innovative and constantly refining the form which their art takes.

The issue of liberty implies freedom; none of us is entirely free. However, it is my view that we are imprisoned when we cease to be constantly aware of our surroundings; when we seek only the easy answers to our differences.


When I received an invitation to attend an exhibition[i] of work by members of the Sudanese Women Artists Association, I thought “How delicious!” Mostly I was thrilled because apart from what I had read in the newspapers about Darfur, about the rebellious Lord’s Resistance Army which is fighting the government of Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, the South Sudanese peace process and John Garang’s life-long struggles to liberate his country, I don’t know much about the PEOPLE of Sudan.

At war since 1955 (except for a spell of 11 years between 1972 and 1983); yet I find myself thinking about all the other wonderful things that might be happening, the things that have little to do with the daily reports of tense situations in southern parts of that great country. About people. Getting on with the busy-ness of life.

After all, I know that when Kenyan and other press report our own ethnic clashes or riots in the streets, laughter still rings out of the mouths of children, art is still being produced, women are still meeting friends in the market, at home and on the street, industrialists are still striving to produce Kenyan goods for export, and boys are still coming home filthy, after a day playing football with their friends.

So how is it in Sudan, a vast country, the largest in Africa, covering 2,5 million square km and a population of over 30 million people. A country with a long and ancient history and a total of 223 pyramids (more than those of Egypt).

The paintings spoke volumes. Large and small, NONE of them are titled. Speaking with Fatima Hassan, one of the exhibitors, I ask about this. She confirms that to give the paintings a title would reduce them to cliché, boxing them in a simplified definition, rather than giving them their full voice, the seven-part harmony that is possible when you demand a title of your audience; each onlooker giving the painting several and various nuances.

Untitled. Mixed Media on paper by Fatima Hassan


The paintings tell a whole story and to define them with a single word or phrase would do no justice to the narrative carried by the Sudanese culture they come from. And how interesting to have to come up with my own title … For me, Fatima Abdelrahim’s religious studies in ink spoke of an old spirituality. The old man, the sage; craggy and traditional, looking out at me through pipe smoke and evocative of a time when things moved at a slower pace, when there was time for listening.

There’s the simple style of Zeinab Tiani, the abstract and deep blues of a stormy hillside as depicted in the paintings of Nahla Mahdi, the beigey-muted cloth-like paintings of Taisir Abdalgadir, who I learn later received her training from the Department of Textiles; the gorgeous hairstyles of Suzan Ibrahim’s women congregating around a background of huts.

And just who are the women in Sana M Albashir’s canvas; one with shoulders bared and eyes wide open, the other demure, covered, and eyes closed? And all the shades of Africa in her large canvas – one dark, thick haired, another flinging her fair lustrous mane, the instantly recognisable nomadic look of a third. Did we know that Sudan was made up of all these peoples? How important to see how boxed our own opinions are.

Two of the women are sculptors – Omima Hasabalrsoul, who also exhibits small cubist style paintings, and Amani Alhassan, whose pieces are quite small; renditions of women and children in quiet contemplation.

Untitled. Wooden Sculpture by Omima Hasabalrsoul

Mixed media on paper with thick, raw, colourful streaks of paint in relief. Najat Elmahi’s fearless yellow and black paintings as well as an startling and vibrant pink painting – these are women who are confident in their self-knowledge. I can’t wait to hear their stories…

And so again I seek out Fatima Hassan, the only one of the exhibitors who lives in Nairobi, to find out what it is I’m feeling; how it is that these seven women whom I’ve never met, can leave me so touched that I wanted to write about my experience? Fatima’s own paintings are a study in layers; much like a life well lived. I stand looking at these for long minutes on each of my three visits to the gallery. In each of Fatima’s paintings, there seems to be another picture calling to be explored from the depths of the one I first see. One in particular announces the shape of cattle horns – Fatima says it describes the Kambala dance of the Bagarra people who, much like the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania, have a deep love for their cattle. She explains how she covers the canvas in three stages; each layer revealing and concealing more and less of the modern stories that mingle with stories of traditional lives .


The Sudanese Women’s Artists Association was created in 2000 to help women to keep working as artists. In 2005 there were seventy members. The Association organises regular workshops for artists as well as for women and children in and around Khartoum. They also organise exhibitions in Sudan as well as in Europe and other parts of Africa, particularly Egypt. This was their first exhibition in Kenya.

from left Sana M Albashir, Mai Abdalaziz Salih and Fatima Hassan

The association’s members are graduates of the College of Fine and Applied Art at Sudan’s University of Science and Technology. The College, which celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 1997, offers a four-year course in Fine Art. As well as classes at the college, the course takes students to the four corners of the Sudan. Each year the budding artists spend up to forty days in Jabal Marra in Darfur, at Jabal An Gessena, in the Nuba Mountains, learning about the ancient shared traditions of Egypt and Sudan, studying the Kush and Kharma kingdoms, Sudanese cave art, European art, and exploring the Wady al Nil (Valley of the Nile).

Travelling around their own country, studying their own culture, the nature and traditions, the students write and paint the symbols, the atmosphere, the dances, the weddings, the harvests; gaining their own impressions and creating rich and vibrant expressions and paintings imbued with their experiences; art which lives forever.

Having seen their own culture, they can share their understanding of their history and the important events of Sudanese life with others. Watching the faces of other visitors to this world, peering at these wonderful works, I see each of us understanding what Fatima describes “the beautiful of them”; a lesson in how important it is for us to sing together, to dream together.


The theatre is a place where individuals can see themselves reflected. The work of many East African writers and performers has been marked by a conscious return to the past; many of our performances are taking modern ideas out of the theatres and off the stages and back to the villages, onto the streets, into the bars and the social halls; we are combining music, dance and theatre in our original performances as opposed to staying with the traditionally European idea of theatre as a separate entity from music and dance.  In this way, we are able to comment originally and critically; using culturally relevant skills.




African theatre has been around for centuries. Children sitting outside smoky huts with nothing for light but the stars, as their grandfathers and grandmothers spun tales of times past and legends of great mythical heroes. Cautionary tales of the trials and tribulations of tortoise, the tricky sungura mjanja (crafty rabbit), Kweku Ananse the wily spider, and the fox, form the memories of the youth of a certain generation. The vibrancy of songs and dances filled with messages; songs of birth, dances of circumcision and rites of passage, a harvest, a feast, rain, a lion hunt, a foolish leader. Storytelling as an art form is honed by Africans – everyone is a born actor.

As a result of our colonial history, there have been efforts to blend pre-colonial forms of African performance with European forms of theatre.   Among the coastal peoples of in Mombasa the buni mimes, which took place in the 1890s, constituted a halfway stage between the modified form of pre-colonial theatre and fully developed urban theatre. These mimes combined elements of colonial spectacle – particularly the military parade – with indigenous ngoma dance forms. While their form did not develop a fully narrative form or spoken dialogue, their staging remained within the indigenous theatre-in-the-round aesthetic rather than the proscenium arch stage. Although they were urban in origin, they were capable of reabsorbing into the peasant culture of the rural areas and acted as a cultural vehicle for the penetration of urban, cosmopolitan values.

Militaristic mimes developed in other areas of Africa. In West Africa for instance, dances such as Soja (taken from the English word ‘soldier’) and Goge incorporated army bugle motifs and acted as a transition between pre-colonial and modern dance forms among the Muslim youths of Nigeria and the Ivory Coast[ii].

Buni was an entertainment dance in which the participants dressed in smart often military uniforms and danced in regular columns with sticks, imitating guns or batons. There was a hierarchy of roles including a king, officers and subordinate ranks. This parody of stratification with its dance aesthetic involving the music of bugles, flutes and side-drums, ordered ranks, neat uniforms and regular marching-like steps suggests a heavy influence of colonial military bands.

In pre-colonial Lamu (on the Kenyan coast) competitions were organised between different factions. There were competitive and very expensive carnivals in the streets. Around the turn of the century, the rivalries in all the coastal cities had crystallised into those between the groups called Kingi (King) and Scotchi (Scots). Despite the aggression it displayed, this ‘locational factionalism’ was an integration device for breaking down potential tribalism into the values of urban life.

The idea of having to pay to watch a play is relatively new in East Africa. The formal European literary theatre model which occurs in a stone building, framed with a proscenium arch with designated seats is a recent one, although in some parts of west Africa there are records of literary dramatic tradition springing up as early as 1607. In East Africa, we are told the traditions arrived closer to the 1920s and 1930s, with the creation of European enclaves, particularly at the sports clubs which were erected in many Kenyan towns. Many of these had a stage and an amateur theatre group made up of the settler community living and working on farms and colonial government offices.

In Nairobi, early European professional theatre companies often took their large scale productions on tour around the country but these were exclusively for the entertainment of the colonisers. Possibly the earliest sport club/theatre was the Railway Club, which started in a wood and iron building on Whitehouse Road in 1904[iii].

As early as 1913, before the First World War, Nairobi already had a fully equipped theatre: the Theatre Royal on Delamere Avenue. It seated 350 and the building still exists; though it is now a cinema serving a steady and popular diet of Bollywood and karate films[iv].

During the Second World War, many theatres were converted to cinemas. In October 1952 a State of Emergency was declared and most people were preoccupied in one way or another with the fight for Kenya’s independence but on November 6 1952, the National Theatre was opened with a seating capacity of 435[v].

With Independence in 1963, African Theatre burst from the shackles of colonialism with a vibrant energy and unique style. By 1968 the National Theatre Company was up and running, supported by the Government and in May 1969, the National Theatre School was opened with the stated claim of “training students in Theatre, Drama and associated arts and disciplines to professional standards in the shortest time possible”[vi]. Until the 70’s it wasn’t usual for European theatre companies to have African or Asian actors in their plays. But hundreds of expatriates left the country after independence and expediency and added pressure from educated Africans meant that the various theatre groups began to look outside the expatriate mainly white community for talent for their plays and as a result of their larger productions they began to make their names.


At the same time, many theatre groups were being formed by Africans: The Kenya National Theatre Group, Jaribu Players, the Inter-African Theatre Group, Tamaduni Players, the Living Theatre Group, the University Drama Society which became the University of Nairobi Free Travelling Theatre were the pioneers that led the way for the Mbalamwezis, the Heartstrings, the Friends Theatre Groups, the Galaxys and the Theatre Company’s of today.

Most of the theatre being written and produced in the 1960s and 1970s was in English and followed the European model. The new forms of European theatre were also accepted in local schools and by 1960 the annual Kenya Schools Drama Festival presented its finalists at the National Theatre.

The Drama Festival has grown to include primary, secondary schools as well as colleges and universities. The festival begins at a very local level; with thousands of schools all over the country participating and being eliminated for inadequate form and content or forced to retire by the increasing expense of travel requirements. The first “zonal round” is followed by a ‘divisional round’ and then a ‘provincial round’, which precedes a marathon affair to select the winners. The finals change location each year so that less well-off enthusiasts from each of Kenya’s eight provinces stand a better chance of surviving the competition when it comes to their town. The fierce competition on display superficially indicates a healthy and flourishing drama scene amongst Kenyan youth.[vii]

Decades after it started, the festival continues to encourage much talent. Unfortunately though, drama is not on the national schools’ curriculum and very rarely do students continue to work in theatre once they leave school or college. Those who do often have or are looking for a “proper” 9-5 day job, rehearsing for productions in the evenings and weekends after “work”. This means that the level of innovativeness and originality is low.

However the purpose of this paper is to discuss the ways in which despite, or perhaps because of our colonial history, east Africans are growing in their demands for a diverse society and are turning their attention to their cultures, seeking a greater political voice; looking to their history, their heroes.

In the 1970s writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, John Ruganda and Francis Imbuga took on the major themes in society; politics (Betrayal in the City), colonialism (Kenneth Watene’s The Trial of Dedan Kimathi) or even man’s philosophical struggle to justify his existence (as in Robert Serumaga’s Majangwa). Though we’ve mentioned that many of the plays of the period were in English, Kiswahili plays such as Ebrahim Hussein’s Kinjeketile, Julius Nyerere’s Julius Kaizari and Henry Kuria’s Nakupenda Lakini were also popular with audiences. The Free Travelling Theatre and Tamaduni Players did a lot of their plays in Kiswahili. With the elevation of Kiswahili as an examination subject in the 8-4-4 system of education, there are more original plays being written in Kiswahili.

In the 1980s and 1990s however, quasi-dictatorial tendencies soon became clear, and it was not long before the darlings of the stages came to be viewed as serious threats to the new political status quo. The curfew imposed after the foiled coup of 1982 dealt a blow to theatre and the ensuing censorship of plays which were deemed seditious or subversive caused further problems. Ngugi wa Thiong’o and his group of peasant actors from the town of Kamiirithu near Limuru, found the doors of the Kenya National Theatre barred (by government orders) to their productions of Ngahika Ndenda and Maitu Njugira. As Ngugi was being locked up by President Jomo Kenyatta and then sent into exile by Kenyatta’s successor, Daniel arap Moi, others found solace in a bottle and any group, amateur or professional, had second and maybe third thoughts before launching a production. This cautious approach lasted for a very long time and caused a great deal of damage. It was another ten years before the shifting political scene allowed the doors of the theatre to open again.

Over the past ten years, then, there are a number of emerging trends in performance, each deserving examination as indicators of cultural diversity.

Performers of texts, in theatres

Clearly, the overriding move has been away from subsidised, government-directed theatre to a strongly independent movement, heavily dependent on private capital and the whims of the theatre public. In the late eighties, the Sarakasi group mounted a series of successful productions, mostly based on traditional heroes such as Wangu wa Makeri (who lived in the mid-19th Century and is remembered in Kenyan history for being appointed the position of “headman” – the first time this traditionally male role was played by a woman).

Simultaneously, The Theatre Workshop group made a name for itself in the early nineties with a series of strong group-based performances, including the original Drumbeats on Kerinyaga and Derek Walcott’s Dream on Monkey Mountain. Catering to a far more light-hearted audience are the Mbalamwezi Players, Friends of Theatre and Heartstrings Ensemble who provide a steady diet of British farces. Other theatre groups have provided stimulating productions of plays by Israeli and Polish playwrights.

It is important to note that the efforts of theatre groups and musicians and filmmakers proceed without much government assistance and the groups are to be commended for their devotion to their art forms in an environment which still considers the artist as a lazy drunkard who refuses to get a real job. Groups such as the Ugandan Footsteps and Tanzania’s Parapanda Theatre Lab and Mionzi Dance Troupe have established strong contacts in Kenya and are often on tour or working jointly with Kenyan dancers, storytellers, actors, writers and hip-hop musicians, rappers and traditional drum and percussion ensembles. Performing artists were quick to take advantage of the re-creation of the East African Community to work together and to exchange ideas.

Meat Eaters and Beer Drinkers

One of the most fascinating developments in performance over the past ten years has been the move of performers “back to the people”. Some enterprising entrepreneurs invited performers to perform social satires (such as Jomo Kenyatta – the Man and Makaririra Kioro (They Will Weep in the Toilet) in open-air restaurants where patrons are less inhibited than in more traditional venues. These performances, which began in the early 1990s have spawned a whole new audience who may not have ever thought to go the theatre.

Most of these performances are given in the Gikuyu language, although there are similar groups performing in the KiKamba tongue (east of Nairobi) and in Dholuo by the Luo people in the area bordering Lake Nyanza.

Aspects of East African Performance

Some typical aspects of performance might be:

a strong emphasis on dramatic movement, utilising traditional dance and music;

a high energy level in performance, developed from more “traditional” forms of rural, community-based entertainment;

the appearance of supernatural figures who interact with human characters;

little emphasis on stagecraft – scenic design, stage lighting and theatrical effects (a reflection of the basic financial status of most groups rather than a lack of desire to utilise stagecraft).

Clashes and Understanding

“Delight in our differences” – I keep thinking about this phrase for which credit is given to the Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Despite the layers of technical complication with which the modern theatre industry can swathe its productions, or the pomp that surrounds the launch of every cinematic production, we can still describe every performance as the simple, pure act of a storyteller telling a story to an audience. The performer has a need to tell a story; the audience has a need to listen; both storyteller and audience member have a need to receive the story, to discuss it and to allow that discussion to have a profound influence on their future behaviour.

This process can vary in nature from the most informal, casual observance to the construction of vast myths of ancient civilizations, which are so enormous in their scope that they attempt to contain the whole of contemporary human experience. In times gone and in places distant, storytellers were often elevated to the role of “prophets”, “griots” or “shamans” and no important communal decisions could be taken without consulting the body of wisdom and history held and guarded by these vital citizens.

However, and I think this is central, none of these stories or myths were ever the property of the storyteller. They were communal possessions, able to be added to, reflected upon and brought up-to-date by subsequent tellers and listeners. The telling of a story liberated the listeners and encouraged them, by creating an imaginative world of endless possibilities, to find ingenious and creative solutions to life’s challenges. The story does not tell you what to think, if it did it would be called propaganda. The story encourages you to think! It shows you what COULD be.

In Kenya, Eve Ensler’s award winning play The Vagina Monologues, works; in Uganda, it doesn’t, at least not in the same way. Kenya’s first production of The Vagina Monologues took place in Nairobi in early 2003. This play is used all over the world to celebrate V-Day, creating awareness and raising money for organisations working to end violence against women and girls. The Kenyan producers were very apprehensive about the production – they had been told it would never work but it is always important to take heed of the female instinct – a culture we share with our sisters across continents. With one-show only, considerable awareness (and money) was raised about the work of two organisations, one in Nairobi running a domestic violence shelter and another in Narok, catering to girls running away from families wanting to have them circumcised and married off at ages as young as six years. And a community of laughing and committed women was born.

The number of (theatre and non-theatre) people who have come to be involved and affected by this annual event is staggering – apart from attending as audiences, they come to perform, to volunteer to work backstage, to work on the complementary events such as marches, art exhibitions as well as to share their own experiences. And they stay in touch with one another. Sure there was a bit of a backlash regarding the title and content of the show, and in a patriarchal society it’s to be expected, but at the end of the 2003 performance, a woman from the pastoral Maasai community congratulated the cast for their bravery in bringing to the public the practice of (female genital mutilation) FGM. After she spoke, I think anyone who still had reservations about the performance was convinced that it was important to talk about ourselves in a way that allows women to break the silence of fear that surrounds us in our daily life, whether as a consequence of not being able to go to school like our brothers or whether it concerns what clothes you decide to wear when you leave the house each morning because you need to use public transport or walk through a seedy part of town.

In Uganda the show has never been seen – the production has been banned by the government since 2005. We couldn’t convince the Uganda government that it is neither sensational or graphic, at least not in they way they thought. How can it be, when the stories are simply read from the script, quite deliberately and in order to minimise the immediate emotional response. What it gives the involved but dispassionate spectator is a strong sense of the experiences of many different women throughout the world. It does not encourage the spectator to behave in a particular way or to indulge in specific practices, but to expand their experience and to make mature and positive decisions about their life.

The Ugandan government’s six-page ruling banning The Vagina Monologues says in part: “art should not be a basis for the promotion of prostitution, pornography or homosexuality…” Shakespeare’s Hamlet discusses the idea of suicide directly with his audience. Richard III murders six members of the Royal Family. Do we accuse Shakespeare of “promoting” suicide and regicide? A recent Luganda play: Bolimbo features a character who hides his impotence and pretends to be virile to his girlfriends. Do we think the author is suggesting that we should all become emotional cheats? Of course not!

These writers simply use the characters to discuss vital social issues in order to stimulate our thinking and to bring vital social issues to the fore, and what could be a more important discussion at the moment than the role of women in society? 2005 statistics show that forty-two percent of those in Ugandan prisons are there for crimes committed in the home against women and children as well as husbands; the newspapers bear daily, graphic accounts of acid burnings, child rapes, sexual slavery and other atrocities. The situation is similar in many other countries.

The decision to ban the Vagina Monologues trivialises the issues facing the women of Uganda and trivialises the role of art in public life; by dismissing The Vagina Monologues as an advanced form of kimansulo (a form of striptease popular in the bars of Kampala), the Uganda Media Council attempts to divert public attention away from vital issues facing Ugandan society.

Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues gives women a safe space to celebrate themselves, with no excuses, no put-downs. We MUST use all the ammunition we have in our search for ourselves / it is NOT in our own history – not the way it’s currently written. And until we read that history as written by ourselves and not by people with a hidden agenda – we must continue to look / we will continue to look for ourselves elsewhere.

Another project which illustrates the role relevant theatre has to play in creating community was the play Death and the Maiden. This is a play written by the Chilean author, Ariel Dorfman. In November 2002, the then Kenyan opposition party of Mwai Kibaki was talking of forgiveness for past crimes should they come to power. Transparency International Kenya, an anti-corruption NGO in Nairobi wanted to steer this debate and to get Kenyans discussing their political past. So they commissioned a production of Death and the Maiden. The production was staged for an audience which included members of government, various human rights organisations, people who had been incarcerated and tortured by previous regimes. The play deals with a woman, her husband and the man who the wife, Paulina, believes tortured her 15 years before, ruining her life. Performances were followed by lively and sometimes painful discussions with members of the audience. In a true example of life imitating art, the action on stage was being played out in the press; with the recent change of government there were daily accounts of the experiences of ordinary citizens in the dreaded torture chambers of Nyayo House and reports of students who had been kicked out of university being allowed to resume their studies.

However, in spite of its demonstrated potential for continued growth, all of the performing and visual arts have not yet been given the recognition they deserve by the region’s economic planners or policy developers. In Kenya, it is only when a group or individual wins a medal or recognition in an international event or a great performer or writer passes away that the country wakes up from its collective slumber with showers of praise, the promises of recognition and (although rarely), official assistance in the form of hard cash.

This official amnesia and collective neglect date back to colonial times. Colonial policy strategically criminalised indigenous cultural activity and expression through legislation, religion and education. Culture is not seen as an industry, especially not one worthy of interest or investment. Cultural activity and involvement, when it occurs, is not business; it is social, something for amusement. None of the reams of development papers authored since independence have focused on culture as a major contributor to our GDP (which it is)[viii]. There are no subsidies or incentives, few known policy guidelines or administrative frameworks; and although the government has begun to pay attention, cultural activity, with the possible exception of the music industry, goes largely unnoticed to the greater public.

With the possible exception of Tanzania, where it is often performed outdoors and in the round, theatre is still seen by many in East Africa as elitist. However, it goes from strength to strength. In the last 10 years, there’s been a move towards the past; not a past of naked bodies and tribal rituals, but where the past is demonstrated in pride in ourselves as a people, where we are proud to incorporate Kiswahili and vernacular in a production which previously would have been performed entirely in English, a past where the forms of theatre which include dance, singing, percussion as well as theatre are welcomed by audiences and performers alike, a past which allows performers and audiences comment originally and critically and in this way build a future. No more the angst ridden poignancy as we regret the loss of our “cultural values” but a recognition that culture is dynamic and can now include Diwali, Ramadhan, sheng[ix], Kiswahili and English, as we tell our modern stories.


Project Fame the reality music show, was first produced in 2004 in South Africa and broadcast by Africa’s premier pay-TV operator, M-Net. Aspiring musicians/singers from all over Africa laid themselves bare for a extensive search for a talented individual chosen from the whole continent had. In a show that can be described as a marriage between the voyeuristic Big Brother and musical phenomenon Idols, plus a thrilling dose of Survivor-style voting, Project Fame had audiences glued to their screens.

Hundreds of young people audition for the sixteen places, hoping to be chosen to perform their way to stardom over a 13-week period. The 2004 edition included travelling around 11 African countries – South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ghana and Nigeria looking for aspiring people with musical aptitude, who are able to sing and either play a musical instrument or have an additional musical or performance skill (from dancing to song writing). From the search, 16 final contestants are put in the academy for 10 weeks, living there and being filmed 24 hours a day; 7 days a week. During the 10 weeks contestants are trained by experts in every aspect of the music business – from performance and song writing to behind-the-scenes preparation. Each contestant has access to a personal advisor.

The Project Fame audience decides which contestant should leave the academy weekly and finally vote for the winner of Project Fame. The winner walks away with a recording contract, loads of prizes and the ultimate prize for any superstar – FAME.

Project Fame is based on an international format, Operaci๓n Triunfo, originally from Spain and successfully produced in nine countries, including Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Greece, Italy, Russia and the United Kingdom. In Spain a staggering six million albums amongst the 16 contestants were sold and at one point seven entries in the Spanish Top 10 were from the show’s students. The British version, Fame Academy, entertained more than eight million UK television viewers and attracted seven million votes in the final show.

In 2006, Project Fame came to East Africa. Hundreds of aspiring young singers and musicians lined up for hours, hoping to make it to the chosen few. The process is brutal, in preparation for the opportunity to be groomed for success in a tough performance academy. But there’s a catch; it’s there in the words of the organisers, who say they are looking for star quality with international appeal. But just who defines this elusive appeal? There is to be no rap, no ragga, no songs in local or African languages. In a part of the world where the formal study of music does not form part of the school curriculum, it seems that only those who have spent long periods honing their skills by listening and copying songs by western artists, will qualify. It seems there is no space here for a personal, individual, original East African voice.

And this is where culture clashes alarmingly loud and long. For how, with these odds, does one manage and mitigate the conflict over language, culture and identity? A chance to make a name, to be featured in local and international press, to sell records, make an income is too strong to resist. How does one respond to the organisers’ assertion that international stardom and commercial success can only come if you speak (or at least sing) in English? How about the Youssou N’dours, the Salif Keitas, the Orishas, the artists from North Africa such as Kheb and Natacha Atlas, the Miriam Makebas, the Amadou and Mariams who (although they may sing in English or collaborate with English-speaking musicians) do quite well (thank you very much) singing in Wolof, Bambara, Portuguese, Arabic, Xhosa and French. The Congolese music which you’ll hear all over my part of the world, from Paris to Cote d’Ivoire, Nairobi to Mozambique? How does one argue the case against those who say that new Kenyan music is yet to find its place in the world due to the propensity of our musicians to copy American hip hop stars? How to explain why it is that Kenyan benga music (in Luo and Kiswahili) is available in record shops all over Africa and Europe? Perhaps not commercially successful on the scale of Michael Jackson or Elvis, but with a strong fan base and hugely saleable.


So, three examples from my part of the world of the diversity of culture, demonstrating some of the ways in which our diversity relates to the interminable question of identity and community. There is no denying our place in the global community; and while there are continuous challenges as we search for shared values and a global language, we may seek comfort in the knowledge that each individual can identify with many different groups.


Mumbi Kaigwa  © The Arts Canvas (Turubai za Fani) Limited


[i] Mumbi Kaigwa, All the Shades of Africa: Children Laugh, Women Paint, Life Goes on in Sudan, Msanii Magazine, Issue 9, September-November, 2004

[ii] David Kerr, African Popular Theatre: From Pre-colonial Times to the Present Day (East African Educational Publishers, P O Box 45314, Nairobi, 1995)

[iii] Annabel Maule M.B.E, One Hundred Years of Theatre in Kenya (Nairobi, 1999)

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Oliver Langdon, Exploring the Rift: Kenya Schools and Colleges National Drama Festival (VL Despatch:

[viii] Oby Obyerodhiambo, The Culture Industry (Nairobi, The Executive, May 1997)

[ix] Dynamic Kenyan street language which incorporates new words, Kiswahili, indigenous languages and English.