A life is not easy to put on stage. Lives are messy things, with lots of boring everyday bits and occasional highs and lows. A real life is as far removed from the three unities of classical Greek theatre (unity of action or theme, place –one – and time –24 hours) as it is possible to get.
John Sibi-Okumu tackles these obstacles to dramatising the life of Bildad Kaggia by two devices: by focussing much of the attention on Kaggia’s wife, and by having the action unfold through an afternoon’s conversation between two young, modern, filmmakers as they discuss how to capture Kaggia on film. The stage is divided, by lighting, into the Kaggia home, and the desk around which the filmmakers sit, with scenes of the past conjured up flowing between the two halves. And the filmmakers play all parts other than Kaggia and wife. The life unfolds as a series of vignettes on the string of the filmmakers’ conversation.
Kaggia is known, at least by older Kenyans, as one of the Kapenguria 6, along with Jomo Kenyatta, tried and convicted by the British and sentenced to seven years with hard labour. He is also known to many as the man whom Kenyatta later reviled because he had not enriched himself (unlike pretty well all other Kenyan politicians).
Okumu brings out many other aspects of Kaggia’s life and career: the union involvement, a soldier in Egypt during the Second World War, the trip to England soon afterwards. And the family life: the son whose father refused to contribute even a small part to his fees to go to Alliance High School – so he could not go, the husband who spent so many years in detention that he and his wife had two families, two sons before detention and a son and a daughter afterwards, who was devastated by the death of his wife, and the father who doted on his last-born, the daughter, and whose love was rewarded by her devotion in his last years. Incidentally that daughter was present at the opening night of the play.
It is a life of disappointment in some ways: from the father’s obduracy, through lessons in racism in employment and the military, and into independence where service to the people had no value and self-aggrandisement was expected, with the public career ending voluntarily, in disillusionment at promise betrayed, not to mention elections rigged. Interestingly, the play focusses not at all on the achievement of independence, for which Kaggia and so many others fought. Indeed the dominant impression is of betrayal of all those hopes, encapsulated in the cameo of Jomo Kenyatta, fly whisk in hand, asking “Kaggia! What have you done for yourself?” But, as portrayed by Sibi-Okumu, it is not a life of bitterness, at that treatment, but of a man confident in his conviction that he was right to follow the path of integrity, without regret for having made no fortune, taking pleasure in small things: running a small flour mill, enjoying a quiet family life. Nor was this a life of narrow ethnic focus. The author, reflecting one of his own enduring concerns, has Kaggia insisting that the struggle was not one of the Kikuyus, or even of Africans alone, and, while strongly critical of racist colonialism, recalling with affection some relationships in England.
The wife, beautifully played by Lydiah Gitachu, comes across as one of those women, never expected in a traditional society, as in many others, to exercise any independent choice, who is a proverbial tower of strength. Holding the family together while the husband lives a public life, and while he undergoes his sentence, not complaining, not perhaps talking a great deal (“The longer the marriage the shorter the conversations” was a great line), but not subservient. Through her we get a sense of the plight of a woman in a violent household (her father’s violence, not her husband’s), blamed for being a woman, and blamed for choosing her husband.
Harry Ebale gave a most convincing performance as Kaggia, in turn songful, reflective, wryly amused at the turns of fortune, and stepping into roles as his younger self encountering prejudice, obstinacy and autocracy.
Yriimo Mwaura and Bruce Makau as the filmmakers also presented solid performances, Makau’s best moment being perhaps a brief appearance as President Moi, complete with rungu, “During Mzee Kenyatta’s period, I persistently sang the Kenyatta tune … If I had sung another song, do you think Kenyatta would have left me alone? Therefore, you ought to sing the song I sing.” As Kaggia says, he had the temerity to sing another tune.
The young filmmakers argue about morality, in sections we were less sure worked. How to deal with the fact that the Mau Mau were not innocent of human rights abuses? And was Kaggia right to deprive his children of a fancy education and other benefits because the people of Kenya could not have these things (she reflecting perhaps modern Kenyan attitudes and he older virtues for which Kaggia stood)? They are important issues, but could be neither fully raised nor answered.
There are plans to take the play outside Nairobi, to reach out to students and hopefully others, who are not aware of their country’s past, and for whom ideas of politicians serving the public, and believing in something may come as a revelation. It is good to know that JSO and the Phoenix reject the argument that art can never be didactic, though they may not agree with George Bernard Shaw that it can never be anything else.
By Jill Cottrell Ghai and Yash Pal Ghai