Kenyan artistes now reaping fruit of their unusual labour

Saturday March 5 2011

Artiste Mike Wamaya explains a point. He is a ballet, jazz and modern dancer who is now earning a living from his career of choice. ANTHONY NJOROGE

Artiste Mike Wamaya explains a point. He is a ballet, jazz and modern dancer who is now earning a living from his career of choice. ANTHONY NJOROGE 

By JOHN MAKENI, [email protected]

It never used to be taken seriously as a career. Those who engaged in it full time used to be considered outcasts. Even today, there are Kenyans who consider acting, dancing, directing, film making, painting and singing as a waste of time.

In schools, students shy away from visual and performing arts, citing their parents’ desire for “lucrative” courses like medicine, law, accounting and teaching.

Kenyan artistes have mixed feelings about performing arts.

Mike Wamaya is one of the artistes who have proved cynics wrong. Wamaya, 25, is a ballet, jazz and modern dancer. He is also a graphic designer and a trained motor vehicle mechanic.

“I don’t have any other jobs. I earn 70 percent of my income from dance and graphic design,” he says.

In the past, Mr Wamaya says, it was difficult to make ends meet from his career of choice. “Most of the time, we have to look for jobs, but sometimes these dance jobs just find us,” Wamaya, who runs Other Production alongside three other artistes in Nairobi, says.

He earns between Sh4,000 to Sh5,000 per show. The minimum he makes per month is Sh25,000, enough to pay rent, buy food and pay fees for his two sisters and a cousin in high school.

Mr Ken Waudo is one of the directors of Heartstrings Kenya, a local theatre company. Even though plays are his sole source of living, often times he is asked what else he does for a living besides theatre.

“Whatever money we get from a show, we have to spend it wisely until the next show,” says Mr Waudo. His group earns Sh50,000 per show, on average.

However, there is the lot that does not live on acting and singing alone.

Eddie Kimani, a popular face on TV programmes such as Nairobi Law and Higher Learning, says it is impossible to survive on acting or singing alone.

“I can’t say we are there yet in terms of arts paying well, but the difference now is that there are more opportunities for actors and musicians,” says Kimani.

Joy Mboya, the executive director of the Godown Arts Centre, says: “We need professionals to manage and train artistes on issues around arts management.

“In the past, the Kenya National Theatre seemed to be the only space. We now have private organisations which have come up and contribute in a big way in the development of the arts.”

The entry of television stations into local production has given artistes a shot in the arm.

About 15 years ago, artistes used to be paid as little as Sh400 per TV episode. Today, the lowest they earn is Sh35,000 per episode.

During an arts training management seminar three weeks ago at the Godown Arts Centre, Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in the US, conducted the sessions.

“Art has been perceived as a hobby. People don’t see us at the centre of society. People often walk into my office and ask what really is my job. They don’t believe I have a job,” said Mr Kaiser, whose organisation offers international arts fellowship to artistes across the world.

A trained opera singer, Mr Kaiser, whose training session was coordinated by the US embassy in Nairobi and the Godown Arts Centre, said that arts in the US provides 5.7 million people with employment.

He said many artists are preoccupied with how they would pay bills and in the process do not create great art.

“We don’t have a pool of trained arts managers.

“It is not all about selling tickets but putting up great show. The key to success in arts is to do great arts,” said Mr Kaiser.