Art

Meru grannies bring rural women's lives to life at city theatre

meru

Nyota ya Meru members Evangeline N. Ruri; Mary Manyuru, Joyce Kinanu, Grace Kathure Gituma, Kathure Mworia, Friday Kanyiri, and Caroline Kawira when they performed at Kenya National Theatre on April 17. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

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Summary

  • The seven-women troupe (whose ages ranged from 24 to 67) blazed across the KNT stage in a non-stop series of skits that they had refined.
  • The unrelenting energy that the women threw into their performance was enough to show how self-assured they were about the stories they had to share.

During the early days of Covid-19, when everything was supposed to be locked down, there was one thing that refused to be contained. And that was the spirit of theatre.

You may not have seen it on stage anywhere since all the theatres and performance centres were technically closed. But that didn’t stop Kevin Kimani and his Kenya International Theatre Festival [KITFEST] team from conducting theatre workshops in several counties in 2020.

“We weren’t able to host the festival that year but managed to run training workshops for theatre groups in five counties, namely Nairobi, Kisumu, Mombasa, Meru, and Nakuru,” says Fedari Oyagi, KITFEST’s chairman.

That was when the trainers encountered the group of Meru women comedians who called themselves Nyota ya Meru.

“Out of all the groups we met during those training days, these women [most of whom are grannies] were the most impressive,” says Kimani who has subsequently been appointed Creative Arts programme director of Kenya Cultural Centre.

They were impressive enough to be selected to stage their own show on Easter Sunday at Kenya National Theatre (KNT).

“But this wasn’t just their first time being at KNT. It was the first time they’d ever performed on a professional stage anywhere,” Kimani told an appreciative audience, many of whom were Kimeru speakers who emitted billows of laughter during most of the women’s performance.

The seven-women troupe (whose ages ranged from 24 to 67) blazed across the KNT stage in a non-stop series of skits that they had refined during a six-day residency that they’d attended with the American Fulbright scholar and former Kenyatta University (KU) theatre lecturer, Dr Karin Waidley.

Dr Waidley came to Kenya initially in 2017 as a Fulbright Fellowship scholar based at KU. She returned early this year, still with Fulbright, both to work in community theatre and also conduct research with women thespians like Nyota ya Meru.

So the residency, training, and Easter day performance of the women transpired through the collaborative arrangement between Kenya Cultural Centre, Fulbright Foundation, and KITFEST.

“I felt as if they were training me more than I was training them,” Dr Waidley told an audience in her introductory remarks that night.

“The women had actually worked out their storylines long before Essy and I arrived,” says Waidley, who gave all the credit to the women who in turn, thanked her and Kimani for the opportunity they’d been given to perform in Nairobi.

The women explained that the trip itself has been a validation of their work in theatre, which they said some people back home scoffed at and said they had been ‘wasting their time.’

The unrelenting energy that the women threw into their performance was enough to show how self-assured they were about the stories they had to share. It was Lydia, Waidley says who founded the group in 2015, but their scripts were collectively devised. All their stories, they said, were based on their own life experiences.

The first one was all about the diverse type of work that rural women do round the clock, but which is largely unacknowledged and unappreciated. The second skit was about a woman gossip who went around bad-mouthing the local pastor, but ultimately got caught for not just spreading false rumors but also stealing from her supposed friends.

The third was about a woman overburdened by life and chased away from home by her husband. Her luggage (symbolling her burdens) was so heavy, she couldn’t even board a bus. But all her friends came around, helped to unburden her, and illustrated their solidarity with their friend.

Finally, the last skit was about a woman farmer who’d planted her field but found it trampled upon and blamed her neighbours. Thereafter, she went to a local mganga (witch doctor) to have him curse those responsible for the damage.

The problem was it was her own grandchildren who had played innocently on her land. They were hit by the curse and nearly died. But in the Easter spirit, the granny witnessed the ‘resurrection’ of the kids and everyone learned their lesson.