Yes, Nairobi is East Africa’s cultural capital

Sunday August 9 2009

By RASNA WARAH

Nairobi, Kenya's Capital has been called many names (Nairobbery being among the most notorious), but never have I heard it being called a leading centre for the arts and culture – until last week.

An American researcher who I met at the Storymoja Hay Festival held last weekend stunned me when she declared that for her, Nairobi city was among “the most unrecognised cultural capitals of the world’’.

Nairobians, including myself, tend to be a cynical lot, and such declarations normally elicit sarcastic rejoinders, such as, “If you mean a visit to the Maasai market, then, yes, we are a cultural capital.”

The one I hear most often from my mostly expatriate colleagues is: “What culture are you talking about? If we want culture, we go to, London, Paris or New York.”

But after a week of non-stop cultural activity, I have to say that I agree with the American. In the last week, I have been to the PigaPicha exhibition covering 100 years of studio photography in Kenya.

I have also participated in an international writers’ festival where I listened to and talked with famous authors such as Vikram Seth and Hanif Kureishi.

I have met upcoming African writers such as Zimbabwe’s Petina Gappah, and Mukoma wa Ngugi, son of Kenya’s most famous author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who have inspired many aspiring young writers on the continent to continue with their craft.

During the same week, I missed many events that I would have liked to attend, but did not manage to do so. These include the launch of the latest Kwani?, and Tony Mochama’s The Road to Eldoret.

There were other events that I skipped simply because I didn’t have the time. These include the opening of an art exhibition, a repeat performance of Cut Off My Tongue by Sitawa Namwalie, and a show by musician Eric Wainaina.

Now, those of you who still think that this was just a freak week in Nairobi – that all these events coincidentally coalesced in one big splash of cultural activity, then you are mistaken.

Hugo, a young Italian who publishes a free online magazine called Nairobi Now that lists every cultural event happening in the city, has told me that he is never short of material on any given week.

Kenya Buzz, a new weekly events and lifestyle newspaper, is packed with announcements about art and culture activities, including pottery classes, fashion shows and films showing at the various Multiplexes in the city, that could keep Nairobi’s chattering classes busy from Monday to Sunday.

Nairobi, whether the cynics want to believe it or not, is experiencing a cultural renaissance of sorts, and I hate to admit this, but I think it has a lot to do with the opening up of the democratic space in the country in 2003. We may be sliding backwards politically, but culturally we are aiming for the stars.
The sad part is that most of the cultural activities taking place are happening, not because of some conscious government-led effort, but because of the individual initiatives of people who are funded either by the private sector or by foreign donors – or, in some cases, not funded at all.

But maybe this is a good thing as the history of government-sponsored cultural activities in Kenya has not been very promising.

You have to remember that I grew up in an era when the state-owned KBC was the only television channel in the country, and when the only elevating experience we were allowed to have as a nation was to watch troupes perform “tribal dances” for the president on Jamhuri Day.

Those were the days when the only plays deemed acceptable to the political class was what the late Bantu Mwaura described as “textbook dramas” – which were often badly adapted and acted Shakespearean plays or British bedroom farces.

In the 1990s, “NGO theatre”, focusing on issues, such as HIV/Aids and female genital mutilation, served to dull the senses of Kenyan audiences even further with their moralising and self-righteous advocacy, supposedly for the benefit of poor, starving and diseased Kenyans.

We’ve come a long way since those days. Now I have a calendar so full of exciting and innovative events that I have to seriously debate whether or not I have the time and energy to attend them all.

Yes, Nairobi is not just the cultural capital of Kenya, but of the entire East Africa region. Were our politics not so skewed and myopic, the city might even be recognised as one of the most significant cultural capitals of the world.

Ms Warah is an editor with the UN. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations. ([email protected]).