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National drama contest is a gem we never appreciate

Saturday March 30 2019

DRAMA FESTIVAL

St Anthony Special School students make their presentation via sign language during the Kenya National Drama and Film Festival at Lenana School on April 11, 2018. The young performers are future teachers, administrators, performing arts directors and parents. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

TOM ODHIAMBO
By TOM ODHIAMBO
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The 2019 Kenya National Drama and Film Festivals (KNDFF) will be held at Kibabii University in Bungoma County from April 2 to 13.

The theme of the 2019 festivals, which have been running from the sub-county to the regional level from February, is ‘Promoting moral responsibility among the youth through theatre and film’.

This festival is probably the oldest institutions-based annual arts event in Africa.

It was founded in 1959 and has lasted for so long because it is one of the key activities for schools, colleges and now universities in the annual calendar of the ministry of Education.

This festival brings together millions of learners, teachers, parents, and ordinary Kenyans between the months of January — when rehearsals happen in schools, followed by local competitions – and the month of April, when the national finals for the winning teams from the regional competitions are held.

TALENT

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It showcases creativity in drama on stage, creative cultural dance, modern dance, solo verse, choral verse, narrative, spoken word, stand-up comedy, mime, and different genres of film – a recent addition.

In other words, this is the biggest arts and culture festival in Kenya in a year, not just in terms of the number of teams and performers involved but also because of the duration it takes to conclude.

The significance of this festival cannot be emphasised. It is sad that it is not sold to the public as a major art and culture event by the organisers.

But consider a few factors to do with the KNDFF. First, nearly every public school – and a good number of private schools – see participation at the festivals as a hallmark of its co-curricular achievement.

INVESTMENT

Schools do not spare any effort to win at the different phases of the festivals in order to appear at the ‘nationals’.

Many schools have invested in good theatre halls. They spend huge amounts of money to buy costumes – a whole book can be written on the variety and creativity involved in making costumes for the ‘Luhya’ dance, for instance.

The props for stage plays and narratives cost a fortune. In fact, some schools spare a whole bus or hire a lorry to transport these props.

Hiring a scriptwriter for the play – a very mercenary practice but still a part of the whole process – can cost as much as Sh500,000.

The KNDFF is one big economy, running into millions of shillings spent and earned.

ECONOMY

From the coming Monday, schools will have to budget and seek accommodation for their students, teachers and support staff.

These visitors to Kibabii will spend millions of shillings on food, refreshments and other items.

Food sellers, transporters (especially motorbike riders), hairdressers, tailors, airtime dealers, mechanics, et cetera, will be in full business in Kibabii and its vicinity for almost two weeks.

If a school gets good scripts for the categories that they plan to compete in, has willing students, and a good director/producer, the production process involves an incredible amount of time, money, energy and creativity from the students, teachers, administrators, parents and at times the local community.

For instance, it takes endless hours to produce the backdrops or the many props that aid in the development and production of a creative cultural dance or stage play.

What one sees on stage isn’t just some drawing on a canvas or some fascinating boards; it is a reflection of what the scriptwriter dreamt, what the director imagined and what the actors on stage feel and are trying to communicate.

CO-EDUCATIVE

There are hours spent in readings, rehearsals, discussions, and final production. This process is a very demanding co-educative stage in the lives of the learners.

The young boys and girls have to learn to work with each other — across age, sex, school grade, religion, ethnic community, social class, et cetera, work on their own (such as in learning and memorising and performing one’s lines and stage movements respectively for a play), act as mentors, be willing to be mentored, work to schedules, learn new languages and cultures, learn to deal with winning or losing and buy into ‘big’ ideas, such as the national theme.

This is not an easy task outside the classroom. But it is what thousands of young people have been doing in the past many weeks — as they rehearse for the ‘nationals’ — and will be doing for the next two weeks in Kibabii.

Performing at the nationals, hundreds of kilometres away from home, isn’t just a learning phase in their lives.

TOP QUALITY

It also provides them with opportunity to meet their relatives and friends studying in other schools; it is also a tour of the country for many of them; and in the end it is a very fulfilling experience.

But most significant will be the shows on stage in Kibabii for the next 10 days.

In the majority of cases the winning items from the regionals are generally top talent performances.

There are outstanding plays on stage, enchanting cultural dances, bewitching modern dances (if you can separate the storyline from the dance), entertaining comedies, uplifting solo and choral verses, et cetera.

Most schools, colleges and universities do deliver almost professional level quality shows.

Considering that the schools are actually only competing for trophies, it is amazing what they put on stage.

CURRICULUM

The young performers act as if it is their final deed on earth – in some cases that performance is the last time they appear on stage (which is a topic for another debate), as they would be sitting their final exams at the end of the year.

The one reason all involved parties — schools, learners, administrators, the government, parents — should take the KNDFF so seriously is the emphasis put on creativity and performing arts in the new school syllabus.

The young performers are future teachers, administrators, performing arts directors and parents.

The festivals should set very high standards for imagination and production in the arts, which should form the basis of a revolution for Kenyan music, dance, theatre and film.

Thus dear reader, if you are somewhere in Western Kenya next week, spare a day and go watch the best of Kenya’s young creative talent on show at Kibabii University.

The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]

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