She didn’t know she was an ardent lover of poetry until she started listening to Shailja Patel’s performance, a Kenyan poet based in the US who was reciting from her book Migritude — one of the best-selling poetry books on Amazon.com.
A few years later, Sitawa Namwalie started writing poetry, has produced two poetic performances, published a poetry book and is working on her next book.
One of her performances, Cut Off My Tongue poem premiered in 2008 at RAMOMA gallery in Nairobi and a year later, she published a book by the same title.
With her cast members, she was on tour to the 2009 UK Hay Festival. This year, she is looking to have something better for her audience.
“I will produce something totally different. My poetry is like a menu I can always pick something new and fresh,” she says.
In the beginning, the show had 11 cast members (two musicians and nine performers). Now, it will have four members; performers and one musician.
To give variety to poet lovers, she incorporates different art forms like dance to interpret her pieces as is the case in her second show Homecoming.
As for the duration of the performances, she says: “I keep it reasonable to leave the audience wanting more.”
She has learnt the ropes of good poetry; not only telling a story, but keeping the poetic rhythms and language. This captivates her and keeps her audiences glued to their seats, anticipating more.
“When I perform, you know what I’m saying, but they are several layers. I consider myself a storyteller. My poetry tells stories,” she says.
When she began writing, she looked to the Internet to share her work. This first online writer’s journal website that accepted her work was ChickenBones a Journal, an archive of African-American and African writing.
Now, she has even short stories in the website.
“The Internet is an amazing resource. You learn so much and get yourself published with ease,” she says.
Ms Namwalie has found other sites that can publish her literary works. Farafina, a literary Nigerian magazine and the Nigerian Sentinel, an online journal, have published some of her poems.
She is also relying on social media like Facebook for responses for poems she posts. As her name grows, her work is now found in poetry anthologies.
Apart from the Internet, she recites her poetry in Nairobi poetry sessions.
“I tell young poets why write poetry and keep it to yourself. How do you know you are any good? Have the courage to share your work,” she says.
For Ms Namwalie, its not the rule of thumb that has made her grow her poetry.
“The constant rhyming in the end is not necessary if it’s not adding any substance to the poem,” she says. She advises the Kenyan poets to throw out the rule book and be performers.
“I learnt the techniques and I explored. You have to recognise that you are against other poets. You have to find out what is out there who you are competing against,” says Ms Namwalie.
Despite having limited financial resources, she says she is determined to grow. Starting February 25th, she will be putting on a show every month at the Braeburn Theatre.
To cut down on expenses, she designs her own poster, directs, sells tickets, helps create music and performs.
The poetry industry is slowing picking up in Kenya, but the greatest challenge to poets remain luring more people.
“People think poetry in boring,” Ms Namwalie says.
However, with events such as open-mic nights in Nairobi, poets can share their work. Companies are also inviting poets to perform during events.
Ms Namwalie also says she does poetry as volunteer work like the last show of 2011 performed at the Lang’ata Women Prison.
When writing a poem, she is often capturing what people from every sector of the society are thinking not just her thoughts.
“When you are speaking your truth and when you write your truth, people everywhere connect to it,” says Ms Namwalie.
Through my poetry, I am able to peel back the cynicism and hard shells we construct that allows us to ignore the terrible things that happen in our midst, people dying of hunger, child abuse —and make us care again.
I write because I want to inspire people and spur them to action, she says.