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Art

Timeless tales as festival of storytellers comes to Kenya

Alumbe Helen with school children during the Sigana Storytelling Festival at the Kenya National Library. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA  GACHERU | NMG
Alumbe Helen with school children during the Sigana Storytelling Festival at the Kenya National Library. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG 

Theatre is all about storytelling, which is why we love to go see comedies like Heartstring’s Tit for tat which opened at Alliance Francaise last night and love stories like Legacy Arts’ Love Contract opening tonight at Kenya National Theatre as well as Constellations’ premiering in Kenya next week at Braeburn theatre.
But then, there’s a special genre of solo artists who are exclusively “storytellers”.

These are individuals who usually are incredibly charismatic as well as being dramatic, eloquent. And if they are really good at their craft, they can be so spell-binding that they carry you, by their spinning intricate webs of words mixed with loquacious body language, into other worlds.

If you don’t believe me, just head to Dream Kona inside Uhuru Gardens tomorrow, June 2, from 10 am when Zamaleo Arts presents the Sigana International Storytelling Festival. It is the largest such festival ever presented in Kenya. Featuring storytellers from Tanzania and Uganda as well as from Kenya, South Africa and India, performances already began earlier this week. What’s more, theirs is a traveling festival that will be staged in venues around Nairobi and Kiambu as well as in Tala, Kisii and Siaya County. The grand opening of the festival was last Tuesday at the Buru Buru branch of the Kenya National Library. It was a perfect location since this relatively new library (opened in 2010) has a large performance space upstairs.

There was even plenty of room for the multitude of Nairobi school children who came by the bus-load and quickly were charmed by Alumbe Helen into doing a slew of warm-up exercises and having heaps of fun in the process.

But don’t imagine this storytelling festival is only for children. All the performing artists (for that is what storytellers are) have a vast repertoire of stories to share, one for every occasion.

Last Tuesday in the Library, the occasion called for tales that could charm children by sharing stories that also taught moral lessons. But all the artists are trained to be adaptable according to their audience, which on Tuesday was children. But then yesterday, when the festival went to the “artists” colony’ at Karen Village, performances were oriented more toward appealing to adults and fellow artists.

By Tuesday, not all the storytellers had arrived. But that did not stop the show going on. After Alumbe’s warm up and getting all the children (none of whom were above eight years old, I believe) actively engaged in the process of communicating with their whole bodies and minds, the show officially started. With drummers Joseph Manzi, Saul Muthoka and John Namai setting the rhythm and providing all the essential sound-effects to each professional storyteller’s African tale, the first up was Baeletsi Tsatsi, from Johannesburg. Her fellow South Africans Bongiswa and Sizwe were still on their way, but no matter. Baeletsi shared a marvelous story about The Sky Maiden and the Frog and got children chiming in when this Market Theatre-trained actress signalled that they do so.

She was followed by Christa Komba from Tanzania who devised an original Swahili tale that the army of school children clearly enjoyed. Both she and Baeletsi have a penchant for ‘applied theatre’ which is how they got into storytelling. Meanwhile, Christa also teaches at the Bagamoyo Institute of Dramatic Arts.

On Saturday, the festival will move over to Dream Kona where all the storytellers will perform according to the theme recommended by the creators of the new performing and visual arts space, TICAH (Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health).

“We will be celebrating World Environment Day two days early,” says Alumbe who adds that at least 75 percent of the storytelling will be related to protecting and preserving Mother Earth. They may also explore the issue of waste management, particularly related to plastics which have become so detrimental to life on both land and sea. The Festival will run through June 9. For bookings, schools and individuals can still email at [email protected] or call 0722739894.

Meanwhile, the Kenya National Theatre will stage ,for two days only, the original script of Contract Love by Jean Akinyi. Directed by Dr Zippy Okoth, It stars Suki Wanza, Papi Odeq, Sue Makena and Vitalis Wesh.

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