‘When my brother died, everything died with him’ This is how I revived his Kenyan superheroes dream

Martha Galavu during the exhibition launch of Shujaa Stories Part II Photo | Pool

What you need to know:

Martha Shavuya Galavu is the curator and illustrator of the Shujaa Stories project. Shujaa Stories is a digital superhero display of Kenya’s folk and cultural heroes

“Shujaa Stories was conceptualised by my late brother Masidza Galavu, in 2017. Masidza and his friend Jeff Muchina who were 24 at the time, loved adventure. This saw them visit various incredible historical sites in Kenya and they were blown away by the fact that there's so much history that Kenyans don’t know and it’s not being taught in schools. They were curious to know who the legends that lived in these mysterious places were.

Martha Galavu with her late brother in the foreground, Masidza Galavu. Photo | Pool

In early 2018 the project began with the team working with a young researcher called Brian Kiraga. Because these stories were passed down orally he was only able to compile 28 stories of legends from only 14 communities. Shujaa Stories is a digital superhero display of Kenya’s folk and cultural heroes. These are heroes and heroines that existed in the 18th century and earlier, whose stories have very little to no information in Kenyan history education.

My brother and his team began to look for an illustrator but the ones they met were either unaffordable or did not meet expectations. They pitched the idea of an exhibition to the National Museum (NMK), who took interest and suggested that they work with a museum historian, who would verify their stories.

The team set a deadline for creating illustrations of the 28 heroes by Mashujaa Day (October 20th 2018), for the inaugural launch at the Nairobi National Museum. At this point, I was in my final year of university and had little experience in digital art.  I was good at drawing on paper but not a computer. They finally got a young illustrator, Jeffery Onyango, who did the Mekatilili wa Menza artwork. Jeffery was however unable to do the rest due to the tight deadline. My brother was back to square one, with no illustrator and 27 heroes left to do in such a short time.

It is then that he proposed that I do it, my little knowledge of digital art notwithstanding. I was hesitant at first but he insisted that basic illustrations were better than none at all. That is how I came on board. I would do the character and he would do the background because he was good at Photoshop manipulation.

Martha Galavu at the Shujaa Stories Part II exhibition at the Nairobi National Museum. Photo | Pool

The work took a toll on us as we were working day and night. The pressure was immense, especially for my brother who was battling Lupus, which does not cope with stress. He had been diagnosed with the condition in 2015 when he was aged 22 but he never let this get in his ambitions. He also had his regular job to maintain.

Finally, we held the exhibition launch on November 9th 2018. The artworks were stunning and the stories were intriguing. The exhibition drew a lot of public interest and opened bigger opportunities for us.

My brother (Masidza) was three years older than me and died aged 27- my current age. Sometimes I wonder how he was able to do so much at such a young age. But that was his character; he always did the most. When we were younger, I was often confused about what career I wanted to pursue but he always knew what he wanted to do, worked, and achieved it. He knew he wanted to be in business and IT which he pursued. Later, he gained an interest in photography and graphic design and excelled at it. He always helped me with topics or things I could not understand.

After the first Shujaa Stories exhibition, I remember thinking, what next? As usual, Masidza had already thought ahead and planned for activities within the exhibition like a Children’s programme, an instalment where renowned photographers did creative shoots inspired by the Shujaa Stories project, and a festival in July 2019 which we called Vijiji festival. Masidza was a little sick during the planning of this festival. Little did we know that this was the beginning of the end.

Martha Galavu greets President William Ruto during Google KE's 15yrs anniversary. Photo | Pool

While the exhibition was still running, Google Arts and Culture, who were also partnering with the Museum on an online exhibition visited and took interest in the project and highlighted some of the stories as 21 Superheroes of Kenya on Google Arts and Culture, on 20th October 2019. Google proposed to fund the next phase of Shujaa Stories project. This was the beginning of Part 2 of Shujaa Stories, where extensive research needed to be done so as to cover all 44 communities of Kenya. Things were looking up for the project and we were all excited to begin this new chapter.  Unfortunately, Masidza lost the battle to Lupus and died on February 11, 2020.

This completely broke me, he was my only sibling and we were very close. Never in a million years did I imagine that we were going to lose him that early in his life. Despite having a terminal condition, he was always active, I would sometimes forget he was sick. I could not imagine a life without him, leave alone Shujaa Stories without him.

When Masidza died, everything died. The team lost its spirit and I was in shock and denial for months. It was an email from Google asking why there had been no communication from our end that woke me up. As painful as it was to lose Masidza, I could not let his project die. I explained to them what had happened. They gave us overwhelming support that encouraged us to continue.  It was difficult putting the team together and once again there was a deadline to beat. The project was to be completed by 19th October 2020.

This time we had on our team, Julias Ogega, a researcher with the Museum, who would conduct interviews and send me stories from the field so I could create the illustrations.  It was daunting knowing that I was going to work alone on the illustrations, yet I did not know how to execute Masidza’s style of Photoshop. I trained myself using YouTube tutorials. It was frustrating at first because I couldn't get it right and time was running out but in the process, my illustrating skills got better.

The team was working overtime and many times I would break down and wish Masidza was around. We managed to beat the deadline and presented a total of 61 superheroes on the eve of Mashujaa Day, 2020.  I think this project was my way of grieving as it helped me deal with my brother’s loss and charted a new career path for me; an illustrator and curator.

Masidza remains the driving force in everything I do in the project. Since its launch in 2020, we have continued with the children's programmes. We have various ways of disseminating this content through exhibitions, theatrical plays, videos, games and Shujaas storybooks.

On December 9, 2021, we exhibited the complete series; Shujaa Stories Part II, at the Nairobi National Museum. We got to display all 61 Superheroes in larger-than-life prints. The exhibition was described by visitors as immersive, educational, and highly entertaining. Due to public demand, it ran for five months and attracted a huge number of youths. We also hosted several children’s programmes within the exhibition. During these programmes, our partner, Spellcast who is a performing arts group, took charge of storytelling and the theatrical musical plays.

In October 2022, when Google was celebrating their 15-years anniversary, it recognised our work. It was so humbling and honouring!

I would encourage Kenyans to learn more about our cultures because they remind us of where we come from no matter where we are in the world. And also so that we can pass it down to the next generation.”