Theatre artists in Kenya are wrangling over who should represent them in the Eastern Africa Theatre Institute (EATI), a regional network of theatre organisations in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya established in 1998.OGOVA ONDEGO writes.
In the eye of the storm is Institute of Performing Artists Limited, a company founded in 2001 as “a forum for the development and promotion of performing arts in Kenya” but which artists are accusing of arrogating to itself the role of representing them. Having waited in vain for two years to see IPAL pave the way for an organisation that would represent them as the Kenya chapter of EATI, an email letter from one “Brenda Koiyet” addressed to IPAL and copied to players in the theatre fraternity, started circulating on August 29, 2005. Although dismissed by IPAL and some artists as a smear campaign, the matter has refused to go away.
“Brenda Koiyet” claimed that three of IPAL’s six directors were using alleged disunity among artists to benefit themselves. Among other things, the letter accused IPAL of doing little towards seeing the Kenyan chapter of EATI created and handed to thespians.
Saying “IPAL was only meant to hold the fort on temporary basis” and lamenting that “we are only seeing individuals in the company go on as if this was a permanent arrangement,” “Brenda Koiyet” claims IPAL has refused to listen to artists they claim to represent.
The email then questions Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), the main funder of EATI, if it is convinced that Kenyan artists cannot run their own affairs and hence has authorised IPAL to act on their behalf. Linda Widmark, the communications officer at the Embassy of Sweden in Nairobi, says the EATI matter is handled from Stockholm and not Nairobi. “I am not even aware if we are still supporting EATI. The contract of Grace Mwema, who was in charge of EATI matters, ended around Christmas in 2004.” Two hours later, Widmark called ArtMatters.Info to report she had a statement from Stockholm saying there is no information to indicate anything is wrong with EATI in Kenya but that they would look into the matter and comment later.
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Of the three IPAL directors–Peter Mudamba, Catherine Kariuki and Aghan–“Brenda Koiyet” accused of malpractice, only Odero spoke to ArtMatters.Info. Kariuki ignored inquiries from ArtMatters.Info while Mudamba said he would comment only after the IPAL chair, Mweni Lundi, had issued an official statement. Instead, Blak Wamukoya Odanyiro, when asked why IPAL had failed to organise thespians and hand over EATI matters to them as had been intended, said philosophically, “Ask EATI if we are a chapter or not as they have their own way of doing things.”
Saying they had done thorough investigations that proved that no one going by the name of Brenda Koiyet existed on the theatre scene in Kenya, Odanyiro said, “IPAL is the official chapter of EATI in Kenya.” And that declaration has incensed thespians.
Sammy Mwangi of Heartstrings Kenya not only questions how IPAL came to represent artists but says the body “deliberately chose not to convene meetings for the stakeholder-mandated sub-committee perhaps taking advantage of alleged disorganisation among thespians to benefit it.” Saying “There wasn’t any open bid among various theatre groups for the EATI initiative” and that IPAL came in through “single-sourcing”, Mwangi says “artists would not have chosen IPAL to run their affairs”had the matter been put to the vote.
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“IPAL can’t claim we aren’t united. I haven’t seen any attempt on their part to prove it is doing something towards realising an EATI chapter for Kenya. You can’t say it is difficult to unite artists otherwise you should not claim to represent them. I am bothered that EATI isn’t set up in Kenya. If IPAL has a problem, why haven’t they told us? Is three years not long enough time to realise that the task at hand is un-implementable and hence to hand over the matter back to stakeholders? If they are silent, it is because they have chosen to. I can’t excuse them for taking us for a ride.”
One of the four people mandated by a special meeting of players in the theatre circles to assist IPAL in drawing up guidelines that would see it establishing an EATI chapter in Kenya and handing over the management of such a body to local thespians, Mwangi says he attended only two meetings and kept away after Agnes A’abala, a director of IPAL, failed to inform him about the progress of such meetings. Odero had on September 26, 2005 blamed the sub-committee Mwangi is talking about of having failed in its mandate and hence the inability on IPAL’s part to form the envisaged Kenyan chapter of EATI.
Other members of the committee put together by a special meeting of artists at the Methodist Guest House, Nairobi, in 2003, to provide a “grassroots feel” to the theatre community as IPAL attempted to create a Kenyan EATI chapter, were Kwamchetsi Makokha, Joy Masheti and Neema Bagamuhunda. Makokha says “IPAL’s responsibility and duty is to explain to artists what is going on and there are no two ways about it.” He says meetings of the sub-committee were to be organised by IPAL and that if they were not held then they were not convened. “We would make resolutions that were not followed by IPAL. IPAL was to have spearheaded the process of establishing an EATI chapter in Kenya while the sub-committee’s duty was to merely bring the views of the players in theatre to assist IPAL.”
Masheti concurs: “The sub-committee did not fail but IPAL refused to cooperate. We wrote to them complaining about their not taking us seriously but they ignored us.” She says someone (who she does not name) complained to SIDA after the meetings stopped but that SIDA, not wishing to be drawn into what she terms “local theatre politics”, did not respond. But why has IPAL declined to comment on the issues raised by “Brenda Koiyet”?
Odero told ArtMatters.Info that IPAL could not reply to the allegations as responding to a “ghost” would be tantamount to validating the claims. A month later, on October 26, Odanyiro echoed Odero’s sentiments. That IPAL cannot comments on “issues” raised by a phantom. Not even in the public interest?
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No, he maintained: “If what was said was in public interest, the email writer would not be hiding behind shadows.” However theatre practitioners like Makokha, Masheti, Ken Waudo and Charles Bukeko do not think the identity of the email writer is important as long as the issues raised are real. Makokha says, “I do not care whether Brenda Koiyet is a person, plant or building. What concerns me, and what I think the theatre community needs to focus on is whether information on what we are doing” within and without IPAL is accessible to those who need it. I think this email raises fundamental issues of public communication which IPAL, myself and everyone else associated with theatre must attempt to respond to without getting emotional or defensive. In my book, no one, not me nor anyone else, is too big to be questioned about how they are handling public affairs.
Some of the questions may be legitimate, and some may not be, but they deserve a respectful answer “because that is what leadership is about. We must explain how far we are in attempting to create that EATI chapter. If this stops being about accountability and turns into a mole hunt for Brenda Koiyet or her/his many aliases, we will have lost another opportunity to bring theatre management to the professional levels that we have always desired. And this must be done with speed.” The identities of those with dissenting voices, Masheti concurs, are not important but the issues they are raising. “The fact that Brenda Koiyet does not exist does not negate the issues being raised.”
Bukeko of Pambazuka Productions says “Brenda Koiyet” has a point. “There is a problem and IPAL should look at the issues raised soberly instead of reacting emotionally.” While Jacob Otieno of Tufani Arts says “This Brenda thing is unpleasant, distractive, and is taking us nowhere,” Amadi Atsiaya says, “If someone coins a name and starts to operate like a puppeteer in a booth, then he/she is not serious. Such a person is not out to help us. When you are sure something is going wrong somewhere, it is godly to take a firm stand against such evil and lead others on the way to righteousness. You do not hide in a hood because we will fear you.”
Atsiaya is “in accord with IPAL being subjected to criticism since they carry the responsibility of executing the mandate given to them by EATI for the artists of this country. IPAL has got its own weaknesses which I would like to see addressed with sobriety instead of bellicose paroxysm while hiding behind pseudonyms.” According to Masheti, thespians formed Kenya Association of Theatre Artists (KATA) under Wakanyote Njuguna after disowning the late Opiyo Mumma’s KIDEA saying it was not representative enough. She says a split was to later emerge in KATA with one faction under Njuguna and another led by Catherine Kariuki. “The latter was renamed IPAL and went on to be funded by SIDA in the guise of representing thespians.”
During the first meeting with artists, Masheti continues, “IPAL told us EATI had authorised them to run the Kenyan chapter of the organisation. We were then nominated by the stakeholders to be meeting with IPAL in order to put structures in place that would see artists form the Kenyan chapter of EATI. We held only five meetings. Only Kwamchetsi and I were consistent in attending the meetings that only Aghan Odero participated in. We stopped halfway through.”
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Masheti laments: “It occurred to us that IPAL was operating even as we attempted to lay down regulations and mode of operation. Money had already been disbursed from SIDA and so we appeared not to be taken seriously. Not a single recommendation we made was ever taken by IPAL directors.” She says “whoever Brenda Koiyet is has a point. IPAL was to have facilitated the formation of an EATI chapter for Kenya and not transformed itself into one. Once the body was launched, IPAL was to have withdrawn from running EATI matters. Should IPAL, that had claimed that KIDEA was not representative enough of artists in Kenya and formed KATA before breaking away to become IPAL, declare itself to be the EATI chapter for Kenya, it would be wrong.” Masheti claims IPAL is “working with only a clique of artists” and that it is “not open to artists concerning what is going on”. “During the stakeholders’ meeting we were told IPAL was a private company and that we could not be members of it. EATI must be de-linked from IPAL if it is meant to benefit all artists. EATI projects are usually given to companies associated with IPAL directors. It is difficult to draw a line between the activities of IPAL and those of EATI.” Bukeko says he expected IPAL to unite artists in Kenya where, he says, performing artists have no forum through which to express themselves and “are not even recognised by our own government.”
Bukeko suggests IPAL should educate artists on what they can claim from it and what they cannot. He adds, “Granted, IPAL has held a few workshops and sponsored some productions. But they can do better. Otherwise how can they claim to represent us if they do not know us or what problems we face?” Is “Brenda Koiyet” a disgruntled element out to settle scores with IPAL or the voice of a deceased artist reaching out to thespians who can listen only to someone from beyond the grave and not a live prophet as prophesied in Luke 19:30-31
IPAL say Brenda Koiyet is none other than Ken Waudo of Heartstrings Kenya whom they are accusing of waging a smear campaign against them. Waudo dismisses the claim as baseless saying, “I came to know about the Brenda Koiyet email from Jacob Otieno. After he forwarded it to me, I forwarded it to other email addresses with the comments, ‘Information is power’. Perhaps that is how they came to wrongly conclude I was Brenda Koiyet.”
On October 26, Odero sent a short text message (SMS) to the cellphone number of ArtMatters.Info saying: “Over three years now, I have performed in all continents save South America and Australia! May this add more ‘powerful knowledge’ held by the Waudos and the Koiyets of this world.”
Waudo, who leaves for university education in Uganda in November, says, “IPAL has a case to answer from what Brenda Koiyet says. If IPAL is an organisation worth its salt, it should clear the air instead of looking for scapegoats. Thespians, whom they claim to represent, have a right to know what affects them.”