21 May 2006

Kenya: When the Elite Have to Go Back to 'Roots'

Nairobi — Africa might be in the 21st century but, still, our cultures and traditions play an important role in our day-to-day lives.

Thus, in spite of "modernisation," we still find people going back to their "roots" whenever the situation "warrants" it. The clash between modernity and tradition remains a sensitive topic to date.

Although Francis Imbuga's play, The Burning of Rags, was initially published as The Married Bachelor in the 1970s, its relevance for the modern-day society cannot be overstated.

In the play, Imbuga brilliantly captures the dilemma faced by educated African elite who still have to reckon with the demands of their cultures.

Denis, a brilliant university lecturer, finds it increasingly difficult to strike a balance between his "sophisticated" life in the city and his stubbornly traditional father in the village.

Ways of his people

In spite of his tight schedule at the university, he still has to abide by tradition and take his son to the village to be circumcised in the "ways of his people".

His suggestion to take the son to hospital for the ritual elicits the threat of a "first order curse" from his ageing father.

Today's society is full of instances where the lure of African culture appears irresistible particularly when faced with a tricky situation.

Politicians are particularly notorious for "going back to the roots" whenever their positions are threatened.

Cases abound where politicians, hitherto "God-fearing" individuals, sneak, under the cover of darkness, to consult witchdoctors.

The message contained in The Burning of Rags was recently reinforced when Pambazuka Productions staged the play at the French Cultural Centre.

Director Charles Bukeko, who also starred as Agala - Denis' father - said their staging of the play marks a shift to "quality local productions".

"For a long time now, theatre companies have subjected their audiences to a menu of foreign productions, whose relevance to the society we live in is negligible," said Bukeko.

He said that by moving back to local productions, they seek to relive the "good old days" when local theatres featured accomplished thespians like the late Wahome Mutahi, Paul Onsongo and Njeri Luseno, who were known for their love for local and African productions.

"These actors had a huge following," said Bukeko. "It is this audience that we want to tap into. We want to bring back glamour to our productions."

The advantage of having such an "informed" audience, he said, is that they will also critique productions.

"Such people also hold influential positions in the corporate world and, thus, they help when we approach them with proposals for sponsorship," he said.

Bukeko, however, said that the reaction of the audience was not as expected, which they blamed on marketing and late publicity.

If, as he says, the need is to attract audiences through quality local productions, why didn't they go for an acclaimed play like Betrayal in the City, also by Francis Imbuga.

"As much as we want to have local productions, we are not about to engage in repetitions," he responded.

Good old days

Due to the hiccups they experienced while marketing their production, Bukeko says they are now receiving enquiries from fans who missed the show.

"It is good when the audience identifies with aspects of the production," he said.

In The Burning of Rags, certain scenes bring out the hypocrisy surrounding modern marriages and relationships.

Following the death of his wife, Denis now cohabits with a woman of loose morals. The explanation he gives his parents is that the woman is a "househelp".

Could Pambazuka's move herald better days for local playwrights?

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