She oozes art from every pore. Born of a mimic mother and a story-telling father, she is married to a theatre actor and director while she has named her two children after a musical character and a world renowned English playwright. This is Mumbi Kaigwa, the actress whose journey in the performing arts appears to have begun long before she was born. What with her paternal grandmother having been a traditional dancer.OGOVA ONDEGO reports.
Kaigwa remembers striding on the primary school stage at the age of 12. But it was her winning the covetous Best Actress title at the 1978 Kenya Schools Drama Festival that led her to conclude her lot had been cast among artists. Without knowing, her dabbling in verse-speaking in which she won awards at the Kenya Schools Music Festival had prepared her for what would become her lifetime obsession, hobby and career-acting.
Twenty-five years later, Kaigwa is still going strong in her chosen vocation. Her house is adorned with African paintings, sculptures and wall decorations. The backyard and verandah also have eye-catching sculptures and installation that produce music to the ear. Having starred in the Australian soap opera Neighbours in 1995 and Kenya’s yet-to-be-released feature film Forgotten, Kaigwa’s thirst for the screen is unquenched. She is now working on Heart and Soul, a United Nations-commissioned social marketing soap opera in which she has starred in its pilot besides being one of the six writers and script editor. The soap is styled on South Africa’s Soul City production with the crew having been trained by producers of Britain’s EastEnders.
So is this a copy of Western soaps? Kaigwa simply answers with, “We do not have to reinvent the wheel. The technique may be taken from the Western model but the stories are all our own.”
Although she still does theatre, Kaigwa says television, video and film are the way forward in the development of Kenya. Heart and Soul, which should have been on television and radio at the end of last year, tackles all kinds of issues including poverty, AIDS, gender, governance, environment, and even taboos like incest, adolescence sex, abortion, and illicit alcohol “to show the world that Kenya can have her own home grown solutions to problems.” Kaigwa was among the brains behind the project while working with the UN. She may have appeared on television in 1972 in Wole Soyinka’s play, The Strong Breed, but it is only recently that her love for TV and video has become almost insatiable. She co-produced and directed a sex education video (No Go Tell!) for adolescents, and scripted, produced and directed her own play-The Voice of a Dream-last year. Saying funding problems favour TV and video over film, Kaigwa says she is “in film to tell the many African stories waiting to be told.” But that is not to say she has jettisoned theatre. “I am keeping stage and screen as part of my journey,” she says. “I am not doing film for money but for my love of seeking and telling the truth.”
She blames some of the problems plaguing artists in Kenya on what she says is absence of a non-partisan organised body like an arts council that could lobby and raise funds for the industry. She nevertheless plans to receive more training in the television production to go full throttle in filmmaking as “Kenya abounds in talent, actors, writers and stories but lacks expertise on ways to make film and TV cost-effectively.” Kaigwa’s innovation was best demonstrated when she married dance, mime, story-telling and acting in her production of Voices of a Dream at the Maison Francaise’s Theatre Extravaganza last year. The production is now on video and Kaigwa is planning to take it on tour. She however does not romanticise art when it comes to earning a living from it. “Acting as a career is difficult everywhere and not just in Kenya. Living on theatre alone is not easy,” she says.
But could this be why she started The Theatre Company and The Children’s Theatre in order to supplement her income? “Although money is always useful,” she says reflectively, “the plan in founding these organisations is to help the development of the arts in totality and not to make film only for monetary gain.” While the Theatre Company focuses on adults, The Children’s Theatre seeks to equip children with confidence through music, theatre, games, acrobatics, puppetry and songs. Married to fellow thespian Keith Pearson with whom she has two children-Mo and William- Kaigwa has a knack for things African. The couple supplemented their church wedding ceremony with ngurario (Kikuyu traditional wedding).
“My love for African ways has grown out of my life journey. We have to create things that are genuinely ours. Our West and South African brothers and sisters seem to have made great strides in this direction,” she says. “But this should not be taken to mean I hate whites. How can I when I am married to one of them?” “If we are going to have respect for ourselves, we must celebrate our being. We don’t have to look for answers outside ourselves.”
Kaigwa argues that hers is not just loving things African but a realisation that Africans do not have to borrow examples from anywhere else. So what makes her tick? “The desire to learn and to allow people to function in dignity,” she answers promptly. “I never let a day pass without learning something from those I interact with.” She admits she fears offending people. “Never labeling any one, I avoid people who drag me back.” Kaigwa is the last of four children born to Perpetua Wamuyu and Mark Wambugu Kaigwa. Her father was deputy mayor of Nairobi (1962-65).
She attended Hospital Hill, Limuru Girls’ School, Kenya High School and then University of Nairobi and United States International University. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in French and Arabic and a Master’s in Management and Organisational Development. Kaigwa resigned from the UN (where she had worked with UNICEF for six years and UNDCP for another four) in December 1998 to go back to the love that gave her a husband-singing, dancing, acting, writing, directing, and editing. The couple’s hobbies include theatre and bicycle riding. A leading voice in Kenya’s fledgling audio-visual sector, Kaigwa is far from being spent from the journey she embarked on a quarter a century back