The hall is full, pregnant with anticipation. As soothing drumbeats marrying with marimba and flute tunes pulsate in the dimly lit auditorium, everyone’s eye is on the stage on which a narrator is getting. Ready to impart some form of wisdom on both the young and the-not-so-young listeners through voice, face, hands, mime and imagination.
Welcome to storytelling theatre, the oldest form of didactic literature that is catching on in Nairobi and which many an art critic in Kenya considers to be the future of performing arts in the East African nation. Like Jesus Christ, Plato, and Confucius of old did, groups like Zamaleo Act Trust and Maarifa Afrika are using stories not just to connect with their listeners but also to enable them appreciate and preserve their cultural heritage. During the12th edition of their Fireside Tales dubbed ‘Brothers at war,’ Zamaleo showed how storytelling can be used in helping Kenyans to come to terms with their world, the stories providing a perspective to understand what has transpired in the past and what is happening in the present.
Narrator Amadi Atsiaya recited a Kiswahili tale about the sun and the wind and how their rivalry caused suffering on earth. Well-harmonised songs and dance accompanied the tale, loosening the imagination of the audience in order to freely explore the world of fantasy with the narrator. With exploitation of space, silence and mime, Atsiaya explained how the wind and the sun decided to fight just to demonstrate their might to each other. When the sun succeeds in forcing a coat off a man who knows nothing about their fight, the sun boasts of his superiority to the wind, which makes the latter all the more determined to outdo the former.
Consequently, the wind causes a raging storm that leaves wanton destruction in its wake. But never one to accept defeat, the sun begins an almost indistinguishable inferno that touches every corner of the earth. Fortunately, the fire touches the eyes of the clouds forcing out tears that extinguish it to the relief of all living things. The audience applauded the clouds, seen as mediators of peace. Susan Kungu presented Wacici and Wamweru, an adaptation from Gikuyu folk stories. In the heart-rending tale Wamweru, overcome by envy because her twin sister is more popular than she, conspires with her mother against Wacici. They trick her into going to a section of the forest in order to be harmed by ghosts. Wacici, however, hides in a cave from which she is rescued. Angered by their treacherous act, Wacici’s father curses and banishes Wamweru and her mother to live with animals in the forest.
With elaborate but slow-paced narration, dramatisation, and songs, Kungu ably captured the imagination of the audience who sang along, booed and ululated in all the right places Even though the theme of conflict and war ran through all the stories, it was the title story, Brothers at war, that dazzled. Presented by George Chomba and Onyango Owino, Brothers at war is set in traditional Luo community and chronicles the beginning of rivalry among Luo sub-tribes. In the story, Nyipal uses the royal spear left to Labongo by their late father to save the community from a destructive elephant while Labongo is away. However the elephant flees with the spear stuck into its flesh.
When Labongo hears of the loss of the spear upon his return, he is so infuriated that he forces his brother Nyipal into the dangerous forest to recover it. Nyipal goes into the forest where he meets an elderly woman whose eyes are oozing with wax and pus. The pitiable woman requests him to lick the repulsive pus that he does without realising the action will impart on him protective powers that will enable him to recover the spear from the ferocious animal. A while later, Labongo’s daughter swallows Nyipal’s magical bead forcing the latter to demand the recovery of the bead. But this can only be possible with the slaying of the girl. As Labong’o struggles to retrieve the bead from the coiled intestines of the hapless girl, a dirge spews forth.
This heinous act drives enmity between the two brothers to a new level, complicating their lives and that of their families and friends. Through this story, listeners experience what E.Martin Pedersen of the Universita di Messina in Italy describes as “a vicarious past and a oneness with various cultures of the present as they gain insight into the motives and patterns of human behavior.”
Maarifa Afrika is another group that dabbles in storytelling theatre. years. They act, recite poetry, sing, and perform dances from various Kenyan communities: Luhya, Kikuyu, Giryama and Luo. The group consists of young school leavers with the aim of using their talents to keep Kenyans entertained. So what did viewers think of the Zamaleo Act Trust performance? Sevoryne Gatumu of Keriria Secondary School, said, ” I expected to see elements of a good storyteller as taught in class and I have done just that.”
Felix Maingi, a biomechanical student at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, and his sister Juliet Maingi of Precious Blood Secondary School in Riruta, said they were equally satisfied with the show. Despite the relevance of most stories presented, some members of the audience regretted that some stories were very philosophical and not suitable for the children who have made it a habit to throng the auditorium during Zamaleo performances.
“When we started, our aim was to stage stories that children could easily relate to,” said Atsiaya. “As we now have a good grip on the children, we are now trying to tell older people that storytelling is not a child’s thing.” As much as this argument may be justified, there can be no excuse for Zamaleo to alienate children just because they now want to appeal to adults. Conventional wisdom dictates that one should keep one’s customers satisfied even as one seeks new business opportunities. Zamaleo should need to keep children-their captive audience– even as they explore virgin grounds with adults.
Maarifa Afrika director Naomi Immaculate Samita says her group targets families and not just children or adults. Like music, poetry, and dance, storytelling is a living art that only comes to life in performance, to quote E. Martin Pedersen again. Zamaleo Act Trust and Maarifa Afrika appear to rise to this billing in Kenya: they put life into storytelling. The popularity of storytelling may be growing in Kenya but artistes are not about to sit back and enjoy the sweat of their labour. Monetary returns from this art are yet to be seen.