What would happen in a world where each of us first existed only as a bodiless creature comprising a brain and a soul and then, in the afterlife, gained our bodies?
Nyacomba Githu, the founder of Free Mind Sessions, imagines that we would be more tolerant and not judge people for superficial reasons: “If we were just souls with a brain, we would be more accepting of one another. We would be connecting.”
That is the community Githu hopes to create through Free Mind Sessions.
Mark Muchiru, who attended one of the eight monthly sessions this season, says, “A free minded person is someone who has let go of other people’s perceptions. All of the things that hold them back personally. So whether that is how society, friends, family, judge them and their choices... It’s when they can let that go and make their own decisions in life and do what makes them happy.”
Before every session, the core team, comprising five women, conceptualises a theme which can cover social life, work life or issues affecting creatives & thinkers.
They plan the exploration of these themes through different forms, such as panels where experts discuss an issue such as politics and have a Q&A session afterwards.
They could also be creative workshops where attendees get a chance to rotate from table to table and learn different skills such as painting, drawing, jewellery making and signwriting.
Quiz nights are the most light-hearted sessions and are a great break in between discussions with heavy themes such as Biashara and female empowerment.
Many polarised spaces such as Trump-era US and post-Brexit UK could learn from Free Mind’s model.
Similarly, Kenya grows more polarised everyday with the apparent either-or of the opposition and the government.
Muchira attended the Kenya in Transition panel conversation right before the country’s double-election period.
He observed: “Kenya is coming to a very crucial time right now with the election in about a week. And I think it is good for us to get ourselves out of our bubbles and share and have dialogue.”
Free Mind Sessions hopes to be the middleman and provide a space where Kenyans can engage with each other outside of small friend groups, bursting the bubble of family WhatsApp groups and the social media timelines of like-minded people.
“Break down the jail you put yourself in as a person so that you can also see other opinions in a more transparent way,” says Githu.
At the Alchemist, where many of the monthly sessions have been held, the colourful cushions are a little reminiscent of reggae colours and Githu’s words bring to mind Bob Marley’s “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.”
“Why do people always put their theses on a shelf?” Githu asks.
Kenyans have been critical of schools' emphasis on theoretical learning rather than practical application.
Additionally, the University of Nairobi, where Githu studies Art & Design, faced interruptions throughout last year due to a lecturers' strike and police harassment amidst fears of election-related protests.
Githu's school project birthed Free Mind Sessions.
“I named it Free Mind because I was making a clothing line based on this thesis I had written about people being very close-minded and very scared,” says Githu.
Although with her dark blue lipstick and her unique outlook on life, the eccentricity of artists is evident in Githu – she likes to attach her vision to something tangible.
For her Free Mind thesis, she decided to make an adventurous clothing line that could encourage people to embrace their true selves.
"However weird or quirky it may seem to other people, to you it makes sense," says Githu.
Physically, the clothes make someone look like steel man or steel woman, says Githu. This is an allusion to how superheroes wear their costumes and they feel like they can save the world.
"Are we good enough? Are we sufficient? Are we valued? Is what I am doing right?”
These are the questions Githu grappled with when conceptualising her clothing line and which she brings to Free Mind sessions, betraying a depth of introspection that challenges stereotypes about millennials.
Githu’s own art is fuelled by emotion and a need to tell a story.
When she is upset, or down or emotionally engaged, she pushes herself to draw more, write more and paint more.
“I know it sounds weird and morbid,” she says, adding that Free Minds was born after she lost her dad.
“I wanted not to be caught up inside.”
Githu draws inspiration from the English fashion designer Zandra Rhodes’ quirky and child-like art. She sees a similarity between this work and Free Mind Sessions’ vision to provide spaces for open conversation. “I want people to feel like they can be a child,” she says, referencing both their curiosity and openness.
She hopes people resist the adult instinct to keep things in instead of discussing them: “How am I gonna say it so it does not sound like I am upsetting them?”
Githu acknowledges the economic disparity that could exclude some of her audience.
Halfway through the 2017 season, Free Mind started charging Sh500 entry fee.
At this point, their audience reduced by 20 percent to 40, but later continued its steady increase to an eventual 60 to 70 people by November’s session.
Apart from profits, Githu needed money to afford stationery, decor, lighting and sound. Until this point, the core team had been covering these expenses out of pocket.
Githu hopes that continuing to engage and expand her online audience will ensure their dream remains accessible.
She plans to go global with Free Mind, moving outside of Nairobi into other parts of Kenya first, and then tapping into global interests.
She’s already attracting international interest – a message her team receives from New York inquires how Free Mind Sessions works and what theme they are engaging with that particular month.
For others interested in engaging artistic spaces in Nairobi, Githu sees value in beginning immediately because someone else could come up with the same idea and execute it while you are questioning yourself.
During the He Said She Said session, a woman in black braids and a striped shirt repeats the same question to six panellists: “Companies tend to advertise things like cleaning products to women and engine oil to men. Why do you think this is so?”
Although you could completely disagree with some of the panellists’ perspectives, many views expressed will bring new texture to your understanding of the issue and make you agree when Muchira says: “The way you think does not have to be the only way.”