Running under the theme Mitazamo yetu or our (Kenyan) perspectives, the SAMOSA Festival 2014 hosted a raft of activities that addressed issues that are endemic to Kenya. The events of the festival ran for almost a fortnight over the last half of August 2014; the festival’s issue-based approach succeeded in bringing together Kenyans from different walks of life.
As a precursor to the festival’s main activities, organizers of the festival partnered with a weekly Television show - African Leadership Dialogues – to hold discussions on issues related to social justice and identity with panels comprising of some prominent Kenyans. These discussions were aired weekly on the African Leadership Dialogues show on Citizen TV before and during the festival. The discussions set the stage for the festival.
The festival officially kicked off with a daylong mini-festival dubbed the Community Media Festival held in partnership with Kenya Community Network at the Dagoreti Empowerment Centre in Dagoretti, Nairobi. Representatives of community radio stations such as Bus Radio, Koch Fm, Pamoja Fm, Mtaani Radio also participated in the event. The media festival began with an exhibition that showcased the contributions of various Kenyans of South Asian descent to the nation’s liberation. Column-length biographies of individuals such as Makhan Singh and Pio Gama Pinto were displayed alongside their respective photographs at various points of the main hall, for attendees to acquaint themselves with the contributions of these individuals to the struggle against colonialism. The exhibition was followed by slew of performances which was coordinated ably by the emcee of the media festival, Tom Mboya of Koch Fm. Dancers, puppeteers and other performance artistes such as Ghetto Pamoja wowed the audience with their presentations. The community media festival ended with the screening of a film titled Ni Sisi which was followed by discussions on nationhood, identity and governance in Kenya. The discussions were facilitated by Tom Mboya and Patrick Ochieng of Ujamaa centre.
Throughout the week of festivities another mini-festival was also held under the auspices of the festival. It was a film festival held in league with Film Kenya and Pamoja trust. The film festival featured screenings of films in locations such as Daystar University and Aga Khan Academy. The films that were screened addressed themes such as democracy, race and identity. After the screenings, viewers engaged in discussions which explored these themes extensively. Of particular interest was a film titled Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots - a film that spoke to the experiences of an immigrant in Kenya who was trying to find her identity.
As the fourth event of the festival, a forum that put wildlife conservation into perspective was held at Louis Leakey Auditorium at the National Museums of Kenya. The event dubbed Hands off our Elephants was hosted by Stand Up Shout Out (SUSO), a youth-based lobby group which aims at raising consciousness on various issues affecting society. The event brought together key stakeholders in Kenya’s tourism sector as well as some international actors involved in wildlife conservation. After speech from the SUSO president, Peter Moll, SUSO members Sahil Seth Shah and Robert Mulei introduced White Gold, a film which highlighted the poaching of elephants for ivory in Kenya. A panel comprising SUSO’s president, Peter Moll; Paula Kahumba of Wildlife Direct; Julius Cheptei of Kenya Wildlife Service; HongXiang Huang of China House; Jimmy Nyamu of Elephant Neighbours Centre and Lucy King of the Elephants and Bees project discussed some of the key issues raised by the film and later engaged the audience on the same. The audience’s interest was piqued as a number of attendees asked how they could get involved in efforts to stem the poaching menace. The panelists suggested various ways and it was realized that as much as there were different levels of intervention, there was a need for them to work in harmony to address the menace.
A colloquium was held the following day in partnership with the University of Nairobi’s Department of Literature. Held in the University of Nairobi’s Education Building, it brought together a number of academics who explored various themes that were in keeping with the spirit of the SAMOSA Festival – national integration. Academicians such as Jayanti Shome, Tom Odhiambo, Chris Wanjala, Wambui Kamiru, Chris Wanjala, Mikhail Gromov, Alina Rinkanya explored themes such as language and identity, inclusivity and cosmopolitanism in their presentations. Wambui Kamiru’s presentation on ‘Who I am, Who we are’ was a part of a bigger project that sought to look for a Kenyan Identity. The project, which also served as one of the experiences of the SAMOSA Festival 2014, engaged the public for some days during the festival week at the Kenya National Theatre through pictorial exhibitions based on historic events of Kenya and personal interviews on one’s sense of ‘Kenyanness’.
Hadithi, a night of storytelling, poetry and spoken word performances held in the amphitheatre of the National Museums of Kenya, demonstrated the sheer talent of a number of Nairobi-based artistes. The event’s performances kicked off with stories from the Zamaleo troupe that fused its storytelling with music from traditional African instruments such as drums and the Orutu. The stories were not only a means of entertainment; they had some valuable lessons which members of the troupe strived to highlight. Dorphan, a spoken word artiste, took to the stage and entertained the audience with his poetic pieces. One of his pieces, ‘Mimi ni mkenya’, explored themes of nationhood and ethnicism and enthralled the audience. His performance was followed by a captivating skit titled ‘Stories of a Nation’ which was staged by Stand up Shout Out. Komal Shah, a seasoned toastmaster, recited a poem that addressed gender violence. The last act of the night, Nuru Bahati, kept the audience on its toes with his witty, incisive and cerebral spoken word pieces. The emcee of Hadithi, Monaja, engaged with the audience and tried to underscore the importance of the strength of cultural diversity. An urban poet, he interspersed some of the acts with performances of some of his rap verses scripted in Sheng and Kiswahili. The night ended in a carnival mood which was as attributable to the stellar performances by the featured artistes.
A music concert held at the Louis Leakey Auditorium on the Saturday night brought the festival’s mood to a crescendo. It featured performances by the Daraja band, H_art the Band, the Gita Umesh troupe and Anish Victor of the Sandbox collective. The event began with performances from the Gita Umesh troupe that performed a variety of age-old Indian classical dances whose movements had symbolic messages. The troupe leader took time to explain to the audience the meaning of the movements and their relevance to Indian culture. The Daraja band (formerly Kachumbari) of mixed heritage – African, Asian and Caucasian – kept revelers entertained with their unique sound. Although the band used traditional and contemporary musical instruments it was able to produce one cohesive sound which symbolized the beauty of convergence of divergent ideas and heritage. One of the highlights of the concert night was the performance staged by Anish Victor of the Sandbox Collective from Banglore, India. His act was a mixture of dance, spoken word and theatrics. He touched on some of his personal life experiences and reflected on some of the events in India’s colonial and postcolonial history. The audience hanging on to his every word was captivated by the skits he performed. H_art the band closed the show with a host of songs including their hit – Uliza Kiatu. Their music impelled many of the revelers to leave their seats and dance. The concert ended after the band, together with the emcee of the night, Monaja, led the audience in singing the national anthem.
The last event of the SAMOSA Festival, Beach Access - a play that was the BBC Radio play of the year in 1997 - was held at the same venue the following afternoon. After a few remarks by the SAMOSA Festival’s director, Zahid Rajan, the author of Beach Access, Kuldip Sondhi, introduced the play to the audience. The play dramatized the struggles of beach boys trying to access a public beach after a path which they had been initially used, was grabbed by illegal developers. The audience followed the play with rapt interest as the greedy African Area Chief and the corrupt South Asian Estate agent interacted with family, beach boys and the law. Land, an emotive issue in Kenya, was the main theme addressed by the play. A panel of individuals conversant with land issues in different parts of Kenya led a discussion after the play, the participants sought to understand how land in Kenya could be transformed into a uniting, rather than a divisive, factor. The event was sponsored by the Kenya Dialogues project, a forum that is part of the Society for International Development.
SAMOSA Festival 2014, in line with its theme, mitazamo yetu, brought Kenyans together and succeeded in reaching out to diverse communities and building partnerships with Kenyan art groups. The organizers of the festival may face a tall order in outdoing themselves come the next festival.
Mwongela Kamencu - a historian and a poet