“Hello I am Betty Muragori.”
“Hello, I am John, and I am Luo!”
This happened to the poet Sitawa Namwalie in America when she excitedly greeted another Kenyan she met for the first time. She asked him why he had bothered to mention his tribe and he answered that she introduced herself with her tribe and that’s why he did the same. He had heard “Maragoli”, a Luyha sub-tribe instead of “Muragori.”
This is how Sitawa Namwalie began the “Cut off My Tongue” public performance and discussion by Storymoja held on the 26th January at Dass Restaurant in Westlands.
The poetry production based on her collection of poetry has been staged at different venues in Nairobi since July 2008. So far there have been over 20 performances in Kenya, and it even went international: for a staging last May at the Hay Festival in the UK and theatres in London.
‘Cut Off My Tongue’ is a one-of-a-kind show that incorporates spoken narrative, music, dance and movement. The show addresses contemporary issues in Kenya such as the above-mentioned sensitive topic of ethnicity, as well as corruption, colonialism, love, and identity. Individual poems form interrelated stories that explore different aspects of life from universal themes to more intimate recollections.
The performance gave a convincing account of how we Kenyans don’t accept that we are ‘tribalist’, and yet we talk about what percentage of ‘our’ people are in cabinet, what percentage in our place of work and in other sectors. It delves into how we Kenyans blame our bad habits on colonialists and refuse to accept responsibility for our three main vices: Tusker Lager, women and land. Well, the colonialists don’t escape fault either. They are the ones who taught us the importance of land, Sitawa says: “the irrational passion that we kill for.”
The poems also mock our “Commission of Enquiry” tradition, and our leaders who use words carelessly and later talk about being ‘mis-quoted’. One heavily satirical piece shows how we are so used to dis-service from public officials that when we get good service we get utterly shocked. Sitawa comments on Kenyans’ silence even when our land is grabbed, when our leaders lie, and our people starve and die.
And why do we still maintain foreign traditions? The poems force us to ask ourselves. Like names, why don’t we use our African names? Do we first have to go abroad and get in touch with our “African-ness”? Sitawa argues that since we have lost our names, we have lost our identity, and thus lost our history.
The other lively part of the evening was the discussion that followed the performance. A lady in a pink top told of how Kenyans get surprised when she uses her African name because they are used to certain common African names like Muthoni, Njeri and Adhiambo. “Beautiful names exist in the country and they are yet to be discovered,” she said. She and Sitawa both shared the experience of having people think their names are South or West African because they are not used to hearing Kenyan names.
A young woman seated at the front challenged Sitawa and Storymoja to stage the performance in many other places in Kenya, especially areas that were greatly affected by the 2007-08 post-election violence. She argued that “Cut Off My Tongue” should be staged for the economically disadvantaged who, in her opinion, are more gullible, easily swayed by the politicians, and who executed most of the violence.
However, a young man seated near her disagreed. “Maybe we the ‘educated’ did not pick a panga and kill someone, but it was the upper classes that financed the violence” he said.
An elderly lady named Nyabonyi agreed with the young man, saying at her age she held tribal stereotypes, even against her friends, and yet she was very educated and mature. “The hate was very strong at that time and we are all guilty.” She added: “For little gain we compromised our values!”
“How about showing it to the politicians?” A serious lady in loop earrings asked. A young man in a black suit agreed. He said he found the show to be very informative and entertaining but he would have loved to see what happened in 2007 from both sides of the issue. “Yes there was violence, but it happened because of a flawed election!” he argued. “The violence also happened across the board and not just in Rift Valley.”
There were also calls to stage the performance in vernacular to reach all audiences, as the message is important. Sitawa assured us that there are plans to have the book translated into Kiswahili soon.
The crowd was not all Kenyan; an Ethiopian lady urged Kenyans to be positive about their achievements. She said there are some countries where you cannot write or perform such candid poetry and live to see another verse. “We are not all guilty of tribe,” she added. “Tribe can be looked at positively, for example, the poems about names.”
Sitawa agreed and said that in the 80’s, Kenyans were not allowed to criticize their government in any way and thus we should celebrate the democratic space we are in.
Kalahari, an internet-based sales company, dubbed the “Amazon of Africa”, sponsored the performance.
The “Cut Of My Tongue” cast includes the poet Sitawa Namwalie, better known as Betty Wamalwa Muragori. When not writing poetry, she is a consultant on development, gender and environmental issues. Other cast members are Muthoni Garland (who does a hilarious rendition of a female politician), Ogutu Muraya, Shan Bartley, and Lilian Amimo Olembo, who also is also the choreographer. They were accompanied by a drummer and flute-player.
A bespectacled guy praised Storymoja for the production, which he said was a mirror for our society. He urged us to continue the good work, which we definitely will. Every last Thursday of every month Storymoja will have a similar thought-provoking event at Dass. Next month we are planning an exciting evening of story telling, so be there! Watch this space for details.