By Sitawa Namwalie
Along with over twenty artists from Kenya Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Burundi I want to report that I was at the inaugural Kampala International Theatre Festival, held in Uganda from November 26 to 30th, 2014.
Beginnings are never easy; to take an idea from conception to fruition takes something special. When that idea is hatched in the tremulous arts and culture sector in East Africa and involves the transportation of artists from several African countries; it takes a sizeable measure of madness. Yet Deborah Asimwe, Christopher Himba (both from Sundance Institute East Africa) and Faisal Kiwawa (Bayimba Cultural Foundation) the originators of this inspired madness are anything but insane. Even the manic artist’s glint is missing from their eyes. The three of them are calm self-effacing and quietly efficient. The lack of drama notwithstanding, for me artists in Africa are the most heroic people ever. An African artist embarks on a dream, knowing that few around them will understand what they are doing, indeed those who love them, friends and family, will constantly worry about their sanity and their financial state exhorting them to get a real job. And worst of all, their career choice is likely to drive their mothers to drink or into the bosom of religion.
The Kampala International Theatre Festival, itself was a revelation for me. I made sure I saw every performance. What surprised me was how little I know about playwrights, plays and the theatre scene in the neighbouring East African countries. I should be used to discovering my ignorance when it comes to things African by now, but it still surprises me. Did you know that Ethiopia has the most vibrant theatre scene probably in Africa? Plays are supported by the government and can run for five years! Hello! I am jealous!
At the festival I found the plays from Burundi and Rwanda to be the most politically edgy! How is that? Don’t these two countries have the least democratic space? The plays from Tanzania and Uganda had excellent storytelling techniques. I learnt so much and was really inspired by every performance. I realised how much more I can do in Kenya and how little I was doing. I discovered that contrary to what we believe, Kenya is blessed with a theatrical infrastructure that is unparalleled in the region; well except by Ethiopia, which still makes me jealous. To perform a play for five years to full audiences? I am very jealous.
This theatrical exchange has given me access to wonderful playwrights, theatre professionals and productions from East Africa that I can stage in Kenya. I don’t have to only look to Shakespeare.
Let’ s get back to the play. Friends who know me well, know that my second name should be “Lots of drama Sitawa.” My invitation came months before giving me time to engage in what I hope was subtle flossing, every time someone made the mistake of asking me what I would be doing later in the year. “Oh I will be off to a festival to do a reading of my first play, “Black Maria on Koinange Street.”
A month before the event I received my e-ticket together with an information package with all I needed to know about the festival.
Of course I went into drama, which I hope was well hidden. “Black Maria on Koinange Street” is indeed my first play, but since 2010 when I had first started writing it, at the Sundance East Africa Theatre Lab on Manda Island, I had never staged it in full. And here I was at an international festival, surrounded by total strangers who were eagerly awaiting a reading of the play. A young women called Solange, kept calling “Black Maria”, no pressure!
The source of my drama was that the play was not yet complete. There I’ve said it. Over the years I had dithered and prevaricated; shifting deadlines in a perfect game of procrastination. When I received the invitation from Deborah, I jumped at it. At last, here was a deadline I could not move. I must complete the play. But I soon found out, it was easier jumped at than done. By the time I arrived at the festival, I still had not completed the play. As I worked flat out over the next 24 hours, I contemplated disappearing. I could simply walk back to Nairobi in the dead of night, rather than face the prospects of international failure after all I had brought my sneakers.
In between writing, I berated myself, what was I thinking, how could I endanger myself in such a potentially public manner? Women my age have retired, they are not doing this dangerous ”late blooming” thing that pulls me inexorably out of my comfort zone, depositing me on stages in foreign countries, of all places!
But I knew I was not going to leave the festival; after all I have found my true love. I buckled down and worked. A reading with Moses Serubiri helped me hear my play. As I read, the words bounced back at me and I began to understand the power of the words I had written, to appreciate the sweetness of the story I have written. On Friday the Green Room in the Uganda National Theatre was full. I scanned the audience, looking at the multihued faces and relaxed. I was where I belonged.
My journey into theatre and the performance arts have strengthened me. Since 2008 when I staged my first performance I have become hardened and softened; yes contradictions. Most of the time, I have created successful performances and sometimes I have failed. The thing about theatre is that when you fail it is public failure and when you succeed it is similarly in public. The challenge is to go beyond the stifling concepts of success and failure and let life unfold.
Kampala will always have a special place in my journey. The reading of “Black Maria on Koinange Street” was wildly successful and made me truly understand the concept behind the statement “risk, big, reap big”. Today, I am a playwright. Through the reading I also confirmed a suspicion I had harboured for the past few years; I can carry an audience in a solo performance. Risk big, reap a whole new world!