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Eric Wainaina sets Nairobi on “Faya”

By Clar Ni Chonghaile in Nairobi
Posted on Tuesday, 16 March 2010 10:06

Eric Wainaina wants to be on Broadway within two years. His politically-charged musical, Mo Faya, played at the GoDown Arts Centre in Nairobi in December. In an exclusive online interview for The Africa Report, Clar Ni Chonghaile asks him if he might swap music for politics.

Eric Wainaina does not want to be a politician, and the Kenyan artist and singer does not see the musical Mo Faya as a deliberate political act. But the show, which played in Nairobi in December, is a clarion call to fight corruption and negligent state institutions. It has touched a raw nerve.

“We could write a play about anything in Kenya right now and you could find a way of relating it to the current situation,” Wainaina says, sipping a cup of tea as he sits on a red sofa in his Nairobi home. “There is a new scandal every week in Kenya, so you could write about anything and it would be relevant. It’s not a deliberate whatever, but it’s interesting how life reflects art and art reflects life.”

Mo Faya is set in Kwa Maji, an imaginary Nairobi slum where DJ Lwanda, played by Wainaina, is a community radio star whose show inspires people neglected by the government and preyed upon by a greedy property magnate, Ana Mali, who wants to take over their land. Mali lures Lwanda from Kwa Maji with a job at Big City Radio and organises a campaign of terror that leaves bodies in the streets. Lwanda’s girlfriend, Syombua, must try to persuade the DJ to return to the people who need him now more than ever.

In Mo Faya, Wainaina leaves no wrongdoing unexposed, going after self-seeking politicians, corrupt police officers, gangster-like killers for hire, land-grabbing entrepreneurs and ineffective non-governmental organisations (described in the play as new growth opportunities). But he wraps his message in humour and uplifting reggae, producing a slick show that moves and entertains.

At a recent performance, the audience guffawed at lines like “In Kenya, politics is not about ideas, it is about everything else,” and again when actress Melissa Ommeh performed a hilarious mime of a pontificating politician. “Mo Faya is a call in reggae, a corruption of ‘more’ and ‘fire’, which means spread the love, spread the fire, spread the understanding,” Wainaina explained.

Goodbye to impunity

Wainaina’s songs have long tackled Kenya’s political and social ills head on. His 2001 hit Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo (Land of Bribes) became an anthem of the Kenyan wananchi, or ordinary people. With Mo Faya, he has once again placed his finger unerringly on the popular pulse.

Kenya is still recovering from the bloodletting that followed a disputed election in December 2007. Around 1,300 people were killed and some 300,000 people displaced, as political opponents encouraged their supporters, often from different ethnic groups, to attack their perceived foes. Now, the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, wants to indict powerful political figures, possibly including sitting cabinet ministers, for financing and fomenting the violence that nearly tipped Kenya over the edge. The next few months could be critical, especially as many politicians are already openly campaigning for elections in 2012, with ethnic identity again becoming ever more important.

Wainaina, who works with communities in Nairobi’s slums and on civic education projects, is worried. “I guess, on the one hand, one could say that because of what happened in 2007/2008, people understand the cost of letting go of the reins, and that gives me some ray of hope. But I am not seeing the guidance towards the beam of light coming from the political class.”

He points out that 60% of Nairobi’s population live in slums or informal settlements and that the message they get every day is that the state does not care. This makes it hard for activists like him to persuade people to act honestly at election time.

“We are one voice happening on one day compared to I don’t know how many other voices they hear every single day.” The artist pauses and thinks. “I don’t know what we are going to do. I guess people like myself are going to keep on doing what we do in the hope that the message will get across, and [we will] definitely become harder at doing it.”

The 36-year-old musician performed at the opening of the ICC in New York in 2002, never imagining the court would one day turn its sights on Kenyan politicians. But he thinks that those responsible for the post-election violence should be prosecuted.

“If it has to be a global watchman like the ICC that comes in and says, ‘Look if you guys can’t handle this stuff, we are going to help you do it’, I do agree it needs to happen because impunity needs to go.”

Time for politics?

It is an obvious question, but hasn’t Wainaina, whose song Daima (Kenya Only) became the ultimate expression of unity in grief for many Kenyans after the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi, ever thought of entering politics? “I have been tempted, but I came to my senses. Because I’m a fairly decent musician and the reason I wake up in the morning, other than being with my wife and my kids and all that, is to write. At the root of it, I’m an artist.”

He also doesn’t think his activism makes him an automatic candidate. “The request does … come. ‘Are you going to run, why don’t you?’ And I sort of sit there thinking, ‘Yeah, I could’ … but there is no guarantee I’d be better than any of the people who are there right now because my heart is in the music. I think the mistake that a lot of public figures in my field make is that we assume we will be able to copy and paste the influence we have into another arena. I think the reason people listen to me is because I’m singing good songs and they like what I’m saying. We can’t assume that is going to be converted into some political speech and everyone is going to be, ‘Wow, you’re Kenya’s Obama’. And ultimately, it’s not what I want to do with my life. I want to play.”

Mo Faya does look like the ultimate political play, albeit in a foot-tapping, hip-jiggling, laughter-fest way. But Wainaina, who studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston and has won a clutch of awards for his music and his activism, points out that Mo Faya predates recent events. It began as Lwanda, Man of Stone, a musical Wainaina wrote in 2001 based on a traditional folk story from western Kenya.

But Wainaina did not feel it really worked. In 2006, a friend recommended he redo it as a modern story, with part of it in Kiswahili. He did and Lwanda, a Ghetto Story was born. He then performed 52 shows around Kenya, straddling the post-election violence, and he found the show struck a chord despite having been written before the vote. He still was not satisfied and reworked it again, turning it into Mo Faya.

Wainaina has big ambitions for his show, which he thinks needs a little more work before reaching perfection. He told an audience at Nairobi’s GoDown Arts Centre that he wanted to take it to Broadway in under two years, and to go on the road again in Kenya. He is also wondering if filming the show would be more effective in spreading its message.

He also has a new album, Love and Protest in the can, but he has had to delay the release because of the work involved in the musical. “It’s ready. The artwork is ready. Everything is ready, but we couldn’t do Mo Fayaplus Love and Protest… As a company, we are really small and we just didn’t have the manpower.”

The album, his third after 2001’s Sawa Sawa and Twende Twende in 2006, was originally due to be released in September. And now? “Is there a new date? Yes. March. That’s all I’m going to say,” he ventures.

For fans, the album promises vintage Wainaina. “I think that every act of protest comes from a feeling of love … Those of us who are activists, and we say Kenya or Africa needs to do this, we are not doing it from a standpoint of not being patriotic. We are doing it from a standpoint of … being in contact every day with people living below the line of what is desirable.”

Clar Ni Chongahile is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi.

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