Tuesday, June 26, 2012


CONTRARY to the wildly held belief that Africa’s low standards of living and gross inequalities are as a result of bad leadership, a visibly angry president of a fictitious nation in a poem subtitled “State of the Nation Undressing,” shifts the blame to his citizens.

In the poem that is part of a three-part poem titled “National Broadcast,” the president, who has no kind words for his citizens complains about the inadequacies of the people he has been “forced to govern.”

He begins with the question of colour. Some of his citizens, he observes are simply too black, too dusky, shadowy, too dim, not quite the right hue. They are likely to darken their state, make developed nations believe therein lies Africa’s black heart.

The president even wonders whether the nomads belong to his nation. They wander about with their cows and goats never staying in one place long enough to be known. How is government supposed to be sure where they belong? He asks how they can reconcile their modern ways, their love for the stock market, the Internet – developments that tell the world they are modern – with the nomad’s outlandish and outdated nomadic customs. “You badly reflect on this progressive nation,” he declares.

On their part political scientists and development experts attribute Africa’s poor state of affairs to the widespread economic crisis and political disorder that has resulted into protracted and vicious civil violence.

The president singles out the poor as the very worst of all because they insist on being poor. Their transgressions include the tendency to congregate in slums. Their affinity for suffering, pain, and crime creates a dangerous state. With their kiosks and street hawking, they show no regards for government’s attempts at central planning.

The poem was part of Betty Walamwa Muragori writing as Sitawa Namwalie’s dramatized poetry performance of her collection titled “Cut off My Tongue,” that premiered in Uganda at the National Museum on May 11, 2012, in Kampala.

Cut off My Tongue, that was directed by Namwalie and co-directed by Alice Karunditu is a bold, proactive and captivating story of Kenya. It is about African lives – the good, the bad and the hugely entertaining. It rants, sweats, breaks into song and dance as it explores the truths that shape Africans: their beliefs, the way they behave and why.

Cut off My Tongue that has been performed at the Hay Festival (UK) is a spirited invocation to Africans to colonise and mould their own history. It is about land, tribe, personal discovery, identity and relationship.

The poems were read out by Namwalie and Karunditu. They were accompanied by instrumentalist Willy Rama.

As for the regrettable polythene innovation they call the ‘flying toilet,’ they destroy government’s best efforts to enhance hygiene standards. “…Your colour, your tradition, your poverty – I have been informed by my special advisors your intentions are suspect indeed,” the president warns.

“If I was not a good Christian I would be in despair at being surrounded by so many unsavoury types who willfully refuse to support our grand cause: the creation of a modern African nation,” the president concludes.

The poem “Land of Guiltless Natives” underscores the importance of land in the existence of the Kenyan society. “Our fascination with land is a top ranking Kenyan vice – women, Tusker Lager, and land, and not necessarily in that order. We obsess about it, we want it – Large tracts of it, small pieces, plots 4m by 4m, our fixation an irrational passion we kill for,” the poem goes in part.

The ugly side of tribalism is played out in the poem “Language of Tribe.” Tribe is a sharp acid on the tongue. Tribe grates loudly in one’s ears, it demands to be heard. It makes one to act secretly. Count the members of the Church Council and tally the number of times his/her tribe emerges in the media. When the appearance is favourable, he or she smiles.

The poem “Nameless” laments the dying tradition of naming in Africa. Names of African family trees are unique, exotic, barely heard among our generation. The names from the past carry meanings long forgotten, greater than mere names.

“We used to name after dead ancestors – they sent a sign when they wanted to live again. But amongst those with whom I walk this earth tradition has become distorted. It appears only a few ancestors ask to be reborn, most seem happy to stay dead!” the poem goes in part.

Africans have therefore lost their connection with their ancestors and instead adopted alien names some of which do not carry any meaning and we cannot even pronounce. They ape other people’s cultures. A people without history become slaves of history.

The other recited poems were “Would You” “I Come From Everywhere” and “Say My Name!” From her other show called “Home Coming,” were: "Oprah Endorses the Toi Market Support Group," "Tell Me Your Name," and "Names of the Dead"

"Oprah Endorses the Toi Market Support Group," is a satirical take on the Africans love and excitement for shopping for the used clothes and other goods discarded by the west.

“…We all aspire for the same things. I want Manalo Blanick shoes as much as a woman living in New York City, a desire fueled by both of us watching "Sex and the City.” And now although I don't have hundreds of dollars to spend on new ones I can find them in places like Toi Market. There is sorrow and humor in our lives,” Namwali said.

"Names of the Dead" is Namwali’s commemoration of the 1,300 people that died during the 2007/2008 post-election violence in Kenya. “There is such official silence on the terrible deaths of these people and the women, children and men that were raped, the lives squandered and ruined. This poem stands as a memorial for their deaths and all other similar deaths in the terrible unnecessary conflicts in Africa and around the world,” she says.

“…And why do we ignore the bones of our dead, their memories? After all Africans have created a compelling story about the dead, are they not our ancestors? Have you ever been to a grave yard where the British war dead lie side by side next to the African dead? It’s shocking. One part is clean well-kept and clearly cared for. The African side is full of weeds, broken and forgotten,” Namwali adds.

On the importance of premiering in Uganda, she said: “Really I want to perform everywhere in Africa and then also go all over the world. This is the second country in our world tour. Uganda is close to Kenya in so many ways, we share so much in terms of culture, history and poor governance. I think we have similar conversations about ourselves. I want to support the growing cultural exchange that others have started. We can only learn and build each other. I want to help unleash Africa's creativity and self-confidence.”

Regarding the reaction of the Ugandan audience, Namwali observed, “They loved it and recognised themselves in the poetry. Many in the first show came to the second show and many told me how much they loved it. We also good press in the local media.”

Namwali has plans to take her productions to the other East African countries as well. “…Taking the show to Uganda gave me “reconstituted confidence…”

Regarding the prospects of dramatized poetry in East Africa, she says: “Several people in Uganda said they have now seen something that they will emulate. I look forward to artists unleashed discovering new and exciting ways in which to tell our stories because at the end of the day that is what Cut off my Tongue is, a story, our story.”

Cut off my Tongue may be set in Kenya but it is about Uganda it is about Africa. An important overall technique used by “Cut off my Tongue” is to problematize the dialogue on topics such as land or tribe/tribalism for example. In this way it explodes many myths and points of view, which are accepted as everyday truths. Rather than taking the commonly held myth of a situation such as tribalism is the fault of politicians for granted, problematization poses that knowledge as a problem, allowing new viewpoints, consciousness and self-awareness, reflection, hope, and action to emerge.

It is not surprising then many in audiences have left “Cut off My Tongue” feeling optimistic, inspired to action despite some of the bleak and dark imagery and emotions evoked by many of the pieces.