restricted access 4. Fabricating Nationhood: Sigana (Narrative) as Theatre in Post-colonial Kenya
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Getting Heard 57 CHAPTER FOUR Fabricating Nationhood: Sigana (Narrative) as Theatre in Post-colonial Kenya George Odera Outa Introduction …sometimes national cultures are tempted to turn the clock back, to retreat defensively to that lost time when the nation was ‘great’, and to restore past identities. This is the regressive, the anachronistic element in the national cultural story. But often this very return to the past conceals a struggle to mobilize ‘the people” to purify their ranks, to expel the ‘others’ who threaten their identity and to gird their loins for a new march forwards...(Stuart Hall 1992:295. Emphasis added) This chapter examines how popular theatre initiatives fabricate alternative nationhoods within the prevailing morass of a post-colonial polity. Whether it is in the representation of historical figures or the attempt at reconstructing new meanings from ancient mythologies; or whether it is in the re-enactment of the quandaries currently imposed by the AIDS pandemic; or the call to promulgate environmental wisdom using theatre, the fact is that the 1990s did emerge with significantly new theatre forms and strategies in Kenya. Sigana (or narrative) theatre in particular, is arguably, the single-most important novelty in Kenya’s theatre since the 1970s days and the Kamiriithu Theatre experiment. How has the strategy of “narrative” been re-deployed in the “modernist” context as to result in what is widely acknowledged as the arrival of “a truly Kenyan form?” How do such performances enjoin in the “power debate”, and in so doing accentuating a longing for lost nationalisms in the post-colony’s unending quest for some kind of alternative nationhood? We seek to respond to some of these questions. But this essay is also an extended analysis of one particular intervention: ‘Drumbeats of Kirinyaga’, an original performance first staged sometime in 1993 and which had its own remarkable share of trouble with post-colonial Kenya’s fairly well known discomfitures with whatever it perceived as 58 (Re)claiming Performance Space in Kenya “dissident” drama (see Outa 1999; 1997; 1995). The Drumbeats script demonstrates how the complexities of power are re-enacted and represented through ‘Sigana’ and how these accentuate a longing for lost nationalisms almost in Hall’s (1992) sense. It would seem that it was in the course of ‘workshopping’to produce plays that were immediately relevant to the urban Nairobi audiences that some newer theatre makers in Kenya, and principally Oby Obyerodhiambo, discovered the immense potential that lay untapped in the form of old legends and other age-old ethnic narratives. It is this that explains the artistic spirit behind at least three important initiatives: ‘La Femme Fatale’; (1991) ‘Drumbeats of Kirinyaga’ (1993) and Kit Mikayi (undated). Later the strategy has been deployed with remarkable originality and success in ‘Mfungwa Tuliyemsahau (‘The prisoner Whom We Forgot’) and Jomo’s Tero Buru (‘Jomo’s Funeral Memorial’) first performed at the close of 1999.1 The narrative is conventionally a genre that presupposes listening rather than performance. It presupposes a fairly passive audience that would - in the Luo cultural context - listen to tales told in a grandmother’s hut just ahead of retiring to sleep.2 This essay is about how such narratives have been re-deployed in a more modernist context as to result in what audiences, and a cross section of media reviewers acknowledged as the arrival of ‘a truly Kenyan form’, a notion whose significance is equally interesting. Theoretically, this essay is largely informed byAchille Mbembe’s (1992) contention that power performance in the post-colony is most comprehensively understood outside the single-binary framework that has so far been most preponderant. Drumbeats… script demonstrates how the more complex ambivalences of power are re-enacted and represented through sigana. In the Kenyan experience it is this that accentuates a longing for lost nationalisms. Two statements herebelow underlie the historic significance of the “arrival” of Sigana in the Kenyan theatre scene, sometime in the mid 1990s: “.. what made the ‘shutdown’ so difficult to do—apart from people being so thoroughly entertained by comics, storytellers and songster-poets the entire afternoon-was the pulsating presence of that percussive quintet called “Talking Drums of Africa” who not only accompanied Oby Obyerodhiambo’s energetic performance of Canoe Races, but also managed Getting Heard 59 to mesmerise the crowd so smartly that many were moved to join their drum-talking’ dance. .. the oral performer has not only to captivate his audience with the quality of his or her poise, poetic eloquence, charm, wit...