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When the arts call: How three Kenyan women followed their dreams

By By Maimouna Jallow in Nairobi
Posted on Monday, 6 February 2017 14:19

There is a meme doing the rounds on the internet in which a teen tells his dad: “I want to be an actor”. The father replies: “No son, it’s pronounced doctor.”

Like most parodies, this conversation is rooted in truth. Before the internet and fast travel started blurring our identities and opening up a world of new possibilities, getting A-grades and a degree in medicine, law or engineering to ensure the family’s financial stability was the standard to aspire to for many young Africans. Indeed, the pressure to follow this model is still great.

Whilst parents worked hard to equip their children with the weapons they would need to make it in a world that did not see Africans as equals, many youngsters buried their artistic dreams deep in the pit of their stomachs and conformed. But today, after fulfilling familial, societal and sometimes even self-imposed expectations, some of these artists, who are now in their forties and fifties, are finally exhaling. And all of life’s twists and turns have in some ways made the final creation all the more powerful.

“I didn’t know that acting was a job. I thought a job was something that had to be a struggle.” That belief led Mumbi Kaigwa, one of Kenya’s best-loved theatre actresses, to devote 10 years of her life to working for the United Nations (UN). She emerged drained and disillusioned with an institution that rotated projects as often as it did staff, with little regard for the dreams they’d nurtured. “After the third three-year cycle, I didn’t want to be in the situation where I’d have to explain to the people I was interacting with locally that the project we’d worked on and which was now beginning to see results was having to wind up because we were moving onto the next thing.”

So she quit, and went back to her first passion, acting. But this time, rather than just being an actress for hire, she decided to set up her own theatre company. “I also no longer wanted to be in an English comedy. I wanted to write things that were contemporary and about our own experiences here in East Africa.” That was 1999. Today, through her company, The Arts Canvas, she has been able to act, produce and even direct plays that have had a tremendous impact on people’s lives.

In 2002, after appearing on a TV show about people taking the leap to follow their dreams, she was bombarded with questions about how she’d actually managed to make the shift. The more questions she was asked, the more she asked herself. The result was her play, The Voice of a Dream. The performance was based on a series of interviews she’d conducted, in which she asked ordinary people what they would have done with their lives had they not had any fears or limitations in pursuing their dreams.
“One character in particular was based on a woman I’d interviewed who said that as a child she sang all the time. She was told by her mother to stop singing and so she did. She came to watch the show, and afterwards she told me that this was the first time she’d heard herself. She decided to quit her job and follow her passion. It is quite overwhelming when my work has such an impact. I can be quite shy and insecure, yet theatre gives me a kind of power that even I don’t know I have.”

For Sitawa Namwalie, a poet, playwright and performer who also works as a development consultant, the transition into the arts world was not as drastic. “Growing older, I don’t expect revolutions any more. I think life is negotiated. I have worked for all the major international development agencies. And I am still in bed with all of them. That is how I butter my bread.”

She believes she can make changes from within these structures: “The development industry is a complicated one. My work with women, with rural communities, in agriculture, and so on, has given me the ability to look at things differently. And I include this in my work. One of my poems that gets the most applause and laughs when I perform it is the voice of an African president, chastising his people for insisting on being so poor. I also question the role of the development industry, taking them to task for trying to define who we are as Africans and where we should be going. Do I wish I could one day dedicate my time to writing? Of course!”


The reality is, in the absence of state-funded arts councils it is often these very development organisations that end up funding the arts. It was thanks to UN Development Programme funding that Kaigwa was able to take one of her most powerful productions to camps for internally displaced people in Kenya.

“We carried out a series of storytelling workshops and performances with different communities,” she recounts. Once again, she was able to witness first hand the tremendous power of theatre. “We brought together different members of the Sabaot tribe in Mount Elgon. They speak the same language but there are those that live on the hills, and others that live on the plains. They have been fighting since the 1970s. None had ever heard the other side’s story, which was in fact pretty much the same story. Through theatre we were able to bring them together and create a healing for 25 people. They all said that had they had this opportunity before, they would not have fought.” Kaigwa wipes the tears from her eyes as she adds: “This is the kind of ‘I see you’ theatre that can form and inform society and give people a sense of ‘I am, because you are’.”

However, funders often have their own agendas, so the challenge, according to Namwalie, is to make sure that you do not do ‘theatre for development’. “That is the kiss of death. You could get confused and think that saying things like ‘the girl child’ is a good thing, but it isn’t, not when you are writing creatively.”
Muthoni Garland is a writer and founder of the largest literary festival in East Africa, Storymoja. She worked in marketing and research for nearly two decades before rediscovering her passion, aged 40. In 1999, her husband was posted to Egypt. Unable to work or speak Arabic, she discovered a new world that was at her fingertips. Online, she met writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Binyavanga Wainaina, who understood the African context from which she was writing and didn’t ask her to explain words like ugali in her fiction. Eight years later, her short story Tracking the Scent of my Mother was shortlisted for the Caine Prize.

But personal recognition was not enough. Garland wanted to see more books published locally and to encourage a reading culture in Kenya, where 25% of Standard Seven kids cannot read at Standard Two level – a direct result, she says, of not having strong reading and writing foundational skills from a young age. Her advice to budding writers is the same, read, read read!

This dream led her on a journey where she had to make some sacrifices. “I remember that in the second year of Storymoja, I had to sell a piece of land that I had inherited just to make it happen. My brother thought I was mad. ‘What kind of Kikuyu are you?’ he asked me.”

Garland had forgone an ambition to be a journalist because her parents thought it was too dangerous. When prominent Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o was sent into exile, she says, such a career was completely off the cards. Kaigwa, on the other hand, comes from an artistic family, with a brother who is a sculptor and a comedian uncle. Acting was a part of her life from age 10, but whilst her parents did not oppose it, they didn’t know how to feed it.

“It’s not like my parents really knew what I was doing and thought, ‘Let’s send her to Julliard’ or another performance arts school,” she says. “I went to school. Then got my first degree. Then got a second degree. I fulfilled the traditional education story. There is a lot of information out there now. Perhaps if my parents had been more aware about the arts, they would have supported me in a different way. My daughter is a singer so there are things that I throw in her direction, by way of instruction and encouragement.”


For Namwalie it was nine years ago, when she was in her forties, that she discovered a gift. She wrote her first poem, Land of Guiltless Natives, and received rave reviews. She was mesmerised. “Here I was, with a wonderful, high flying career, and then suddenly I stopped.”

Her husband of 23 years did not recognise this woman who was transforming before his eyes. He tried to bring her back down to earth and remind her of their mortgage and three children, but Namwalie felt that she had to follow her dream: “It was the most difficult time of our lives. When you set off on a journey you just have to do it, but it is hugely disruptive for everyone. And I really did take off. I was speaking in a different way and being different. It is really a testament to who he is as a person that we survived. Today, no one pushes me to produce creative work more than he does.” The first time her father saw her perform, he said: “If I were a wealthy man, this is all you would do. We have found Sitawa now.”

There is a Hausa proverb that goes, “When the music changes, so does the dance.” These women have dared to take risks and reinvent themselves. All in their fifties and with multiple careers under their belts, they disprove the myth that you have to start young to succeed in creative fields. Often it takes a lifetime of twists and turns to find one’s voice or just to find a way to use it. Especially as an artist. ●

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