Margaretta Wa Gacheru’s Jua Kali diary
The last day of August and I’m sorry to see the month go. September means I will be leaving soon, as in September 19th, hopefully to be returning within the month. But it also means I need to pack in heaps of good things during the days ahead. No loitering for me.
I think you already know by now that I’m back in Kenya after ten years of being away from the place I called my home for more than 25 years. Hard to believe, and I am the first to say I don’t believe in time constraint or age limitation. I feel as if my time away from the place I call Obama-land, my parents home, was a perennial summer, meaning I never felt time passing me by as people do in the West. In Europe and the States, there are tangible and distinct seasons—summer, fall, winter, spring, and people mark their lives in terms of time passing. For me time never passed. All those days I spent previously in Kenya were like a perennial noon. Sounds like an exaggeration but no, it is true. In any case, I am back now as a researcher and graduate student as well as a now-blogger and arts reporter at times for the Nation newspapers.
So let me begin as was suggested by my favorite Kenyan poet, Njeri Wangari, and start from today. I promised her I would share my encounters with fascinating people, including artists, inventors, and ordinary people with extraordinary stories. The first one has to be Dr. Kimani Njogu who I met for the first time today, and who publishes the cultural magazine, Jahazi, which was founded by the late Bantu Mwaura and books like Cultural Production and Social change in Kenya: Building Bridges.
What was extraordinary about Kimani, first and foremost is what he told me at the outset of our meeting: I had written about his school in 1979 when he was still a harambee school teacher working in the Rift Valley. It was a transitional period for the Kenya Schools Drama Festival because the first African Drama Inspector in charge of the Festival had just arrived a few months before, Wasambo Were. So it was an exciting time, and I apparently had written about what I liked about his school’s performance.
He confessed that until that moment, he had assumed I was a Kikuyu woman, which I am in spirit. In my heart my spirit is Kenyan, but I never have pronounced those words publicly because it was never an issue: wa Gacheru is obviously Kenyan, and so I have been all along. In any case, Kimani and I spoke at length about our dear mutual friend Bantu Mwaura, and both grieved over the loss of such a great and creative mind and spirit. Bantu had not only studied at Kenyatta University, but also Leeds University in the UK, and Ohio University in the US and finally he nearly completed his Phd at New York University when he chose to come back to be with his family and immerse himself in Kenyan culture.
Kimani said Jahazi 4 (there have already been 3 published by his publishing house Twaweza Communication) will be dedicated to writings on Bantu and the late Atieno Odhiambo who just passed on in February this year. I will not dwell on the notion of death, but Kenya isn’t supposed to lose so many geniuses in such a short time. I’m grateful to Kimani for developing bridges between artists and academics, which is what his publications do. His first published work was Reading Poetry As Dialogue which features an indepth analysis of Kikuyu Gichandi poetry, something I told him he needed to reproduce in a straightforward less academic work so that the rest of us can read that oral tradition and appreciate more fully.
We also talked about the John Githongo book written by Michaela Wrong, It’s our turn to eat, which I mentioned in so far as a friend of mine, Dana Siedenberg had written a flaming, brilliant critique of the book, which The East African had refused to published in full. Kimani said he would love to see her review. So I linked them up.
Then I had to run. I had to organized the rest of my week. For instance, I had to make a date with John Kamicha since his one man art exhibition just opened August 28th at Le Rustique Restaurant, and sorry but I live on matatus and could not get to the opening. So we shall meet Thursday. Then I had to respond to one of the Born Free Lions’ artists, Mary Collis, who painted for an environmental organization fighting the sale of the toxic chemical Furanin, which is killing lions by the dozens in Kenya currently. Mary’s lion symbolically portrays the bottom line of this ugly pharmaceutical deal, which is cash of course. The lion is pink like the drug bottle itself, but hers is just one of 50 that will be launched this coming Wednesday, as part of the Born Free Foundation initiative to Save Kenya’s Lions.
On my way to the Kenya National Theatre to meet Njeri, I encounter Ongeri Magati, a Kenyan percussionist originally from Kisii who I first met performing with Phillda Njau of Paa ya Paa Art Center in the hybrid band called Bush Bach, which is meant to be a combination of Kenyan traditional or indigenous sounds and Western classical music. Phillda was trained in classical music, but she formed the group to be eclectic and integrative of a variety of diverse sounds. Her point was to prove the compatibility of all of these rich musical sounds. Ongeri usually works with Radi, a group that specializes in Kenyan indigenous music. The group has 10 including acrobats and percussionists/drummers.
They perform every Sunday at the National Museums Amphitheatre for families from 3pm to 5pm. Ongeri had just gotten back from Holland where he had gone on a “fact finding mission” to scout for a possible place in next year’s Amsterdam Cultural Festival. “We have already been invited to the Swiss Mountain Festival next summer,” he explained, but he would like the group to maximize their time abroad. But as I have discovered since I’ve been back two months in Kenya, Ongeri is much like many Kenyan artists: he is well traveled!
It was Joy Mboya, Director of The GoDown, who told me during the recent Kalasha Film Awards night, that Kenyan artists are some of the most widely traveled people in the land.” And I have to say that in my meetings with scores of local artists, I have found this to be the case. Of course, this is not categorically the case: not all artists are globe trotters; but quite a few are or have been in the last decade since I have been away.
John Kamicha( foreground)
This is refreshing news, especially the fact that these are people who have traveled and COME BACK HOME because they love their country and want to contribute to its creative and artistic development.
Arriving at the National Theatre was the biggest threat because it is still a venue wherein one can and must meet local artists. But Njeri explained to me that a major change had taken place among performing artists in the past few years at least. Ever since Citizen TV started focusing on the development of local soaps and dramas, other TV stations have tried to follow suit. The outcome is that many more performing artists are employed than before. “Their lifestyles have changed dramatically,” she said, not meaning that all local actors made that transition successfully but for those who did, life has become sweeter as success and the Kenyan version of celebrity has set in.
Being interviewed by Njeri Wangari was good fun. I spilled the beans on a huge chunk of my life. Basically I told the bare bone outline of a journalistic career—mine—that has focused in the arts. I gave a lengthy sketch, and the joy of telling my story was that Njeri is clearly an artful listener plus she knows how to interview, meaning she knows how to ask the right questions. Being in sociology myself, I know there is an art to interviewing and she has the knack down pat.
I won’t even begin to say how wonderful it was to be interrupted during our interview by old buddies like Wakonyote Njuguna, a former theater critic for the Nation and the Standard, and Steenie Njoroge, a wonderful actor as is Wak. Wak is dear to my heart for many reasons, but he is the man who christened me Wanjera because I used to be always on the streets, chasing stories about the artists, even as I am today. Only now I hope to help amplify the role of Kenyan artists in society even more than I do all those days when I worked dutifully for the local dailies and delighted in seeing that humble byline of mine.