Is nothing sacred anymore? Paa ya Paa in Kiambu’s Ridgeways area, a few kilometres outside Nairobi, is known as an art gallery. But it is much more than that.
To generations of wananchi, it is a shrine of our identity and creativity as a people.
In history, though not officially recognised like the flags that we wave and the anthems that we sing, it is way high up there with them, an inspiring and challenging symbol of our daring, aspiring spirit to uplift ourselves to the pinnacles of imaginative achievement and success.
Paa ya Paa (paa yu apaa): there goes the lithe antelope, leaping, flying, yea soaring, over the stunning warmth and beauty of our land, from the vast waters of the ocean, across the plains, savannahs, forests and lakes to the lofty peaks of Ruwenzori, Kenya, Kilimanjaro, and beyond.
Born in the early years of “uhuru’s fire”, this paa or impala, was, is and hopefully will be, a perfect icon of the spiritual and cultural freedom of our people.
Our grandparents, parents and other relatives fought, suffered and died so that we might be free in our own land, free to be, to do and create what we think is best for us and our descendants.
The flight of the antelope was thus a movingly apt icon for this aspiration towards creative freedom.
Equally relevant was Samwel Wanjau’s august sculpture of the “Freedom Fighter” that for decades welcomed every visitor that entered the hallowed grounds of Paa ya Paa.
You can thus imagine the shock and the horror with which many of us received the “news”, both verbal and photographic, of the “Freedom Fighter” knocked down from his lowly pedestal and lying in ruins, following a mission to Paa ya Paa by some strange vandals.
Our culture and arts writer, Margaretta wa Gacheru, was strikingly restrained as she recounted the tragedy, but even she could not veil the anguish and agony of witnessing such a sacrilege.
Her snapshot of a truly frail and ageing Mzee Elimo Njau (87) at the feet of the fallen and shattered “Fighter” was the quintessence of the “abomination of desolation”.
I wonder how the doyens of our visual arts, like Elizabeth Mazrui, Billy Kaigwa or Nuwa Nyanzi, received the story.
CORE OF TRAGEDY
At the core of this tragedy, apparently, lies a dispute over ownership of the land on which the Paa ya Paa gallery stands. Rebeka and Elimo Njau jointly owned the five-acre site of the gallery. But following their long-standing separation, it is reported, a settlement was reached whereby the property should be equally shared between Rebeka on the one hand and, on the other, Elimo, who runs the gallery. The physical problem appears to be that, whichever way you draw the dividing line, some grounds and structures of Paa ya Paa lie astride it.
Please excuse my abruptly turning personal here. I cannot competently pursue the legalities or technicalities of the matter. But Elimo and Rebeka happen to be personal “elders” of mine. Elimo Njau was my mwalimu in Dar es Salaam, where he, Herb Shore and other experts started the theatre arts department in the 1960s. They mentored people like Ebrahim Hussein, and me in our struggles to become theatre practitioners.
But even before that, Elimo and Rebeka Njau had been prominent members of the Makerere artistic and literary commune of the vibrant early 1960s, which included such stalwarts as Elvania and Pio Zirimu, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Okot p’Bitek. Elimo taught art at his alma mater, the Margaret Trowell School of Fine Art, the cradle of most of East Africa’s first professionally trained artists, forming a trio, with Matt Mosha and Sam Ntiro, of internationally recognised Tanzanian artists at Makerere then.
They taught and worked alongside their Ugandan and Kenyan colleagues, including the celebrated Gregory Maloba, the sculptor behind Uganda’s 1962 Independence Monument in the centre of Kampala. Maloba was Kenyan, although many Ugandans still believe that he was one of their own.
Rebeka Njau is an artist in her own right, although best known to the public as a creative writer, especially for her multi-layered novel, Ripples in the Pool. I remember once interviewing her about it at Church House, Nairobi, where she had an office in the 1970s.
But to those of us raised through the East African University English departments, she was already iconic for her pioneering anti-FGM play, The Scar.
But I am digressing. Maybe my random recollections are symptomatic of the profound personal emotions that people of my generation attach to Paa ya Paa and its place in the creative history of our region. I know for a fact that when East Africa’s creative focus “shifted” from Kampala to Nairobi in the mid-1960s, following the chaotic politics in Uganda, Paa ya Paa became a major home of refuge for the scores of creative minds looking for a shelter for their visions.
It was, and still is, much more than just a few structures on a piece of land. It is a spiritual home, a priceless embodiment of the regenerative power and energy of peace and positive creativity.
My appeal is, therefore, to all of us to take positive action to save the Paa ya Paa. Let all those knowledgeable and capable take immediate action. Let us raise our voices and call for action. Elders, scholars, faith leaders, administrators and, especially, artists should meet, get to the heart of the matter and come up with a healthy solution.
To our elders, Elimo and Rebeka, our earnest prayer, as your children, is for total restraint. We acknowledge and accept the differences and separations but, please, do not let these lead to the damage and destruction of the loveliest gift you ever gave and will ever give to Kenya and East Africa.
Nyoyo zenu na zipae, Kama apaavyo yule paa wetu, juu ya haya ya ulimwengu, na kuiokoa Paa ya Paa (let your hearts soar, as our antelope does, over these earthly matters, and save Paa ya Paa).
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]