The Saba Saba Process

One of the most difficult matters to deal with in a society that has been traumatized by past oppression and injustices is memory. The remembering and retelling of the complicated past is painful and can raise more questions than answers. Different actors that lived and survived the troubled past may be motivated to remember, to forget, colour, re-invent or even falsify memory to suit their interests.

The situation in Kenya is even more acute given our formal State approach of promoting forgetfulness, selective remembrance and in many cases projection of ‘fictionalized’ memories. The approach has marginalized many freedom fighters and promoted collaborators or outright supporters and perpetrators of injustice.

Heroes and heroines of struggles for justice and freedom have been removed from the official records and in their place have been replaced by those who were part and parcel of the oppressive system. This re-invention of history and memory has also been formalized through what is allowed to be taught in the education system.

At some point in our history even the process of remembering was a dangerous exercise. The full account of the life and struggles of Bildad Kaggia could not be published during his lifetime and the lifetime of his tormentors. Thus, for me the publication of The Struggle For Freedom and Justice; The life and times of the freedom fighter and politician Bildad M. Kaggia (1921-2005) by Bildad M Kaggia, W de Leeuw and M Kaggia is a beacon of hope that there is a growing corpus of knowledge that is challenging the old approaches to the memory and history of struggle in Kenya.

I give this context as the background to this reflection of the SabaSaba day remembrance. For many Kenyans they remember that day as an important watershed event. The commemoration of the day is important but, in my opinion, it is even more important to remember SabaSaba as a process that gave birth to a movement of struggle.

It is important to reflect on the context before that day and after and seek to fill our lapse of memories. This article, because of limitations of time and space, will only give a glimpse of actors and actions selected to demonstrate aspects that may not be well known. I will also focus on the contribution of cultural workers and artists.

Historical Context:

In the early days of post-colonial Kenya, artists, cultural workers and public intellectuals were among the first categories of those involved in evaluating and reflecting on the meaning of independence and the direction Kenya was taking. Many of them were concerned by the continuation of the colonial state and its legacy; and started public conversations.

By 1969 it had become clear to many that Kenya was taking an anti-people anti-democratic turn; but many were fearful of raising those concerns in public. However, some young Kenyans began reflecting and organising for resistance.

Among many of these young patriots, I will focus on a youth leader from Mombasa who became the first among the new political prisoners of conscience in the young Republic. Abdulatif Abdalla, ‘Tiffu’ to his fellow compatriots, led a process of setting up underground cells that were designed to mobilize and organise the youth and general public to resist efforts to turn Kenya into a dictatorship.

As part of public mobilization and political education they started to publish and disseminate consciousness raising pamphlets.

The third circulated pamphlet entitled ‘Kenya Twendapi?’ meaning ‘Where is Kenya headed?’ led to his arrest, prosecution and jailing for ‘inciting Kenyans to overthrow the Government of Kenya’. Between 1969 and 1972 while serving the sentence, he kept on writing revolutionary poetry which later was published in an anthology entitled Sauti ya Dhiki meaning the Voice of Agony. 

Later Abdullatif Abdalla was forced to flee the country and continue the struggle from abroad.

The 1970s:    

Many commentators have correctly celebrated the role of several university lecturers teaching in literature departments in the struggle for justice in Kenya in the late sixties and the seventies. We are familiar with the struggle led by Ngugi wa Thiongo, Micere Mugo and others to decolonize the English and Literature departments at Nairobi University. This was later extended to the adjoining Kenya Cultural Centre and the National Theatre.

At the heart of the discourse was how to decolonize education and start a conversation on developing appropriate interventions that will deconstruct the harmful effects of that education system; and at the same time start a process of developing a new construct for education that would be appropriate for an independent country emerging from colonialism.

Understandably this process started to raise ‘inconvenient’ issues relating to memory and history. Further, some of this avant-garde work focused on the use of Kenyan themes and languages.

They started telling and performing stories such as the play, Trial of Dedan Kimathi by Ngugi wa Thiongo and Micere Mugo, and I will Marry when I Want by Ngugi wa Thiongo and Ngugi wa Mirii.   The response of the oppressive system was to ban such cultural works from the National Theatre.

Ngugi and his colleagues then moved from Nairobi to Kamirithu to start a peoples’ participatory theatre. Consequently, a number of them were detained and others were forced to flee abroad and continue their work from there. Among them was Professor Micere Mugo the author of the play Daughter of My People Sing and the poetry anthology My Mother’s Song and other poems.  

The 1980s and 1990s:

In the 1980s going into the 1990s most Kenyans are familiar with written works contributing to the struggle by writers like Ngugi wa Thiongo, Francis Imbuga and Alamin Mazrui.

After the clamp down of the universities and the National Theatre a new generation of cultural workers arose and learned to be ‘a step ahead of the oppressive system’.  They began to organise and use innovation to perform without scripts, to engage Kenyans in their spaces including places of worship, social halls, and community spaces including open grounds. They also used the University of Nairobi (UON) and Kenyatta University (KU) free travelling theatre to reach various parts of the country.

Nevertheless the arena of cultural struggle continued to be a high-risk arena and cultural workers like Maina wa Kinyatti, Mukaru Nga’ng’a and Alamin Mazrui the author of Kilio Cha Haki were detained.

In the lead to SabaSaba:

Between 1986 and 1990 a new crop of cultural workers including performing artists emerged at the UON and KU – this increased the effectiveness of the use of cultural elements to organise for struggle and included creative composition, poetry, the spoken word, storytelling and theatre performance. The UON Theatre Workshop group and the Creative and Cultural Centre at KU created sites of struggle at Education Theatre II (UON) and Harambee Hall (KU) for the University and surrounding area populations. Furthermore, they took some of these performances to strategic areas in Nairobi and other parts of the country.

Young and seasoned lecturers worked to prepare and mentor students in activism and struggle using culture and the arts. Dr Oluoch Obura, the late Dr Opiyo Mumma, Gichugu Makini, Oby Obiero Odhiambo and others provided inspiration at UON and David Mulwa, Mumbi wa Maina, Francis Imbuga, Joshua Teyie and others inspired others at KU.

Many of these students were later involved in working with other citizen formations to prepare, plan and take part in the SabaSaba protests. The role of raising political awareness, training for resistance and actually taking part in events before, during and after SabaSaba by these cultural workers/artists has not been documented.

I would like to end this article by celebrating one amazing Kenyan who represents this contribution of that generation in the lead up to the SabaSaba protests and afterwards.

Joni Nderitu was a young man who dedicated his artistic and intellectual work to the liberation of Kenya from the single party dictatorship. He was a creator, director and performer of theatre and the spoken word. Above all he was the first Kenyan spoken word artist to poke fun at and caricaturize Daniel Arap Moi. He consistently and deliberately began the process of deconstructing the presidency and Moi as a dictator.

The journey began at the University spaces, and the process of overcoming the fear of watching the nature of Kenyan tyranny performed on stage began. Audiences were partly traumatized, partly scared and partly liberated. His courage and artistry gave others courage to scrutinize the oppressive Kenyan system.

Joni Nderitu extended the performances to other spaces and was always one step ahead of the State security, but with close shaves. Once we had to hide him at the Nairobi Theatre Academy to escape the wrath of the State. Sadly, he died a young man.

An article such as this, cannot do justice to all the cultural workers that inspired the ideas of SabaSaba, promoted defiance of the oppressive system, mobilized for Kenyans to gather, and protest without a license and seek to liberate themselves from the yoke of tyranny.

For now let me just mention a few names: Wahome Mutahi aka Whispers, Njuguna Wakanyote, Aghan Odero, Mshai Mwangola, Mweni Lundi, Ben Ateku, the late Bantu Mwaura, Babu Ayindo, Ombok Otieno, Kang’ara wa Njambi, Kithaka wa Mberia, Kimani wa Wanjiru and so on.

I hope this short inadequate article will be the beginning of a movement of exploring SabaSaba as a process that has benefitted from the legacy of past struggles and one that has fed into and inspired current struggles.

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