Kenya Cultural Centre and the Ministry of Culture have a serious challenge now that the newly refurbished and modernised Kenya National Theatre was finally opened by President Uhuru Kenyatta last Friday night after shifting the re-opening numerous times.
Kenya Breweries took a stand for private sector participation in national culture by investing no less than Sh130 million into renovating the national theatre from top to bottom and both inside and out.
Now we need to see the Culture minister Hassan Wario and his team step up to the mark and take charge of ensuring the theatre programmes first class productions by Kenya’s finest playwrights, actors, comedians, musicians, dancers and even filmmakers.
These talents exist in Kenya, although quite a few of them were not invited to the official opening.
That communication breakdown needs to be mended, especially as some of our best performing artists and playwrights have gotten used to staging their shows at either the Alliance Francaise, Phoenix Players Theatre, Goethe Institute, Italian Institute of Culture, The GoDown, Braeburn and Brookhouse schools or even the Louis Leakey Auditorium at the National Museum.
We have asked many times who will be responsible for the programming at the National Theatre, but have never gotten an answer. This needs to change so that a qualified, culturally-informed programme officer is quickly hired.
But not as in the past when personnel were appointed, who didn’t have a clue about Kenyan thespians or how to programme quality productions or even maintain a high standard of excellence in the way theatre was run.
The president has built the momentum, especially as he brought two of Kenya’s pioneering playwrights, Professors Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo, all the way from the US to attend last week’s opening.
Specific efforts need to be made to reach out to other top Kenyan playwrights and performers like John Sibi-Okumu, David Mulwa, Mshai Mwangola and Sitawa Namwalie to ensure they “come home” and use these lovely new facilities. The theatre should be buzzing every day and night with quality performances.
One person who claims he’s committed to keeping conversations on culture going on a monthly basis is the new director general of the National Museums of Kenya, Mzalendo Kibunjia.
Speaking at last Thursday night’s initial “Conversation” on culture, Dr Kibunjia promised to follow up with regular conversations on issues of import to Kenyans, noting the importance of culture as defined in Kenya’s new Constitution (Article 11) as “the foundation of the nation.”
Dr Kibunjia also spoke last Sunday at the book launch for A Path not Taken: The Joseph Murumbi Story at the Nairobi Gallery. He posed a challenge to Kenyans to “retrace our steps back to that path” that Murumbi had pursued – of honesty, integrity and conscience – but which many politicians have not.
Murumbi’s appreciation of African cultural values were exemplified at the book launch with performances by musicians Ayub Ogada and Martin Murimi Mugani, both of whom performed on indigenous Kenyan instruments; poet-performers Kaveni Bakajika, Maria Wang’ondu and Natasha Muhona from Strathmore University’s Art & Culture Club; and Ciru Ndung’u who read excerpts from Murumbi’s book on his thoughts about culture and politics.
Nothing that “power meant nothing to [him]” despite his having been not just the Minister for Foreign Affairs (where he mentored the late Robert Ouko) but also Kenya’s second vice president, Murumbi understood, as no other government official since has seen, the importance of African cultural values as the basis for a true Kenyan identity.
Sinister forces within previous governments destroyed some of Murumbi’s cultural legacy, but much has been preserved through the Murumbi Trust. It can be seen at the Kenya National Archives and at the Nairobi Gallery.
A Path Not Taken is also available at bookshops all around Nairobi.