Thursday, 24 January 2013 13:17

Alternative Angle - Catch a Fire

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In this regular column a teacher, writer and media personality starts from personal anecdote to present an outsider’s reflections on the experience of a different community. The views expressed are entirely his own. His website: www.johnsibiokumu.com

Branding is the thing these days. There is expert advice to be had on how to brand every imaginable entity, including ourselves.  Apparently, the way a company brands itself, the way you brand yourself, determines success or failure. Which is all for the good but your parents are sure to have passed on this wisdom by encouraging you to try your best and to look your best at all times. And I ask myself whether, in matters artistic for one, the stress that is placed on branding uniqueness doesn’t in fact undermine the gains to be derived from collaborative effort. There is something to be said for having a herd mentality. This is the thought which struck me as I ‘debriefed myself’ about what I had experienced at   two festivals held in Nairobi earlier this year.
The first was the Storymoja Hay Festival which took place at the National Museum between the 13th and the 16th September. It was billed as a literary festival and its target group was avowedly elitist. Initially, it had begun as simply the Storymoja Festival, the brainchild of writer Muthoni Garland, underwritten purely by local funding but, thereafter, it was branded to become part, as the only African exponent, of Hay Festivals worldwide, with imprints also in Europe, the Americas, the Middle East and Asia. This new branding made for major, outside funding and an increased scope to bring international heavyweights to Kenya: Writers like Juan Jang, author of the blockbuster Wild Swans about repression in maoist China, who gave the inaugural Wangari Maathai lecture at the festival. Also in attendance was rising star Dinaw Mengestu, an American born in Ethiopia. And for one, last example to  avoid giving an exhaustive list, I myself, as a featured playwright on the programme, also had the opportunity to  interview Giles Foden who wrote The Last King of Scotland in reference to Uganda’s Idi Amin Dada, famously made into a film starring American actor Forrest Whittaker. Apart from myself as a local writer, others like Tony Mochama and Rasna Warah were featured, including a star turn by Miguna Miguna in the wake of the publication of his controversial memoir Peeling Back the Mask.  Sitawa Namwalie revived her rapturously received set of social commentary, poetry readings Cut Off My Tongue.

The second was the South Asian Mosaic of Society and the Arts, better known by its acronym, SAMOSA. Its fifth incarnation as a cultural festival was an object lesson in organisational skills, thanks to festival director Farrah Nurani and her team, who did an admirable job of mobilising manifold, private sector sponsorship, making it truly bigger and better than ever before.  There was an obvious effort to cut across social strata by offering something for everybody at venues dotted across the city and at relatively affordable prices. The Sidi Goma Dance Troupe made up of Indians with centuries-old African blood flowing through their veins, came all the way from Gujerat not only to entertain but also to interact and entertain with kindred souls from Kenya.  There was, indeed, a glitzy opening ceremony at The Tribe hotel; but there was also a mobile cinema van that took films to the slum areas of Mathare, Kawangare and Kangemi.  A group of actors travelled from Mombasa to perform the latest offering by award winning Kenyan playwright Kuldip Sondhi at the National Theatre. Racially mixed cricket teams played against each other in a tournament within the newly rehabilitated Karura forest. And, there were concerts by firelight in the Kenya Cultural Centre grounds opposite the Norfolk Hotel and a fusion music concert in the Karura Forest. Performances were complemented by excellent catering and stalls with affordable but very high quality mementos. The SAMOSA brand was evidently growing and growing stronger and stronger by the year.

This was all very splendid. Yet I couldn’t help but note that the SAMOSA festival was held about a fortnight after the STORYMOJA HAY one. Now, if the other element which comes with branding is consistency or ‘tradition,’ then it seems that if the festival dates are to be retained from year to year then these two brands  will seem to be forever in competition, in the manner of Coca Cola and Pepsi. Which to my mind, is not entirely necessary. Would not have collaboration served to offer a more intellectually edifying product to a greater number at a cheaper price, all round? For instance, the people who paid 2,000 Kenya shillings to see Cut Off My Tongue would have gained immensely from seeing the Sidi Goma Dancers, whose show was seen by some for only 500 shillings. Since art comes at a cost, perhaps a price of, say, 700 shillings per ticket could have been arrived at, which Nairobi audiences have more or less become used to and, therefore do not consider as being exorbitant. And, vanity of vanities, had readers of AwaaZ been enticed to come in droves to the Storymoja quotient, then I would have loved to interact with them and to get a firsthand reaction to what I write from my readers; rather than continuing to do so, issue after issue, year after year, in a relative vacuum.

I must confess that I do not have a degree in business studies, nor do I have any real understanding of marketing strategy. But I do have a recollection of something else that I was taught as a  child: ‘TEAM is….Together Everybody Achieves More.’

Copyright:  John Sibi-Okumu

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