Kenya lifts the curtain on a free, if still nervous, literary culture

Meera Selva
Wednesday 10 November 2004 01:00
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In a small bar tucked under the Nairobi racecourse, actors take their audience through Kenya's modern history. No subject is left out; an Indian girl talks of how her sister was raped during the attempted coup of 1982, a retired politician is haunted by the memory of prisoners tortured under his watch.

In a small bar tucked under the Nairobi racecourse, actors take their audience through Kenya's modern history. No subject is left out; an Indian girl talks of how her sister was raped during the attempted coup of 1982, a retired politician is haunted by the memory of prisoners tortured under his watch.

The audience sip beer and white wine, and lean back to watch the makeshift stage. The relaxation is an indication of just how much the arts scene in Kenya has changed.

For decades, Kenyan artists have lived in fear of arrest, imprisonment and torture. Previous presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi resurrected emergency legislation created by the British to suppress the Mau Mau in 1952, and used it to censor and suppress free speech. By the 1970s, all new plays had to be approved by the government, and directors had to apply for a licence for any public performance.

In 1977, police closed a hugely popular play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I will marry when I want), by the outspoken playwright, Ngugi Wa Thiongo. Thiongo was arrested and beaten by government thugs so often he fled to London in 1982 and later to California.

Fears mounted as the Moi government became increasingly dictatorial. But since a new government headed by Mwai Kibaki came to power in December 2002, the arts scene has reawakened.

Mr Kibaki promised to dismantle the oppressive state apparatus to allow Kenyans to live in a more democratic society. The government has set aside part of the budget for the arts, and international organisations such as the Ford Foundation are supporting new projects.

The restoration of the National Theatre in Nairobi is the most visible example of the renaissance. It was built in 1952, but as actors and directors became more and more fearful, it became a venue for Scout gatherings and jam-making competitions.

Now, the government and the private sector have raised £100,000 to restore its art deco features. New writers such as John Sibi-Ukumu have staged daring plays dealing with sensitive issues such as police torture, race and poverty. And, in a desolate corner of urban Nairobi, acrobats, sculptors, painters and musicians have created the Godown, the country's first proper arts centre.

Last year, a literary magazine called Kwani? (slang for "What's up?"), was started, edited by Binyavanga Wainaina, a young writer who won Africa's most prestigious award, the Caine Prize in 1992. The magazine publishes in a mix of English and Kiswahili.

But Kenya still has a long way to go before writers and performers feel totally safe. In August, Ngugi Wa Thiongo returned to Kenya after 22 years in exile, and three days after he arrived, intruders broke into his apartment, burnt him with cigarettes and raped his wife. People wonder if it was a robbery, or something more sinister, an echo of the time of government-backed beatings for anyone who spoke out.

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