A review of ‘Cut off my tongue’ by Sitawa Namwalie
By Monica Arac de Nyeko
Let me declare my transgressions in advance. I am a Ugandan working in Kenya and no, I am not getting into the whole Migingo Island circus. It is all about theatre today, Kenyan or East African theatre if you like.
Among all other disciplines, the arts in general seemed to have had more their fair share of strutting the terrifying terrain between acceptability and disrespectability. Several artists have long flirted with poverty and dismal living, owing to the usual milestones ranging from piracy, a lack of reading culture (oh that again) and perhaps a complete lack of government spending and support. There is the issue of quality of course as well. In Ugandan theatrical landscape for instance, although several local productions did manage to attract audiences in the past years, the quality remained largely poor. Directors and actors took their audiences for fools ploughing through implausible scenarios and ridiculous caricatures of life. Punch lines bordered on farce, the themes the usual man meets woman and woman meets man. Sometimes there was a political critic here and a portrait of home life there – things like that. It all was simple, to the point, hardly hard hitting stuff.
At the school level meanwhile, schools flirted with creativity obliging the usual annual music, dance and drama presentations at festivals. As for poetry among all other arts forms, it was next to dead or at best, orphaned. In schools on Parent’s Day, there was the usual recitation of sentimental and dreadful poetry ranging from – AIDS, AIDS AIDS is bad to Oh Africa, Africa, Africa, oh my mother land Africa. Listen to the cry of your children. And there was the all time favourite – war, war war and blood, blood blood or abortion, abortion, abortion.
For some of us who suffered the ‘misfortune’ of studying literature however, poetry seemed to have been forced upon us by teachers you hardly liked. I, for instance developed complete distaste for poetry. It was that difficult form. Poetry was complicated and obscure, hardly understood by the very teachers who taught it. It remained a sore point, irrelevant and distant. It seemed to revolve around Shakespearian type dying roses, horny white men and their love struck mistresses, snow and daffodils – that sort of thing. Sometimes there was the occasional poem like for instance Antonio Jacinto’s Letter from a Contract Worker, that resurrected faith in poetry but those moments were few.
I know better now and I have since mended my respect for poetry enough to fall completely in love with it. I now conveniently blame all my earlier flops and bluffs on the tragedy of the Ugandan education system (I know. I was a school teacher for a bit)! However, more than anything, this dreadful background and hate-affair with poetry in the past was perhaps the reason was why I was delighted with StoryMoja’s fourth poetry production of ‘Cut off my tongue’ by Sitawa Namwalie to a parked house at Alliance Francaise’s hall last week.
The eight person cast of terrifically talented artists and three support musicians got a standing ovation. The production will be part of London’s Hay Festival in the UK in May this year.
‘Cut off my tongue’ is a poetic dramatization of twenty three poems tackling themes that range from the catastrophe of a colonial past, love, desire, race to corruption. ‘Language of Tribe’ the first dramatization challenges our stereotypes about ‘otherness’. It looks at the paradigm of ethnicity, this Kikuyuness or Luoness, what exactly does it mean? On what journeys has it led you, what has it cost you?
In the last poem, Sitawa Namwalie the poet on whose works the whole production is based invites us to join her in reciting her name in ‘Say my name’. I must confess, it seemed a very spooky thing to call someone’s name at such a high pitch and with such zeal but there was something empowering in that invitation, a reclamation of an identity that shifted from the poet to her audience. It was a necessary process, a totally contagious experience.
Without a doubt, Sitawa Namwalie is a gifted poet. I did notice she had very fine legs and shamelessly made a point to ask her about it in the end. The discussion was interesting, taking us into the area of beauty and cultural lenses there of.
However leaving all that fine legs talk behind to look at Sitawa Namwalie in her virtue as a poet, she is original and sharp with an eye for detail. Through the poems, she takes your hand, leads you on a journey of discovery, questions all those things you took for granted like that obsession with land for instance – do you know where you inherited it from? Her poems are sensual, filled you shamelessly with desire and longing, left you wanting for more in Seasons of the City (?) for instance. This is a poem about rain, that rain of lust, love and fulfilment – stunning choreography came with that.
‘Cut off my tongue’ is a marriage of performance and dance plus sparse but sharp traditional (do you know what they are called? Or which tribe they belong to?) musical instrumentals and singing.
Ogutu Muraya the only man in the dramatization segment was good sport. His face was filled with emotion, his dance movement fluid and sharp. When he needed to be angry, the audience felt it. When he loved, we loved with him. We felt his hands when he held to his woman and hated him when he was that bad policeman terrorising the street.
‘Cut off my tongue’ by Storymoja productions was a tremendous success, the only regret being the length (it was a bit too long oh). In the end I was not disappointed but was sad that I had not coerced by girlfriends into coming and had not sold the whole poetry thing to them a more aggressively.
If you care about your history and country, you will watch ‘Cut off my tongue’ and bring everyone with you!