A few years ago, my father came home with a paper and handed it over to me. ‘Read the words out aloud,’ he said. From the age of five, my father would make me read newspaper articles to him. Coupled with the reading sessions of my favourite storybooks I had with him, I quickly became a fluent reader and speaker. I was at the top of my game compared to my peers. As I read the words he had just handed to me, one thing was eminent. There was a journey in my head. I moved from the hustle and bustle of the Nairobi city, slowly into the great Rift Valley. I saw lakes on my way and some flamingos too. Don’t you just love those birds? Finally, I got to my destination. A different environment with mud-thatched houses, sugarcane and let me note that the air felt different too. I bet you are wondering what the poem was about. It was titled, ‘We leave our house to go home.’ The poem is about how we as Africans understand the meaning of the word ‘home.’ Is home where we live in the city or where our grandparents stay, commonly referred to as ‘ushago.’ Well, that was my introduction to the works Sitawa Namwalie.
Sitawa Namwalie is a Kenyan poet, playwright, writer and performer. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Botany and Zoology from the University of Nairobi and proceeded to get a Master of Arts degree in Environment Society and Technology from Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts in the U.S.A. She discovered her gift in poetry back in 2007. In 2008, she staged her first dramatized poetry ‘Cut off My Tongue,’ and published her first book of poetry in 2009. The poem brings out the fabric of the Kenyan spirit. What exactly does it mean to be Kenyan and why do we focus so much on tribes? It’s a personal reflection of the various aspects of society that are most important… peace, love and unity as described in the national anthem.
Aside from that, Sitawa has performed numerous poems. In 2011, her second show called ‘Homecoming’ was performed in Nairobi. In October 2015, Sitawa Namwalie premiered her new show of dramatized poetry called, ‘Silence is a Woman’ which was critically acclaimed. Each of them gives the audience something new to learn, each has a different taste.
‘Sitawa’s poetry is real, raw, riveting and fun. We had tons of fun. We would seduce our audience with romantic poems (Scientific Love), sexual poems (It Rained Last Night), colour poems (Brown Legs), ridiculous poems (Oprah Endorses the Toi Market Support Group) and all the while taking the audience on a rollercoaster of imagination and insight,’ describes Shan Bartley, one of the cast members of ‘Cut off my tongue.’
Sitawa uses performers, traditional music, musical instruments and musicians to dramatize poetry in the form of song, movement and dance. ‘Each individual poem was written to stand alone, and to tell a specific story,’ she asserts. She has an interesting perspective about African culture and more so about preserving it. Sitawa is intrigued by East African musical traditions i.e. voice, instruments and musicians. Traditional instruments such as warbles, trills and loops are sometimes considered unattractive especially in the 21st century. ‘Several contemporary musicians have found fame and fortune beyond East Africa precisely because they have used the original beauty and inventiveness of African singing traditions in which each ethnic group has its own style of singing voice. In Kenya, groups like the late ESir and Sauti Sol stand out as musicians so not all is lost,’ she argues.
She states that we need to pay more attention to the names of traditional instruments e.g. ‘nyatiti’, ‘orutu’ and ‘obukano.’ Some people have taken the personal initiative to document and archive musical traditions while others have established institutions which are training new musicians. The public can also contribute to preserving African culture. ‘Addis Ababa has XX theatres well patronised by an appreciative public which can be found snaking round buildings night after night waiting to pay and attend popular theatrical performances which have been known to run for up to five years,’ she notes. Sitawa points out that to create a good performance, you must decide the stories you want to tell. This is the first step to selecting relevant pieces of poetry and stories.
Ogutu Muraya, one of her mentees describes his experience working with her as eye-opening. He notes that it is from Sitawa that he learnt how to be open minded. Performance was not just about how excited the audience would get about what they did but rather what it did to him on the inside. It was about creativity and vision. It was not just about mastering lines and repeating the words. ‘ I found myself in a process where the tongue was vigorously activated. I was confronted with a brilliant cast, articulate, intelligent and creative people, who expect you to speak your mind. It was too much for me. My initial instinct was to shut up, quiet down, play dumb, downplay my own lived experiences, and cower at my own creativity. But there was no patience in Sitawa’s cast for self-imposed silence, especially silences that bared no apparent meaning, except fear. I learnt to speak. Now no one can shut me down without a well composed reason. Living is a continuous negotiation. I lost my silence and innocence,’ he reflects.
Aside from poetry and her work as an international consultant, Sitawa has also been involved in other initiatives. After the 2007/2008 post election violence in Kenya, she started the Building Bridges of Understanding project. This involved taking 10 members from one ethnic constituency to a constituency with a different ethnicity. This exchange allowed people to live together and challenge their perceptions about other communities. The activities were then filmed and broadcast in the media. This was definitely an initiative that can be repeated in many setups.
Sitawa Namwalie is definitely a force to reckon with especially when it comes to reflecting how African culture relates with poetry, literature and society.