My article on the birth and growth of the SAMOSA festival which was published in the October issue of the Nairobi Law Monthly attracted two interesting reactions.
The first was a patronising condescension which correlated the passion with which the article had been written to my being an Asian Kenyan. The interest I had shown in the continued misrepresentation of the Asian community was directly attributed to my ethnicity, and it told me very clearly that racial stereotypes continued to abound in our country, and that many still believed that the distorted representation of the Asian community was simply that: the distorted representation of the Asian community, with no bearing on any other Kenyan group.
The second response that I received was an increased fascination with Kenyan Asians; generated by the insight the article had offered on how Asians were involved in the development of the Republic and its continued social, economic and political evolution. What emerged from this were questions about how we live our lives, and it showed me that we as Asians continue to be seen as the Other. A strange community with its unique rituals and practices that are secretive and shielded from the rest of the country. A community of and unto itself. Reading an article about an Asian initiative by an Asian writer made them realise that as a group, we were open to engaging with other ethnicities and exploring the interplay between us.
Both realisations were deeply disturbing because they told me that, despite the attempts of publications like AwaaZ, festivals like Samosa and individual participation in the process of nation building, the Asian community continues to be sharply divided from the majority of the Kenyan community. While in business and commerce, our voice resonates and is sought, in matters of social and cultural engagement and most importantly nationhood, we are still not being perceived by the majority as part of Kenya.
As a volunteer and a person experiencing SAMOSA for the first time, I was privileged to interact with the intricacies of the festival at an extremely intimate and intense level. I gained insights about the SAMOSA ethos from SAMOSA Trustees Zahid Rajan and Zarina Patel, and even spoke to Festival Director Farrah Nurani at length about her plans for 2012 and her personal experience of the Asian community in Kenya.
Engaging with the volunteers and the various sponsors and performers on a daily basis for over 2 months also allowed me to see how a segment of Kenyan youth believes in the change that AwaaZ and SAMOSA are advocating, and that both productions answer a need to experience and celebrate an integrated life. Incredibly, all the different organising groups represented the creative melee that is Kenyan society. Ethnicity was never discussed so I am not sure whether all Kenya's ethnic groups were represented but all skin tones were.
And so I started SAMOSA with an irrepressible enthusiasm that the 2012 chapter would reinforce the ideals of the festival, further merge the Asian community with the rest of Kenya, and perhaps even be a turning point in the relations of the country as we prepared for national elections. At the end of the 10 days I hoped it could have been better.
Not with regards the artistry and creative essence of the festival which was exceptional each day. From the Sidi Gomas to the theatrical performance of Tides, to the crowd rousing Concert in the Forest and the powerful finale combining the Punjabi Dagga Tihli and Nairobi's Slum Drummers with the Goma beats of Gujrat. Attendance numbers were also good, and many faithful audience members supported every performance that week.
I was more disenchanted by the lack of diversity in SAMOSA's audience. Yes, the organising committee, sponsors, volunteers and partners could have represented Kenyan integration but our audience did not. It could be described generously as an international group: Asian community, expatriates from the West, and some locals. But in Kenya, this is by no means an accurate representation of the population, even in an urban setting.
Even the media that covered SAMOSA was drawn predominantly from the Asian community with Asian Weekly and Radio Africa being front runners. And so sadly, most residents of Nairobi probably missed the entire festival and ended the month of September with no more knowledge of what SAMOSA is than when the festival started seven years ago.
SAMOSA 2012 had continued to remain the experience of the few. We as a group were talking to ourselves. We had missed an opportunity.
Two events stood out for me as distinct from this experience. The SAMOSA Teenagers workshop at The Godown Arts Centre, and the three days of SAMOSA Mobile Cinema held in Mathare, Kangemi and Kibera. Together these two events ensured that the message of SAMOSA reached the country's youth, which had the ability to change the future of the country.
As I reflected again on the reactions I had received to my article, I realised that they were not the worst responses I could have received. As a festival, we had succeeded in establishing a dialogue between a group of people. It would only be a matter of time, until more people joined the conversation.
By Aamera Jiwaji