There are various contemporary initiatives promoting Kenya’s oral traditions. A number of them are briefly described below.
Language centres offer courses on Kenyan local languages, especially for foreigners. The oldest and best known one is the Anglican Church Language and Orientation School established in 1965 in Nairobi by the Church Missionary Society of England, initially for missionaries. Some major Kenyan languages offered are Kiswahili, Kikuyu, Dholuo, Luhyia, Kalenjin, Kikamba, Kimaasai and Kimeru. The other is The Language Centre, also in Nairobi, which offers courses on Kiswahili, Kikuyu and Dholuo.
Kenya Oral Literature Association
The Kenya Oral Literature Association (Kola) was formed in 1986 to anchor, promote and encourage the understanding and growth of the oral literature of Kenyan communities. The association remained dormant, however, until 1990/1 when it started hosting seminars for scholars and teachers of oral literature. The under- standing that today’s reality has its genesis in ancient wisdom drives it. Kola strives to enhance the preservation of oral literature as a response to the Unesco objective of preserving intangible heritage from extinction. Kola has also sponsored fieldwork on various genres to record and document Kenyan orature, identify new genres, and profile outstanding oral artists and research on social structures. The association is open to ordinary, student, institutional and life members.
In the recent past, it has worked with Panos – London in the Oral Testimonies Project to document people’s perceptions of development through oral testimonies in various parts of Kenya. Currently, Kola is involved in peace building and conflict resolution in Kenya using traditional conflict management mechanisms.
Kola has published the following anthologies, collections of essays, analyses and school textbooks on oral literature: Reflections on Theories and Methods in Oral Literature; The Last of the Ogres and Other Stories;, The Good Witch of Kiaritha–ini and Other Stories; Contesting Social Death; Teaching Oral Literature; Understanding Oral Literature; and Voices from the Mountain. The association is currently based at the Department of Literature, University of Nairobi.
Sigana International Festival
Story telling (sigana, in Dholuo) is being promoted by zamaleoACT, a public trust founded by Aghan Odero to create and present African performance through dramatic narration, banter, chant, recitation, song, riddling, music, dance and movement. The name is derived from Kiswahili words Zamani (Old times) and Leo (Today) to capture the fusion of contemporary artistic practice with the rich African creative heritage. The trust organises the Sigana International Storytelling Festival to move story telling from the homestead to public areas. The inaugural edition, held in Nairobi in 2009, featured performances by seasoned storytellers from Sweden, Canada, Uganda and Kenya. The regular Sigana Storytelling programme consists of three activities.
One is the Fireside Tales series for general family audiences within Nairobi. The performances consist of re-devised tales built around contemporary topi- cal social issues as seen from traditional knowledge perspectives. This enables people to participate in recreating the well-known traditional evening fireside moments characteristic of traditional story telling.
Two is the Schools Orature series, a participatory educational theatre out- reach to promote the learning of oral literature among high school students and teachers. The programme also covers oral rendition of African short stories.Third is Encounter with Sigana Fantasy, which uses tales, dance and chants to train children of elementary school level on how to interpret their world and explore their immediate environment through language and supra- linguistic approaches.
Zamaleo also showcases talented and skilled young Eastern African musicians who play traditional African instruments. Among groups featured are Kenge Kenge Orutu Systems and Bakulutu Afrika.
While the 1980s and 1990s in Kenya was dominated by love for foreign music, especially Lingala music from the Democratic Republic of Congo, there has been a sharp shift in favour of music in vernacular namely Benga, Rumba, Mugithi, Taarab and
Ohangla. The shift has been a com- mercial boon for local musicians such as Susanna Owiyo, Jack Nyadundo, Onyango Alemo, Osogo Winyo, Tony Nyadundo, Ogola Nyundo, Otieno Aloka, Prinecss Jully, Lady Maureen, Limpopo International, Jamnazi Afrika, Dola Kabary, Igwe Bandason, Johny Junior (Luo), J.B. Maina, Mike Rua, John De’Mathew, John Njagi, Salim Junior, Timona Mburu, Sammy Muraya, Musaimo (Gikuyu), Ken wa Maria, Kativui, Katitu Stars Band (Kamba) and Bana Sungusia (Gusii).
But despite this upsurge, vernacular musicians have largely been unacknowledged. However, two significant events changed this in 2011. First, the Victoria Music Awards (Vima) was launched in Nairobi on August 16, 2011, to celebrate outstanding talent in vernacular music. The inaugural awards held in Kisumu on December 10, 2011, recognised regional artists of the year from Coast, Eastern, Central, Rift Valley, Western and Nyanza Provinces; urban artistes; viewers’ choices of gospel, male, female and bands of the year; vernacular radio of the year; and life time achievers.
Among those feted were: Susanna Owiyo (female vernacular artiste of the year), the late Musa Juma and Limpopo International Band (Best Song and Best Band of the Year) and Johny Junior and BV Boy’s Band (Best Vernacular Music and Best Song in Nyanza). J.B. Maina had the largest number of nominations at six.
Nairobi can be credited for trailblazing activities promoting culture. One of these is the cultural night, a musical extravaganza featuring popular musicians and cuisine from a specific com- munity. Thus, there have been cultural nights such as Esagasaga (Gusii), Ramogi (Luo) and Mulembe (Luhyia). The nights are often held at popular social places such as the Carnivore Restaurant, PanAfric Hotel, Hot Hauz and Tents. While these events are primarily patronised by people from the same ethnicity, they also enable Kenyans to celebrate and enjoy one another’s cultures.
Vernacular theatre was popularised by literary icon Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who established the Kamirithu Cultural Centre in the 1970s and used it to stage plays in Gikuyu. In the 1990’s Kenya’s leading humourist, the late Wahome Mutahi, with other stalwarts of Kenyan theatre, such as Tirus Gathwe and the late Anne Wanjugu, revived Ngugi’s experiment through production of plays in vernacular. Most of these plays were staged in social places. One of the major productions was Wamuchuthi, a Gikuyu adaptation of Robert Serumaga’s absurdist play Majangwa.
In 1991, Sarakasi Players (now defunct) staged Ciaigana ni Ciaigana (a Gikuyu adaptation of Enough is Enough). Four years later, Mutahi and Wahome Karengo staged Mugaathe Mubogothi (His Excellency the Hallucinator). The duo also produced Igooti ria Muingi (People’s Court) in 1998. The same year, Mutahi staged Profesa Nyoori (Prof Club). Come 1999, Mutahi teamed up with Prof Ngugi Njoroge to adapt Nicolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector as Nyahoro. It gave way to the political satire Makararira Kioro (They will Cry in a Latrine), also by Mutahi and Karengo, in 2002.
The same year, the Nairobi Theatre Extravaganza showcased Cajetan Boy’s Benta in Dholuo as Mos Benta Mos (Sorry Benta). In 2003, Heart-strings staged Duanyruok (Bad Manners), an adaptation of Guillaume Oyono-Mbia’s Three Suitors: One Husband. Other notable productions in Dholuo have been Maro Okwako Or (Mother-in-law Hugs Son-in-law) and Ndesnaa Bwoyo (Pour Out a Little Beer Foam for Me) by Culture Spill of Fanuel Odera and Betty Achieng. In August 2004, Heartstrings Kenya Ensemble held the ‘Villages of Kenya’ festival, showcasing the similarities and differences in the 42 Kenyan ethnic communities. The festival staged Nikivite (Kikamba), Olenyala Hano Tawe (Luhyia), Maitho Matatu (Gikuyu adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters), Magdalina Leng’na (Dholuo) and Dreams za Yosefu (Kiswahili adaptation of the Hebrew story of Joseph and his brothers). In 2011, some of the vernacular theatre productions were: Benta Horera, Ndaguthaitha Tigira Hau, Njuguma Nduungu, Uka Murio Ngurie and Christmas Mbembe ni Muthandurano.
Vernacular theatre has now become part of the regular menu of Kenyan theatre. As this trend matures, it could be proposed that thespians invest in producing original plays, rather than dominantly relying on adaptations of popular written plays. They should also venture to diversify the languages more.
Since the opening up of the democratic space in the 1990s, the media land-scape in Kenya has seen a proliferation of radio and television stations.The radio segment has particularly seen the establishment of FM radios broadcasting in vernacular. Although most people regard Kameme Radio,established in 2000, as the trendsetter, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation had been broadcasting in vernacular long before Kameme was conceived. Kameme is, therefore, only the first private vernacular radio.Today, one vernacular radio or an-other is serving virtually every community. Some of the radio stations airing programmes in vernacular are:
Kikamba Mangelete, Musyi, Wikwatyo, Mbaitu and Syokimau
Dholuo Maendeleo, Victoria, Ramogi and Nam Lolwe.
Gikuyu Cooro, Kameme and Inooro.
Luhya Shinyalu and Mulembe.
Kalenjin Kass and Chamgei.
Kimeru Mugambo Jwetu and Muuga.
Mijikenda languages Kaya and Bahari.
Asian languages Sound Asia and East. Somali Wajir, IQRA, Rahma, Star and Garissa.
The vernacular radios enhance access to information for people excluded by lack of formal education; promote traditional forms of communication such as storytelling and riddling; discuss community traditions, culture and morals; directly encourage members of the community to be proud of and use their vernaculars; facilitate dialogue for conflict resolution and peace building; build citizenship;and provide advertisers with a wider choice for targeted marketing of products.
Some people argue that vernacular radio promotes insularity, chauvinism and hate speech. In fact, some vernacular stations were accused of broadcasting ethnic hate speech in the 2007 elections. But it is for this reason that the National Cohesion and Integration Commission was created.
While vernacular radio has taken root in Kenya, there is so far no vernacular television station. However, there are reportedly plans to launch Kass TV to broadcast in Kalenjin.
Bomas of Kenya
Bomas of Kenya is a cultural centre established in 1971 to promote and preserve Kenya’s diverse cultures. It features replicas of Kenya’s ethnic architecture, living styles, crafts,music and dance. Bomas of Kenya takes its name from the Kiswahili word boma (homestead). The Bomas menu tries to cover as many Kenyan cultures as possible.
Samia marriage ceremony is featured. This is a re-enacted process of contracting a marriage. It includes matchmaking, payment of bride price, kidnapping of the bride, the groom’s official visit to the bride’s maiden home, the formalisation of the marriage and the escorting of the bride to her marital home. All this is accompanied with song, dance and ceremony. From eastern Kenya is the Kamanu dance of the Ameru, in which women and men celebrate courtship. The dancers are heavily adorned in colourful costumes and traditional jewellery. The musical instruments played include a blow whistle, leg rattles and bush buck horn.
Another courtship dance is the Saar Moya Somali dance from north-eastern Kenya, featuring girls clapping to a retinue of dancing boys. From the Rift Valley comes the Ncha, a festive dance of the minority llchamus community. The dance is performed during rites of passage such as imuget (initiation), nkiema (marriage) and llpapit (head shaving). Instruments used include emowuo (kudu horn) and ntwala (leg rattles). The centre also features Kalenjin warrior dances and Akisuk from the Iteso. Akisuk is performed during epunyasi, an exhumation and re-burial of
a prominent personality in the home-stead to ensure that departed souls are at peace and protect the living family from evil spirits and bad omen. Atenusu drums and bush buck horn accompany the music. Bomas of Kenya and the Ministry of Tourism in 2006 started the Community Cultural Festival, with the first being held on the banks of Lake Turkana. In 2007, there were Mijikenda and Meru festivals in Mombasa and Meru respectively. However, the programme was suspended and only revived in 2011 when the Ilchamus and Samburu festivals were held at the Bomas of Kenya campus.
There are other cultural festivals in the country, the most famous being the annual Lamu Cultural Festival. Then there is the annual Migwena Cultural festival held in Bondo, Siaya County. The festival features football, netball, bicycle and boat races, tugs of war, board games and traditional usic, cuisine, crafts, ornaments and clothes.
The Ministry of Home Affairs and National Heritage, through its Department of Culture, also organises annual provincial cultural music festivals at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre. The festival showcases Kenya’s traditional foods and artefacts.