A poetic licence to tell the Kenyan story - Daily Nation

A poetic licence to tell the Kenyan story

Saturday May 9 2009

Left and above, the cast of Cut off my Tongue. Photo/DOROTHY CHLYSTUM-GITHAE

Left and above, the cast of Cut off my Tongue. They performed to full houses in the city and are planning a trip to the UK. Photo/DOROTHY CHLYSTUM-GITHAE 

By JOSEPH NGUNJIRI

If you were to tell the story of Kenya where would you begin? Sitawa Namwalie, a poet, seems to know: ethnicity, identity, land issues, leadership, love...

A production based on her collection of poetry titled Cut off my Tongue has been staged at different venues in Nairobi and the audiences cannot have enough of it.

Cut off my Tongue is unique in that it is an interactive dramatisation of poetry using humour, music and dance. The production addresses issues close to the hearts of Kenyans, ranging from neo-colonialism to romance.
In effect, Cut off my Tongue, a Storymoja production, talks to Kenya, hence its popularity with the audiences. This is in spite of the fact that they have been paying Sh1,000 to watch the shows.

Comedies and farces

Cut off my Tongue has been viewed by many as a much-needed breath of fresh air to theatre in Nairobi, where recycled Western bedroom comedies and farces is the order of the day.

Sitawa’s poetry is a revelation. Hers is not the textbook, often mind-numbing verse that has made many Kenyans give poetry a wide berth, dismissing it as too difficult or abstract to comprehend.

Her lines are simple and straightforward, devoid of hidden meaning. For one, Sitawa’s poetry seeks to soothe and heal the injuries inflicted on the country by the post-election violence that rocked Kenya after the disputed 2007 elections.

Since ethnicity was at the heart of the violence, Sitawa aims to use words to make Kenyans realise that they are one people who should not be fighting because they come from different tribes.

“Like Robinson Crusoe, I want to use words to trip people’s minds,” she said. “I want people to change the way they think and make them open up more.”

Even as the country tries to heal from the wounds that were inflicted in 2008, talk of war is still rife. Politicians are running around, warning of dire consequences in 2012, if certain conditions are not met.

“2012 is innocent,” Sitawa said philosophically. “It is we who will carry our hatred, fears and baggage to that year.” What she is saying is that 2012 can only be peaceful if Kenyans choose to do away with the prejudices that breed hatred and violence.

The cast of Cut off my Tongue is multi-ethnic, which in itself a way of building harmony across communities.

“Each member of the cast says something, in their mother tongue, which leaves members of that community reflecting on how they relate with other communities,” explained Muthoni Garland, the managing director of Storymoja.

On the issue of land, Sitawa’s poetry looks at how possessive Kenyans are with this resource, to the extent of killing one another.

In the verse A Gifted Almost-fifty, Sitawa, tongue-in-cheek, tries to explain how she came to write poetry when she was approaching fifty.

“What do I do, now that I have found a gift at almost-fifty? Writing angry poetry, a flair I should have used up at twenty, at least uncovered back then,” she writes.

The poem blames it on the Moi regime that did not tolerate “vocalisation”, thereby stealing her fuming twenties, rolling over her barely mellow thirties, and “I gave up in my forties.”

Sitawa is better known by the name Betty Wamalwa Muragori. When not writing poetry, she is a consultant on management, women and environmental issues. She has a master’s degree in environmental science from Clarke University in Massachusetts.

But is it the poem It Rained Last Night, performed by Chichi Seii, that left the audience hankering for more.

A “naughty” piece, the poem invokes the imagery of rain to suggest sensual intimacy. At the end of the performance, the audience trooped to the gate where they bought written copies of the poem at Sh100 apiece.

Music is performed by Grandmaster Masese with his eight-stringed Obokano. Henry Anyanga played the drum, kayamba and flute. Other cast members are Ogutu Muraya, Shan Bartley, Alice Wanjiru Karunditu and Lilian Amimo Olembo, who also doubles up as the choreographer.

Storymoja has landed an invitation to perform Cut off my Tongue at the prestigious Hay Literary Festival in the UK on June 27 this year. They will also stage the show at Hamstead Theatre in London on June 23.

The other show will be Centreprise, also in London, on June 28. The London shows are meant for the Kenyans living there. The shows , the latest of which were staged at the Nu-Metro theatres at the Junction on Wednesday and Thursday, are meant to raise funds for their UK trip.