The young stay patriotic as politicians destroy Kenya

Drama festivals

Kisumu Day students present a Kiswahili choral Verse Gredi during the third day of the Kenya National Drama Festival and Film Festival at Shanzu Teachers College on April 22, 2023

Photo credit: Anthony Njagi | Nation Media Group

Thousands of young Kenyans have been in Mombasa since schools closed for the annual Kenya National Drama and Film Festival finals. This event is one of the highlights in the school calendar.

It is highly anticipated and always attended by enthusiastic young Kenyans, their teachers and, in some cases, parents and guardians. Yes, parents and guardians because the festivals have sessions for kindergarten performers.

This year’s festivals are being held at Shanzu Teachers’ Training College, and Shimo la Tewa and Sheikh Khalifa secondary schools in north Coast. The theme for the 61st festivals is “Fostering Digital Transformation through Theater and Film.”

As one would imagine, the festivals are a true representation of the diversity of Kenya’s regions, levels and systems of education, peoples and cultures. The festivals attract students from all corners of Kenya, from the kindergarten to primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities.

It is where the cream of Kenya’s young performing talent meets to compete against each other. Some institutions put a premier on the festivals and even attract students through fee rebates or scholarships for top talents in dance, song, theater, poetry, even filmmaking.

Indeed, these festivals carry the spirit of what is good for Kenya and its people. The thousands of young people who attend the festival to perform and those who come to cheer up their colleagues or those who simply come to watch the performances, all participate in the spirit of camaraderie.

The teachers (and the non-teaching trainers) who train the performers do so in the spirit of benign competition. To perform at the national finals is a very demanding and costly task.

What makes these festivals redeeming is that they are happening at a time when politicians, to use a cliché, have polarised the country along political and ethnic lines. Today, Kenyan politicians talk recklessly of winners choosing what to ‘eat’, when, where and with whom. Why? Just because they were declared winners.

Some politicians have recently been reported suggesting that what are traditionally national institutions located in their regions should largely serve local needs first. Sure, homegrown institutions should care first for locals. But what passes for local? Let’s take an example of how warped this ‘local versus non-local’ argument is.

How local or non-local is a Kenyan who was born in Ukunda, educated in local schools, speaks Digo, Kiswahili and English (even some Arabic) but whose parents were originally from Busia, who spoke or speak Teso, who have worked in Kwale for 30 years and have built a ‘home’ in Ukunda? The young Kenyan may or may not know that his parents are ‘originally’ from Busia-Kenya, and that they may have relatives in Busia-Uganda, and some more kin all the way in Sudan.

The said hypothetical young man then moved to Kilifi to work – say, for the government of Kenya – and married a woman whose parents are Borana and Somali.

Where exactly in the Kenya envisaged by politicians do the children from the couple belong? There are millions of Kenyans today who may have (had) roots in some parts of Kenya but whose grandparents and parents resettled elsewhere and who think more as Kenyans than as some ethnic community whose origin is in some place that they no longer identify with.

Which is why the national drama festivals are an interesting place. Whilst the politicians are haranguing the rest of Kenyans about the ‘specialness’ of some community or other, contrasting themselves and their communities against those they perceive as weak, unproductive and not-so-Kenyan, the children and youth at Shanzu Teachers’ Training College, Shimo la Tewa and Sheikh Khalifa schools were staging plays, narrating stories, performing mimes, singing and dancing and showing films that celebrated the ‘specialness’ of Kenya and Kenyans.

When they are done with the stage, some of them will find their way to the Ocean, swim in the salty waters, laughing, chasing one another, with little or no care, as if there is nothing else in the world but themselves, their schoolmates, other swimmers and just Kenya.

One may have issues with this year’s theme for the drama and film festivals, considering how digital inequality is still a big issue in Kenya today. Millions of young Kenyans (who were promised laptops a decade ago) still remain on the periphery of the digital space.

They cannot access the internet and all its promises and potentials for progress. But one cannot underestimate the capacity for the digital world to change the social, economic, political, cultural, environmental and even spiritual worlds today.

The digital space can and does enable interaction between peoples from different regions and cultures. It opens up the possibilities to know (about) others, and appreciate cultures that are different from ours.

One can learn new languages online these days, with millions of data stored and available for free online. What this means is that knowledge should be widely and freely available to millions of people all over the world.

Theater and film are powerful tools for educating the young about the world around them. Through drama, by working together, in scripting, rehearsing, acting on stage, commenting on each other’s enactment and sharing the joys (or disappointments) of the performance, the young people learn to see the world differently but also possibly begin to form a common vision of humanity.

It may be difficult for a fully inclusive and non-tribal (not that there is anything wrong with the tribe) to emerge in Kenya in the next three or so generations. But when the young ones from Siaya sing Borana songs, when those from Nyeri do a Luhya dance, and the Giriama ones produce a play that celebrates unity in diversity, allowing for the cliché, an optimist imagines that there is just the possibility of a Kenyan identity emerging from the mix of many groups that live within the country.

The festivals always end with a gala show before the Head of State. By the time of reading this essay, some of the winning teams will have performed their plays, mimes, skits, spoken word poetry etc. Hopefully, the big women and men who run the affairs of the state will get the message from the young Kenyans that it is easier to build than it is to destroy a country; and that they will share that message with their constituents and the rest of Kenyans.

- The writer teaches literature, performing arts and media at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]