The unwritten rule of writing an African story is that of a war-torn country with children wielding machine guns in a poor rural setting. Of old African dictators who do not give up power and of love happening in a village or slum as the sun sets. This is how you tell the African story. No! These perceptions, sadly, are simplistic narratives that don’t take into account the diversity of Africa’s countries, religions, and cultures whose stories are different and complex.
As Africans, we have grown in a world of being bundled up into a continent other than respecting the diverse countries, cultures and people in Africa. Yes, we have had wars, but so have many other countries around the world. Our stories always seem to be invalidated by the negative stories that are portrayed of a crumbling Africa. We live in a country where the Kenyan soldiers who die in the battlefield in Somalia are not celebrated as men and women who gave up their lives fighting to keep peace within our borders. But yet we are judged by the mediocrity spewed by a few politicians instead. We live in a world where a whole continent is wrongly described, stories of bravery, of winning against adversity, but are more often than not killed by bad press. What about the heroes within our society, or what about the villains in Africa told from the African perspective? African stories should not only be those of adversity, war and lost love, but should also be told by Africans from the African perspective.
In the late 80’s and 90’s, Kenyan theatre was considered to be more alive than it is today. Not only did we have adaptations of English theatre in abundance as well and ‘NGO sponsored’ plays used as tools of public education; but we also had bold writers and producers who used theatre as a cultural activism tool. This regressed slowly as issues of freedom of speech emerged forcing playwrights, directors and producers to ‘innovatively’ sell their shows through branding them as rehearsals.
Thankfully, this has changed long since in Kenya. Freedom of speech is now more respected. As Africa rises, Africans today are forming new narrations based on their own definitions, interests, passions, aspirations and lifestyle choices. We see the rise and use of various different tools to tell the story, our story, beautiful stories of Africa, love stories, stories of gods, of defying stereotypes and of triumph against all odds. We have realised the true value of selling African narratives and are now seeing the rise of the new bold.
The African narrative has become a contemporary narrative for how culture impacts society and how society grows by culture. Artistic expressions are not only embracing technological advances to tell these stories but are playing with all five senses. It is about selling the African culture, selling emotions, thoughts and reimagined futures.
Addressing Social Issues Through Theatre
Sitawa Namwalie, a Kenyan poet, playwright, writer and performer, writes a play Room of Lost Names based on a true story about M. M’s story is one that makes bold statements and asks questions that challenge the system in which we operate.
“M” is murdered and finds herself in purgatory where she encounters two gods, Gumali and Omuwanga. To escape Purgatory, the murdered “M” has a simple task: she must give the gods her name. But the nature of her death and the poisonous rumours and innuendo circulated to destroy her name in the world of the living, after her death; has led to the destruction of her name and she no longer knows her name.
In an effort to recover her name she embarks on the painful journey of retracing the steps and circumstances that led to her death. She must tell the story of how she met her death and how she lost her name. Gumali (god of darkness, mischief, evil) accompanies “M” in her journey and feels her pain and sometimes tells her story. As her story unfolds we discover that M’s death was a violent crime. And that like so many such deaths in Kenya today, nothing has been done to bring the perpetrators to book because they are powerful people. In effect, “M” has been discarded. As she journeys in search of her name, Gumali and Omuwanga (god of light, goodness) aid and obstruct her in equal measure.
Sitawa intertwines old myths such as those of Gumali and Omuwanga (gods found in the Luhyia myth of creation) with the story of a young girl who is believed to have been killed by one of the politicians here in Kenya. She takes you through a journey of imagination and reality to address a societal issue that can only be truly expressed through theatre.
New Ways Of Telling The African Narrative
Apart from theatre, Africans are embracing new ways of selling the African narrative in brilliant ways with far-reaching impact, thanks to technological advances and tools availed. Slowly, we are building capacities for ourselves to tell the African narrative. We are able to go to the ground and collect these stories; to let the people tell their own story. Not waiting for outsiders to tell it from their own, often biased, perspective.
An interesting example of great use of space, time and the exploration of the five senses is Lebo by Creatives Garage. In a world driven by consumerism, everything is labelled; from clothes, shoes and, sadly, humans. Stereotypes and social prejudice seem to be a daily occurrence in our lives. We watch the news daily and read uncensored social commentary from publicly-curated-rarely-researched content on social media that fuels uncontrollable emotion that could propel the society to negative delusions.
Lebo is a multi-media installation that seeks to question social prejudices through challenging the validity of stereotypes, highlighting true stories of social prejudices and the nonsense that comes with it while transporting the audience to experience the pain of the labelled individual by cleverly playing with sound, smell, sight, touch and taste using available technology.
Lebo comes from a general assumption that understands and accepts that it is a part of human nature to have stereotypes of each other. These are actually sometimes naïve and culturally ingrained that we may not know that we hold such perceptions of other people. The ultimate goal of Lebo is to question the thinking behind stereotypes and begin to challenge the audience’s mind-set to think differently about the labels they place on each other.
Arts And Culture As A Driving Force
In conclusion, African voices are rising up to tell their stories in the best way they know by using arts and culture as a driving force. We’ve seen the rise of art festivals in East Africa such as Jambo Festival (Tanzania), Bayimba Festival (Uganda), Amakula Festival (Uganda), Storymoja Festival (Kenya) and Sondeka Festival, a multidisciplinary festival that I founded.
These festivals have not only enabled creatives to access the market but also to network, to share ideas and knowledge, and to collaborate on projects. Creative start-ups offering sustainable local solutions to local challenges have been thrust into the limelight in festivals. They are changing the world in meaningful ways and engage others to join their efforts in addressing social challenges.
From technological advancements to improved health and sanitation, Africa is no longer the Dark Continent; it is a continent of progressive growth.
Written by Liz Kilili