Bettina Ng’weno is best known for being a brilliant cultural anthropologist who has studied at some of the best universities in the US, including Stanford, Johns Hopkins (where she got her PhD), University of Texas and Indiana University.
She’s not normally known as Prof Ng’weno in Kenya, yet that is her status at the University of California at Davis, where she lectures on African American and African Studies.
Bettina is rarely seen in Nairobi since she has such a busy academic and research schedule abroad. Yet from the look of the short film she shared last Saturday at Phoenix Theatre, it was clear she has also been busy in Kenya.
The Time is Now is the short (seven- minute) trailer that she described as a ‘teaser’ to the forthcoming full-length feature film that she has already scripted and cast. She has even started work on the sound track with a Kenyan composer, Njane Mugambi.
Last Dance at Kaloleni is the title of the film that she will hopefully complete soon.
Offering another ‘appetiser’ (to go with the teaser, which had already whet her audience’s appetite for the actual film), Bettina explained that the movie would be set against the backdrop of 1959 pre-Independence Kenyan politics.
But it will be spiced up with a romantic love triangle. It is likely to appeal to Kenyans keen on politics and history as well as to romantics.
But the most critical element in the film, it would seem, is the broader, more panoramic backdrop of Kenyan history related to the building of the ‘Ugandan Railway’.
Coming from a family with close ties to the railways, Bettina recalled that it was her grandfather who made the courageous decision to leave western Kenya, where the family has its roots, and come to the Nairobi to get a job with the railways.
“It was a job that enabled our grandfather to ensure that our father got an outstanding education and subsequently travel all over the world,” she said.
Bettina was referring to her father, Hillary Ng’weno, who was not only the first indigenous African editor at the Nation newspapers; he also founded what for years was widely recognised as Kenya’s leading
news magazine, The Weekly Review.
How Bettina will interweave the railways story into her film is still a mystery. But by her inviting Tayiana Chao to present her research on the railways as a prelude to the trailer’s screening made it clear that
Bettina sees her film being somehow steeped in Kenyan history.
What also confirmed that the railways are likely to play a significant role in the forthcoming film was Bettina’s invitation to composer Njane Mugambi to describe the musical score played just before Amolo
Ng’weno, Bettina’s elder sister, welcomed everyone to the afternoon event.
Mugambi explained that his composition was initially conceived to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Kenyan independence. But as he had seen the early development of the country coincidental with the
construction of the railways, he gave a fascinating interpretation of the way he had composed his impressive musical piece.
He explained how each segment of the music was meant to reflect the experience of a specific moment in the railway construction.
So he traced the sound track as it worked in tandem with the mapping and the timeline of the rail line’s difficult development.
But Bettina had given Mugambi another challenge, which was to create a sound track that reflected the popular music of the time in which her film is set, namely 1959.
Music is clearly an element of her film that Bettina takes seriously as the teaser revealed, given that most of it is devoted to a delightful dance between two Kenyans (played by Wangari Wachira and Stanley
Ng’an’a) dressed appropriately for that period (especially her red ‘umbrella’ dress complete with its flamboyant ‘can-can’ petticoat).
Coincidentally, their lyrical dance (choreographed by Bettina) is set in a railway station.