An arts festival that was supposed to be a multidisciplinary event showcasing creativity in Kenya took place in Nairobi March 7-16, 2003. ArtMatters writer OGOVA ONDEGO evaluates it.
Right from its name, organisation and publicity, everything appeared wrong with the Maboomboom (or is it maboumboum or mabumbum?) Kenya arts festival. The festival was to have been held in Nairobi ostensibly to celebrate four decades of Kenya’s cultural independence. Dubbing it the biggest multi-discipline festival on mainland East Africa, the organisers had said it was meant “to awaken the country” through artistic expression in music, dance and acrobatic performances, visual arts, theatre and comedy shows, poetry recitals, fashion and film shows, at a host of venues. “For the first time in Kenya’s history,” said Judy Ogana of Kuona Art Trust, “our own visual and performing artists from around the country have joined hands to produce an explosive event to awaken national appreciation of our own arts, culture and national heroes.”
The event was to encompass acrobatics, visual arts, applied arts, comedy, cuisine, dance, fashion, film, literature, music and theatre. Besides screening local audio-visual products and staging local theatre, Maboumboum was to usher fashion parades onto the streets while famous prose was to be held on billboards and on rehabilitated public toilets. Traditional food and two concerts featuring Kenya’s best musicians, dancers and acrobats, were to be showcased.
Visual artists were expected to splash the city with colour throughout the festival with murals painted on dilapidated public walls to liven up the dull urban environment. Sculpture and artworks were also to be displayed in shop windows, hotel lobbies, banks and other unusual areas. The public were to be encouraged to get involved in art-making through outreach projects. Various art exhibitions were also to be hosted by Nairobi’s popular art galleries. However, other than for the events marking the International Women’s Day at Maison Francaise, the event remained just that: a good idea. Why did this happen?
Mabumbum means several things to various people: thighs of women, big drums, uncoordinated sound, and, yes… noise. Why did the organisers choose such a name for what they touted as 40 years of Kenya’s cultural independence? Joy Mboya, one of the principal organisers of the event, said the name maboomboom was derived from the big drums of the Giryama people. But not many people were aware of this. Why didn’t they choose a name that readily connects with the majority?
One would also like to know what made the organisers–dubbed an arts coalition– think that Kenya was celebrating 40 years of cultural independence? It would be a misconception to equate independence of the flag to cultural independence. Kenya may have political independence but cultural independence is still a mirage. Our artistic expressions, language, lifestyle and other aspects of culture are not yet independent. If truth be told, those who call shots on the cultural front in Kenya are foreigners. Not that it is wrong for foreigners to join locals in building their house. It only becomes objectionable if the latter are simply told how that house should be designed, built and funded by the former.
Perhaps one would have given the organisers the benefit of the doubt had they claimed that Kenya was celebrating a decade of cultural independence. For gone are the days when the likes of writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o would be detained and drama stopped at the eleventh hour for being ‘politically incorrect’. This was before the 1990s when the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev and Frederick de Klerk opened the bottle releasing the long imprisoned genie of freedom that was to sweep across the world and introduce political pluralism and freedom of expression to hitherto totalitarian states like Kenya. The festival did not need to be rushed without proper planning and coordinated publicity.
This led to many activities not taking off. For instance, not a single soul turned up at Phoenix Players Theatre for the film casting and screen writing workshops. Jean-Pierre Volia, the director of Maison Francaise, said his centre was involved in “facilitating and hosting the Agender festival only and in availing our auditorium to African dance performance and workshop, and the screening of Dangerous Affairs.”
Dangerous Affair Poster
Programmes coordinator Harsita Waters complained that though the Percussion Discussion group of Uganda was to have performed and held dance workshops with their Kenyan counterparts with the knowledge of the Maboumboum organisers, they did not include them in their programme. “They also did not invite FCCC director Volia to their Press conference and the fashion march,” said Waters, adding that the event was plagued with “organisational problems.” Waters feels the event should have been organised for a longer time instead of starting to organise it in February while it took place in March.
Volia and Waters suggest that in future Maboumboum organisers should consider incorporating arts and culture journalists in their committees to help in publicity and that they should be planning in advance instead of rushing an event and doing it badly. Sarakasi Trust of Rudy van Dijck had planned an arts festival in March but other people latched onto the idea claiming that it would serve Kenya well following the successfully held General elections that had removed the Kenya African National Union that had ruled Kenya for four decades since independence from power. Waters–like other critics–feels Maboumboum tried to cram too may activities into too short a time with too few organisers.
Lydia Galavu’s African Adam
“There was need to have an overall coordinator of the event, ensuring that the various committees were working towards a common goal,” Waters says. “Committees were there but no one followed up on them to ensure they were doing things well.” Film director Wanjiru Kinyanjui says the event “was too chaotically organized to have much effect, much attendance.” She had been invited to give a 7 minutes talk during the ‘Agender’ programme, but never got any indication as to where or when she was supposed to turn up. She says the programme for the screening of her film, The Battle of the Sacred Tree, at Nairobi Cinema, was ready minutes before the first screening and that “only the lucky few who were part of the organising committee really knew what was ‘supposed to go on’!”
She adds, “I don’t think the festival had much effect – things like that need professionalism and a time to hit it off.” Kinyanjui contends the screenings of the films “were actually supposed to be free since cinema halls were not charging.”
Saying “the organisation [read arts coalition] was the only beneficiary,” Kinyanjui adds, “Weird goings on shrouded the whole thing in mystery. ‘How things ‘work’ in Kenya!” Artist Xavier Verhoest, who held ‘Insights into Kenya’ exhibition at Le Rustique Restaurant in Westlands (March 14-16) under the Maboomboom banner, said the biggest weaknesses of the festival emanated from time and preparation. “The preparation of a festival of this kind takes at least six months and the condition is that you have a committee with good organisational skills,” he says.
On why the festival was rushed, Verhoest says, “The organisers wanted to capitalise on the feeling of optimism in the country after the peaceful political transition from Kanu to the National Rainbow Coalition.” Besides this, he says, “the new Minister for Culture was happy to sponsor the event. It was made up of particular events with others being absorbed as part of it. Thus there was no clear definition of the event and no feeling of creating something special. It is true there was confusion in attempting to accommodate everything and everyone under the umbrella of Maboumboum.”
Responding on behalf of event joint coordinators Mboya and van Dijck, publicist Mike Strano says maboumboum was “a huge success in the eyes of the public, government, sponsors, media and arts industry. Never before has a festival in Kenya involved the synergistic interaction of 10 different disciplines of arts. Never before has there been a 10-day public celebration of Kenyan art. As such, awareness of Kenyan art is higher in the public and Kenyan artists are committed to working together again on MABOOMBOOM 2004 and other projects.”
Kenyan fashion designers Agatha oturi, Careen asamba, Peggy onyango
Saying an analysis by Steadman and Associates Media Monitors “reveals that the Festival generated publicity of value in excess of Sh10m”, Strano admits the coalition was aware that seven weeks were “never going to be enough time with the resources at hand to pull off a perfect festival.” Moreover, he says, “Insufficient sponsorship did not allow the advertising required and the production of some events.” On why art and theatre programmes did not take off, Strano says, “I only know of two theatre productions that didn’t take off because of lack of co-operation from the Kenya National Theatre. Similarly, some Street Art didn’t take off because of poor co-operation by Nairobi City Council.” The festival name–MABOOMBOOM–Strano says, “was suggested by Joy Mboya and voted on by the committee. Its significance is one of the beating of a drum to awaken the Kenya Arts Industry, and the public’s awareness of it.” He says the festival was rushed “to avoid the rains inn mid-March and before the June budget so that we could get full Government support for the 2004 festival. We also wanted to take advantage of the national euphoria of a new beginning and the willingness of our new Minister for Gender, Sports, Culture and Social Services to get involved.”
A contentious issue that emerged over the festival was one of entry charges to the venues. The activities were to have been held free of charge in order to promote and popularise the arts in Kenya. However, organisers charged between Sh100 and Sh250 (film) and Sh1000 (‘Made in Kenya’ fashion show) per head. This issue was raised even by some of the people who sat on the organising committee of MABOOMBOOM.
Strano responds that “Some activities were for free–for instance, 40,000 people enjoyed Kenya’s best music and acrobat shows at Uhuru Park on Sunday March 16–but it was NEVER the intention for all activities to be for free. In fact, we need to move the public away from the perception that art is always for free in order for the Kenya Arts Industry to grow. Organisers charged various REASONABLE gate prices to cover costs and demonstrate that art is something of value–something you pay for.” “Gate collection,” Strano says,” was used to cover costs” but that “many organisers paid money from their own pockets to make events happen.”
ArtMatters welcomes events such as Maboumboom but suggests that they be well organised so as not to become lessons into how not to run an arts festival as Maboumboum has just proved.