Wednesday, 25 April 2018


                            Samantha Mugatsia as Kena and Sheila Munyiva as Ziki in Wanuri Kahui's Rafiki


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 25 April 2018)

Evidence that Kenyan women playwrights and screenwriters are coming out in full force has been most apparent in recent times. And not only with Zippy Okoth’s original script, ‘Stranger in my Bed’ which she staged last weekend at PAWA254 or with Mbeki Mwalimu’s recent co-authoring of ‘Stranger by Blood’ which she collaborated on with Justin Miriichi a few days before. (Incidentally, Mbeki’s directing ‘Mutual Misery’ this weekend, opening tonight at Alliance Francaise, starring Melvin Alusa and Mary Mwikali.)

It’s also not just because Lupita Nyong’o just announced she plans to put on her filmmaker’s hat again to produce and star in Trevor Noah’s brilliant memoir, ‘Born a Crime.’

The biggest news of the month is that ‘Rafiki’, Wanuri Kahiu’s latest feature film has just been invited to premiere at this year’s 71st Cannes Film Festival which is coming this next month.
It’s exciting news for many reasons but primarily because Rafiki is the first Kenyan feature film to receive such an invitation from the biggest and most prestigious film festival in the world.

But Wanuri is also no stranger to award winning since she won the Independent Movie Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010 for her post-apocalyptic eco-sci-fi film, Pumzi. That was a huge achievement in itself.

But then, Wanuri is not a woman content to rest on her laurels! She began work on ‘Rafiki’ shortly after she won at Sundance.

“I knew I wanted to make an African love story,” Wanuri told BD Weekender. ‘And I thought the love story between Kena and Ziki was a story I wanted to tell. It’s touching, sweet and honest,” adds one of Kenya’s most prominent screenwriters, director, and producer.
                                       Ziki and Kena are best buddies who become rafiki

Wanuri’s written the screenplay for ‘Rafiki’. But unlike the four other films that she’s made since she completed a Masters degree in film from UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles), she didn’t write the award-winning story on which ‘Rafiki’ is based.

That accolade goes to another award-winning East African woman writer, Monica Arac de Nyeko. The Uganda author won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2007 for her short story, ‘Jambula Tree’. The story, about best friends who fall in love, had struck Wanuri for its honesty and sweetness. And as she had been looking to base her next film on a love story, she felt it was “touching and sweet” enough to inspire a full length feature.

The fact that Kena and Ziki are both girls didn’t bother Wanuri even though she knew she was creating a work that is about a ‘taboo-ed’ topic in much of Africa, lesbianism.

“It took us five years to make,” says Wanuri, who struggled, with the same issue that most Kenyan filmmakers have, and that is funding. Ultimately, her film company, ‘Afrobubblegum’ got support from sources in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and even Lebanon. But it was a challenge.

The film stars two young Kenyan women actors Sheila Muruiva and Samantha Mugtsia, and it was filmed right here in Nairobi.

In a sense, the fact that ‘Rafiki’ will be first shown in public in France rather than Kenya is probably a blessing in disguise for Wanuri since her international audience will undoubtedly have a more open-minded perspective on the subject of women loving women than the average Kenyan.

But Wanuri is clearly not disturbed by the blow-back she could receive from locals who don’t understand or accept the concept of lesbianism.

An international audience is bound to appreciate other aspects of the film than the taboo. Plus what we have already seen from a film like Pumzi is that Wanuri grapples with larger social concerns than those seen in petty foreign soaps which still flood Kenyan airwaves.
                                   Samantha Mugatsia plays Kena in this beautiful but bitter sweet love story

For ‘Pumzi’ dealt with the real possibility of a post-water world (exacerbated by climate change) that was meant to serve as a wake-up call and warning that radical action is required if the human race is going to avert the disastrous effects of our short-sighted lust for riches gained ‘by any means necessary.’

It’s no surprise that the second film Wanuri made was a documentary film for MNET on the life and vision of the great environmentalist Professor Wangari Maathai. Her following film, “From a Whisper’ is still vividly etched in my mind because she interpreted what human elements might have contributed to the disastrous bombing of the American Embassy in 1998.

So we eagerly await the opportunity to see ‘Rafiki’ ourselves and hope the voices for free speech triumph over conservative forces bent on curtailing media freedom.



201By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted April 25)

Horace Awori together with Kondia Wachira have crafted an utterly well-told story that’s assuredly the fulfillment of the Awori family’s collective dream come true.

In ‘Seizing the Moment: the Amazing Story of the Awori Family’, Horace has compiled and documented one of East Africa’s most illustrious dynasties. It is a feat that is unsurpassed by any other Kenyan or Ugandan family, given that none other could have traced their genealogy all the way back to 1785 to the Awori patriarch, Nambanja Muka. The book is a lifetime achievement by the one person in the family best suited for the task.

It’s a challenge Horace says he received immense support and unpublished documentation from his aunt, Canon Dr Mary Okelo, one of the many renowned members of a family that stretches across borders. It’s also a family known in both Kenya and Uganda for not only their roles in education and finance (for instance, Mary not only started the award-winning Makini Schools; she is also Kenya’s first indigenous female bank manager).

They’ve also served in top leadership roles, as for example, Kenya’s former Vice President Moody Awori. In fact, thanks to their upbringing, discipline, dedication to Christian ethics and devotion to education, excellence and hard work, the vast majority of the Awori’s have been achievers of the highest caliber.

That Horace can tell this complicated and well researched story in such a readable fashion, including facts as well as anecdotal experiences that go back decades, is a major credit to this man who only refers to himself in the context of his mother’s life story.

Ellen Peris Osinya Awori-Owori (1922- 2002) was the eldest of the 16 children of the renowned family’s 20th century patriarch, the Canon Yeremiah Musungu Awori and his beloved wife Mariamu. Ellen, who eventually qualified as a nurse and social worker, married Reverend Owori, and they spent most of their lives in Uganda (as did/does a good portion of the Awori family). But Horace, after attaining senior positions in Ugandan journalism, fell fowl with Idi Amin, causing him to flee for his life. After that, he’s played a leading role in Kenya journalism and now, with this book qualifies to be a leading family historian.

Horace’s tracing of Yeremiah Awori’s early career in the church reflects a thoughtful unfolding of an early churchman’s life and reveals why he entitled his book ‘Seizing the Moment.’ For Canon Awori clearly worked his way up through the ranks of the Anglican church, learning lessons from dedicated missionaries who Horace understands as being both spiritually minded and pragmatic to the point of encouraging young Yeremiah to study both theology and development. As such, the Canon as a father also showed his children explicitly how he wanted them to live their lives. He imbibed modernity, but he also respected his Samia community’s cultural traditions.

The book is also well indexed in scholarly style and the lives of all the offspring are noted, never forgetting all their accolades which are many.

Monday, 23 April 2018



BY Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 23 2018)

Zippy Okoth deserves a medal for her performance in ‘Stranger in my bed’ which she staged for a second time this past weekend at PAWA254.
She deserves the medal first because she dared address a whole range of stigmas that women the world over face related to marriage and divorce, the code of silence that many women endure even when they’re horribly mistreated.

She deserves it for the courage she displayed in taking on the stereotypical traps that women fall into, revealing their folly for believing in foolish delusions like ‘mills and bones’ styled ‘romantic love’ and fairy tale versions of ‘living happily ever after.’
The first time I saw Zippy perform her one-woman show (at Kenya National Theatre which was too cavernous a context to reveal the nuances of this intimate story), I didn’t see that she was intentionally over-dramatizing the love-struck little Zippy who fell head over heels for her ‘Mr Right’, Ricky. I didn’t recognize that the sappy star-struck love was meant to look rather foolish.
In fact, I came late to last Saturday night’s show because I hate to see girls grow up believing their lives are meant to be fulfilled by the perfect guy, or even the not-so-perfect guy.
I arrived after Zippy was pregnant and reflecting on what the perfect marriage was meant to be, and how she actually knew early on that she wasn’t in one, but she was going to hang on just the same. It would be her cross to bear, to “make the marriage work.”
I gather some women rebelled against Zippy telling the story of a divorced woman since divorce in some religious circles is strictly taboo. It doesn’t matter if the woman is beaten bloody, betrayed by a man who breaks his vows and robs the woman at every level (emotionally, financially, socially and dignity-wise). The woman is still meant to stay. She is also supposed to put on a happy front of marital bliss even when her home is a battle ground and she’s the loser in all ways.
Some women didn’t like Zippy spilling the beans on married women whose life is hell, but pretend it’s heaven. That too is taboo, the taboo of, as a wife, telling the truth. And if a woman tells her truth, as Zippy has done, (with her director telling us on Saturday night that the play is autobiographical, as if we didn’t know), then she is meant to suffer all the more, this time with the stigma of being a tell-all traitor to her fellow married women.
What was really painful to watch in the play was when, after being beaten severally and being accused by her cheating spouse of having  killed her own child through her ‘carelessness’, she continued to go back to Ricky. It’s painful to watch, not just because zippy is a passionate actress who performs from the heart. It’s painful because she mirrored the experience of so many unhappy women who believe they are bound to live as slaves and guilty parties.
Perhaps one of the most stunning moments in the play, and one I apparently missed the first time round is Zippy’s suicide attempt.
The fact that she also addresses this other highly stigmatized experience, that of attempted suicide (which I was recently reminded is a criminal offense that can send someone to jail) is one more reflection of how much courage and conviction the actress has.
In this instance, Ricky saves her life, but only after kicking in the bathroom door, the one she had locked in order to escape his brutal, life threatening beating.
It’s a shocker to realize that a woman can feel she’s so trapped that she has no way out other than taking her own life. But a myriad of women must feel a similar sort of despair when they feel they’re not allowed to be free of a loveless marriage.
Ricky saves Zippy’s life not because he loves her, but because he feels he owns her (we never heard if he paid the dowry). She’s his property just as the dead baby was. It’s a hard reality that women may not wish to realize, but certainly, watching ‘stranger in my bed’ must give a slew of married, or even single women second thoughts about either getting married or staying married.
This must be why Zippy’s play has generated a bit of controversy. Some women are said to have boycotted the play because they didn’t want to hear from a woman stigmatized by divorce. But what Zippy shows with her performance is that it’s far better to live with that stigma than to remain a slave; better to be looked down upon by some social circles for being so frank and honest about your life experience in wedlock than to be dead.
Zippy’s production proves that it’s better to be a survivor who can live to tell the tale and get a medal (at least from me) for it than to live a lie and to not practice the first code of conduct that every mother should teach her daughter or son, which is to ‘be true to yourself.’ Or as William Shakespeare put it, “This above all, to thine own self be true.”


Reviewed by Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 23 April 2018)

The second season of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ (STD) just began early this month. But if you weren’t already a Star Trek fan (meaning a Trekkie), you might not have taken note that the 15-episode CBS series just wrapped up shortly before season two got underway.
That transition was so seamless because of the overwhelmingly positive response that STD’s initial episodes received in late 2017. It was clear from the outset that the cast had the chemistry. Plus this prequel to the original Star Trek series (which resulted in development of a huge TV, film and comic book franchise) satisfied many unanswered questions about the early life of the classic Star Trek ship, the USS Enterprise.
The series is set in the thick of the Federation (meaning the humans)-Klingon intergalactic war in which the Klingons are hell bent on destroying the human race and of course, planet Earth. Fortunately, life on the USS Discovery is where most of the drama unfolds, especially as it develops around the young brilliant Michael Burnham, a Science specialist (played by the charismatic African American actress Sonequa Martin-Green).
She’s an orphan whose parents died in cannibalistic circumstances that traumatized Michael (who’s intentionally been given a male name). Adopted by a Vulcan couple whose culture is far more cerebral, less emotional than humans’, Michael commits a high crime against her commanding officer, Captain Philippi (played by the Chinese-American actress and former karate superstar (of the Jet Lee vintage), Michelle Yeoh.
She’s convicted of murder (although the event was accidental). But because her skills set, scientific genius and otherwise principled knowledge of Federation law are unique aboard the STD, her commanding officer, Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) keeps her aboard the ship and thus, she plays an invaluable role despite being on probation.
For those who love special effects, especially those of an intergalactic kind, STD will be revelatory. There’s lots of teleporting around the galaxy since STD is a vanguard scouting ship, the only one remaining since the Federation seems to be losing the war against the Klingons.
The Klingons have their own intertribal struggles which lead to conflict between the Unifier Leader who gets bumped off by one of his megalomaniac generals. Be prepared for some startling revelations about Klingon spies since there’s at least one aboard the ship, and he’s the one who Michael falls for since he’s apparently been held prisoner by the Klingons as was Captain Lorca with whom he somehow escapes.
The other incredible turn of events that’s mind-boggling is the way the STD finds its way into an alternative universe in a different galaxy from their own. It’s an antithetical mirror image of their own. It’s also one run by the tyrannical Terran Emperor Philippa Georgiou (also played by Michelle Yeoh) who also had an adopted daughter who happens to look exactly like Michael.
How the STD gets back home to their Galaxy is whole other fascinating story since the ingenious method of organic propulsion is developed aboard STD.


                                                            Lincoln Mwangi's Yearnings


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 23 April)

On the surface, the art of Michael Musyoka and Lincoln Mwangi may seem to have little in common, apart from their art being up together at The Attic Art Space currently.
The new Nyari gallery has only been open less than a year, but the Dutch Kenyan art-lover, Willem Kevenaar has made a slew of good choices in his Attic by combining pairs of local artists who have had excellent chemistry artistically.
                                            Willem Kevenaar (R) founded the Attic art space. Musyoka Michael (2nd L)

From the duos of Longinos Nagila and David Thuku, Ehoodi Kichapi and Yassir Ali, to Onyis Martin and Mwini Mutuku, the art of each pair has blended well, each enhancing the artistry of the other.
So one would expect Musyoka and Lincoln’s art to do the same. In fact, their joint show is entitled ‘Yearnings’ for good reason. Both reveal in their art that they yearn for things better than what they see, feel and understand about relationships and life generally.
You could say they both are searching for an ‘alternative reality’ from what they know. One might see this is ‘escapist’. But just as science fiction might be dismissed as escapist nonsense or irrelevant fantasy, others can see it as exquisitely imaginative and full of limitless possibilities.
                                           Michael Musyoka's Yearning for an 'alternative reality', even freedom

The latter way is how I see the ‘yearnings’ of both artists, one apparently yearning for more honesty in relationship, the other yearning for freedom from the constraints imposed on him by society in the form of conventional codes of conduct, the does and don’t of everyday life.
Both artists use specific symbols to represent their respective points of view. In Lincoln’s case, he uses a veil to signify the way both women and men have a way of presenting a self-conscious persona that often hides their true feelings, both about themselves and the other person. One can’t be sure if he’s passing judgment on the veil, except that what his art does seem to represent is his yearning for honesty in relationships.

                                    A Process of two friends sharing their veils by Lincoln Mwangi

Working in charcoal and oils, Lincoln sticks with well-shaded black and white which reflects a delicacy of line and shadow that gives even his veil (also appearing as scarves loosely draped around his figures’ full heads). The artist says he cultivated his care in shading during his days at Buru Buru Institute of Fine Art (BIFA), which is also where Michael Musyoka went to art school.
                                                              Lincoln Mwangi with his veiled portraits at The Attic

But in Musyoka’s case, it was technical drawing that interested him most. “Everything starts with a square,” Michael says, which partly could explain why so many of his paintings have multiple squares in them. Yet some of his squares represent boxes that he can sometimes feel confined in and yearning for a way out. Others have a broader, more philosophical turn to them.
“I think I see life as a giant sieve or a meshed structure that’s meant to float, but unless the holes [in the mesh] are filled, it can’t,” says Michael who sees those square holes as needs, desires or yearnings.

                                                                 Michael Musyoka's 'Ways of the Heart I'

In some of his painting, which are full color (in contrast to Lincoln’s black and whites), the yearnings are for deeper, more meaningful relationships as in his twin paintings ‘Ways of the heart I and II’. One can easily assume the yearning is simply sexual since both of those paintings contain shapely torsos, each with their heads hidden behind planks that are part of a box in which both figures are to be found.
                                               Michael Musyoka's 'Ways of the Heart II'

But then, his four flying tunnel paintings convey the truly surrealistic vision of Michael since his flying tunnels also contain flying boxes with hands reaching out as if they too are yearning for freedom and ways to escape their respective box.
But for me what are the crowning paintings in his side of the show are the two paintings, each with a man [who’s also floating] bent over backwards gracefully. But clearly, he’s in discomfort since there’s a hand, his symbol of a yearning heart, exploding out of his chest in a passionate reaching out for freedom to fulfill his desires.

In one of the two, the hand bursting from the man (whose silhouette looks like the River God in the film, ‘The Shape of Water’) seems to be releasing a powerful, almost volcanic explosion of energy. In the other, the rectangular glow behind the silhouette is already aflame with a burning light, as if the man and probably also the artist is equally on fire!

Friday, 20 April 2018


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 20 April)

Alan Donovan had been fascinated with Africa since childhood.

“My first scrapbook which I made at age 4 was all about Africa. It was mostly about animals,” says the man who’s now celebrating 50 years of Oshogbo art and artists with an exhibition at the Nairobi Gallery opening May 1st.
Alan was meant to complete that celebration last October during the national Nigeria Day last October 1st, but he was already unwell. His condition deteriorated from then until early this year when miraculously, he began to recover and is now on the mend.
So what if he’s now celebrating 50 years plus one since he first stepped foot on African soil, in July 1967.
“I came initially as a food relief worker during the Nigeria-Biafran war. I was lucky since I was the last American admitted to the Nigeria Desk [of the US State Department] before it was shut down due to the war,” he adds.
He admits his work with USAID in Biafra was depressing. But it wasn’t long after his arrival that he made his way to Oshogbo where he found a thriving village of artists and artisans, many of whom had worked in theatre for the so-called ‘thunder king’, the iconic Nigerian playwright, actor, director and musicologist Duro Ladipo who coincidentally is currently being celebrated in Nigeria since he died just 40 years ago in Ibadan, Oyo state at aged 45 years.
Some of the young artists that Alan met at Oshogbo were by then either dancers, actors, electricians, sign painters or set designers for Duro’s theatre.
The art of ten of those ‘young artists’ (who – apart from three who passed on -- are, like Donovan 51 years older now) are part of the ’50 Years of Oshogbo: the Art and the Artists’ exhibition that Alan assisted in assembling. But the show’s content has actually been curated by one of the ten, the brilliant Batik artist, Nike Okundaye (formerly Nike Seven Seven).
Nike founded and runs the largest art gallery and artists workshop in all of Nigeria at Oshogbo. She’s been a close friend of Alan since those early days after she became the third wife of renowned Nigerian artist-musician and prodigious polygamist, the late Twins Seven Seven, whose art is also in the exhibition.
Alan has long been a fan of Nike’s batik art and has given her no less than seven exhibitions of her own when he still had the African Heritage Pan African Gallery which he founded with the late former Kenya Vice President Joseph Murumbi back in 1971. In fact, so close are Alan and Nike that she was the only one out of the seven artists still living whose works are being exhibited who came across the continent last October to celebrate her country’s national day in Kenya with Alan. And while she won’t be able to return for the May 1st opening, Nike has already booked him a round trip ticket to come visit her gallery in Oshogbo when he is fully back on his feet.
The three who died are Twins Seven Seven, Asiru Olatunde and Rufus Ogundele. The other seven are Asiru’s son, Y. Folorunsho, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Muraina Oyelami, Bisi Fabunmi, Jacob Afolabi, Jimoh Buraimoh, and of course Nike.
Alan admits he is sentimental about his experiences in Oshogbo. “It was there that I was first introduced to contemporary African art,” he tells BD. “It was there that I bought my first painting by an African artist. It was by Muraina Oyelami,” whose art has subsequently been exhibited everywhere from the Smithsonion Museum of African Art to the IWALEWA-Haus in Germany.
Alan’s fascination for Africa and African art wasn’t satisfied during his early years in the US. He studied African art at UCLA, “but that was all pre-colonial African art,” he says. “I even took a correspondence course (like an early online course) in African art from Boston University, but it focused on Congolese art and covered nothing contemporary.”
So coming to Oshogbo was like the sunshine breaking through misty days when Alan couldn’t see the reality of contemporary African art. He said it was there that he first discovered “the inner soul” and source of creativity in Africa. It made such a profound impression on him that he’s been hung up on it ever since as one will easily see if they get to Alan’s African Heritage House in Mlolongo. Or if they get to the Nairobi Gallery from May 1st.

                                                         Nike's painting sold at the 2018 Art Auction, East Africa
                                            Twins Seven Seven's Hunter also sold at 2018 Art Auction, East Africa



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 18 April 2018)

It’s finally happening! Kenyan thespians, script- and screen-writers are at last taking seriously the need to create their own scripts and tell their own stories. They’re doing it for stage as well as for film and TV.

Film seems to be where the most robust forces are at work. We’ve not only seen this with the Academy award nominee film ‘Watu Wote’ and the Berlinale award winner, ‘Supa Modo’ but also with Tosh Gitonga’s ‘Disconnect’, Philippa Ndisi-Hermann’s ‘New Moon’ and Hawa Esseun’s ‘Silas’.

Most recently, Wanuri Kahiu’s newest film, ‘Rafiki’ has just been invited to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in France! This will be the first feature film to premiere at Cannes which has been shot, scripted and stars all Kenyans.

Nonetheless, original scripts are also being born more rapidly than ever in Nairobi’s theatre world. No longer are we only counting on Heartstrings to come up with newly-devised scripts every month. They just recently staged ‘Hit and Run’ and will soon be opening in another freshly devised show, ‘Milk and Honey’.

Tonight (and tomorrow) we’ll be watching Zippy Okoth’s original one-woman show, ‘Stranger in my Bed’ at PAWA254. Zippy’s autobiographical script is both weep-able and raucously funny. Either way, it comes straight from her heart.

Then the weekend starting April 28, Mbeki Mwalimu’s Back to Basics crew will premiere their second original script, ‘Mutual Misery’ at Alliance Francaise. It was just a couple of weeks back that Mbeki enlisted Justin Miriichi (who’d just scripted and staged ‘My Better Halves’) to write ‘Strangers by Blood’ which was a poignant way to launch the new troupe on our local theatre scene.

Right after B2B takes a break, Walter Sitati’s Hearts of Art returns on May 3rd with ‘What Cannot Kill You’, another original work by Walter who is one of Kenya’s finest playwrights currently and one who comes out with new works regularly. His last play, ‘Repair my Heart’ combined romance with raw violence and politics.

The other thespian who not only writes but produces and directs his new plays is Martin Kigondu who, with his Prevail Arts troupe and Renegade Ventures, just re-staged his play ‘What Happens in the Night’ at the Kenya National Theatre annex.

The compact stage of the annex ensured this new version of Kigondu’s modern classic was more intimate and expressive of the emotional depths that this family saga was bound to reach but didn’t quite attain during its initial rendering on the wide Daystar University stage several months back.

Martin also made two major casting changes that transformed the play from being slightly tepid to becoming a far more impassioned, even explosive production.

The main cause of the show’s volatility was Marrianne Nungo who, together with her stage brother Bilal Mwaura, brought a whole new approach to ‘What Happens in the Night’. Both were new to the production with Marrianne (who just starred in Likarion Wainaina’s ‘Supa Modo’) replacing ChiChi Seii and Mwaura taking on the role of Ray, Yvonne’s brother after Mouad Sadat left to pursue his legal practice.  

Both Yvonne and Ray are children of th retired politician played by Salim Gitau. Both have problematic relations with their dad who comes to see his kids briefly (they live in the same house with their spouses played by Nick Ndeda and Shivishe Shivisi) but departs the same night, never to be seen again.

But both Yvonne and Ray have troubled marital relations as well. Unfortunately, Martin doesn’t delve deeply into those issues despite our seeing that both couples have deep-seated problems. They range from Ray’s wife’s drug abuse which is possibly related to an abortion she’d had some time back to Yvonne’s jobless writer husband’s unfulfilled ambitions which lead to his complicity in high crimes.

‘What Happens in the Night’ is part family drama, part murder mystery and part thriller, which is part of the problem that I had with the play.

Martin raises tantalizing issues in both act one and act two. But unfortunately, act one feels like the family is the central place where conflicts arise, but those are left unresolved by act two when somebody died (actually the dad) and the play becomes a whodunit murder mystery. But it is not quite that either since Yvonne’s conviction that her father was murdered is one more issue left up in the air at the play’s end. Perhaps the dad should have died sooner so we could have explored the whodunit bit and discovered what makes the two couples tick in the process.


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 20 April 2018)
                                          Msingizi narrates his story of contemplating suicide in 'Out of this Life'

Suicide isn’t a topic one might think would be worthy of a whole photographic exhibition. Particularly in Kenya where mental illness generally and suicide specifically are so imbued with taboos that whole families have been known to suffer when a single family member commits suicide.

But Spanish photojournalist Patricia Esteve wasn’t deterred by the stigma often associated with suicide when she set out to examine the whole topic, ultimately to produce a multimedia exhibition like ‘Out of this Life: Let’s Talk Suicide’ which is currently up at the Kenya Cultural Centre gallery.
                             Patricia Esteve with 'Nature', which some survivors say has been saving grace in their lives

A project that has taken her three years to produce, Patricia (who worked as a photojournalist with Spanish media before coming to Kenya six years ago) collaborated with several organizations and individuals involved with mental health issues in Kenya and Africa generally.

The outcome of her initiative is to a show that is part ethnographic, part poetic and wholly grounded in the grassroots experiences of individuals, families and organizations that specialize in counselling Kenyans who are either suicidal or have first-hand experience with family or friends who’ve suffered the stigma of suicide.
                                                     A mother at the place where her son committed suicide

For Patricia’s photographs form only a portion of the showcase. She also shares a slew of hand-written letters from people she interviewed and asked to share their feelings about the issue. The letters fill a whole wall in the gallery, next to one photograph of all the local press clippings about suicide that she’s collected since her project began.

She also created a video of three people she interviewed during last Thursday night’s (20th April) exhibition opening. “I interviewed more than three, but as I am working alone [photographically], I’m still working on the editing,” says Patricia who is hard pressed to explain why suicide peeked her interest as a topic to photograph.

She initially says it was partly out of curiosity and not because anyone close to her had committed suicide. But then she admits she has a penchant as a photojournalist for doing projects on ‘marginalized’ people, be they homeless or drug addicted or people who’ve lost everything, be it family, money or social status.

Their lives may look hopeless, but Patricia says, as she reflects back on her first photo project on the marginalized which she entitled ‘Half Kg’ (since that was the quantity the addicts often looked for). She adds that she sought them out because she “wanted to dignify them.”
                            Sitawa Wafula still has her tattoo of Jesus on her hand as a remembrance of her mental issues

“They were people who nobody cared about, so I found them very open to telling me their stories and letting me take their photographs.”

Then once she came to Kenya with her family six years ago, Patricia was struck by the fact that in addition to mental health issues being stigmatized, attempted suicide specifically is actually a crime, according to Kenya’s Penal Code. So while her show isn’t explicitly about human rights, her discomfort with the injustice of incarcerating the mentally ill contributed to her seeking out individuals like Sitawa Wafula, the award-winning blogger and poet who’s used the USD25,000 Google award to establish her website which offers free mental health counseling, not only in Kenya but around the world through TED talks and other public fora.

Patricia also found organizations like and Postpartum Depression Island ( which helped her to make contact with people whose stories feature in the exhibition.

But Patricia’s photographs don’t only focus on individuals who attempted suicide, although there are several ‘survivors’ in the show, a number of whom she found through an NGO called ‘Users and Survivors of Psychiatry in Kenya’ (USPKENYA).

One such survivor is Samoina who attempted suicide following the birth of her child and the depression that ensued. But Samoina was able to recognize her mental problem and go on to found ‘Postpartum Depression Island’ where she offers counselling to mothers afflicted with the same sort of depression that led her to try suicide.

But Patricia’s also photographed the bereaved, including individuals like Neerah and Diana both of whom lost their best friends to suicide. She includes one image of a father’s suicide note as well as one of the church where he set himself ablaze.

One of the most tragic stories that Patricia reveals in the exhibition is of the mother whose ten year old boy hanged himself after being reprimanded by her for not completing his homework. She doesn’t take a photo of the mother or the boy, only his favorite armed chair which the mother draped with one of her favorite kangas. She also took a shot of the garden where he was found soon after he died. The mother’s grief is unspeakable but the community’s judgment of her as well as the media’s coverage of it is painfully implied in the imagery.
Not all of the storied photographs are as tragic as these. For instance, Msingizi, who’s holding a delicate milkweed blossom in the photo featured on the exhibition’s invitation card, is one case of a young man who stepped back from that fatal choice before making the actual attempt.

But of the three people interviewed in her video, only two are survivors. David had already attempted suicide three times before Patricia met him for their interview. He didn’t survive his fourth attempt.

The second interviewee, Anita is alive. But when her father poisoned himself, her community attributed his death to evil spirits for which her whole family was cruelly punished. She had to move out of her ancestral homeland and now lives in another part of East Africa.
                                                              Suicide is like 'A dark dark hole' said one survivor

The third survivor is George, a young man who as an LGBTQ activist chose to ‘come out’ and tell the world that he was gay. But depression and loneliness followed. He too survives and stays in a shelter for other LGBTQs.

But besides shooting photos of survivors, family and friends, Patricia also has created images inspired by things people have told her of their experience. For instance, a dry, gnarled tree branch echoes a description of suicide that one survivor shared. He said it was like “a dark dark hole”, which is what one can see in the image.

Another survivor told her she had gone outside to kill herself. But then, when she looked up at the sky and felt so awed by the stars and the infinite universe above that she changed her mind. Thus, there’s one starry black sky in the exhibition.
                                                             Starry Skies by Patricia Esteve

There’s even an image of a leafy canopy of trees, which Patricia included because she says several survivors told her that nature had been a soothing presence in their lives.

Even the title of the exhibition “Out of this Life” came out of the mouth of one person she interviewed. “In fact, I came to the conclusion that many who attempt suicide don’t necessarily want to die. They simply feel overwhelmed with an intense sense of pressure and want to take a rest.

“As one person told me, “I wanted a way ‘out of this life’.  I thought that was an appropriate title for this show,” says Patricia who hopes her project will advance a broader understanding of what suicide is all about.

“Out of this Life” has been shortlisted for the CAP Prize for Contemporary African Photography, the winners of which will be announced later this year.
                                               Patricia Esteve with press clips from Kenya media on suicide

Thursday, 19 April 2018


                   (L-R) Tindi, Lukwago, Kasagga, Sebandeke and Akiiki (missing is Anwar) bring art to Village Market


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted to 19 April. 2018)

                                         Paolo Akiiki with paintings by (L-R) Sebandeke, Tindi, Akiiki and Anwar

Ugandan artists crossing the border into Kenya began long ago. Even before Jak Katarikawe came from Kampala and began painting in Nairobi in the 1970s, there was John Odoch Ameny, the amazing sculptor who fled the bloody rule of Milton Obote and the late Expedito Mwebe, both of whom mounted amazing exhibitions at the now defunct African Heritage Gallery. And even before them, Elimo Njau, who is actually a Tanzanian by birth, came from Makerere University in the late 1950s to create the Murang’a Murals, and then decided to stay.
                                                                                               Kasagga, Jude
The most recent crew of Ugandan artists also came from Kampala, but it was only late last month. Their destination was Village Market where they are about the cap off their six-man exhibition entitled ‘African Artistic Tales’.
The six have brought art that covers virtually all the expansive wall space in the Market’s exhibition hall. Plus they’ve mounted easels in the middle of the hall so they can accommodate the works of these six prolific painters, namely Paolo Akiiki, Anwar Sadat Nakibinge, Jude Kasagga, Saad Lukwago, Ronnie Tindi and Sebandeke.
                                                                                    Anwar Sadat Nakibinge
All six are highly accomplished artists, having attended art schools in Uganda and having exhibited extensively, including in Kenya where they have shown everywhere from Manjano and Brush tu Art Studio to the Kenya Art Fair, Banana Hill Art Gallery and the Talisman restaurant. But this is the first time that all six decided to join forces and share the expense of renting Village Market where their art has fortunately attracted a wide ranging attention from the public.
                                                                                               Lukwago, Saad
The reason for all the attention they’ve received is apparent the moment one steps foot in the massive white-walled hall. All six have a lovely way of working with bold and brilliant colors. Plus they all have distinctive styles.
For instance, Akiiki paints in golden sweeping strokes while Kasagga has specialized in painting the bustling city streets of Kampala and Tindi tends to mix paints and scraps of kitenge fabrics into colorful collage art.
                                                                                                Ronnie Tindi
Lukago’s masterpiece this trip is his gigantic long-horned Ankole cow while Sebandeke presents a mix of works including striking black and white zebra and a semi-abstract ecumenical piece.
The central organizer of the group show is Dr. Anwar who brings both his multilayered paintings filled with elegant African wildlife and singular scenes which also feature those gracefully long-necked giraffe interacting with other jungle creatures.
                                                                                             Akiiki Paolo
In all, the works are gentle in their design. There’s nothing esoteric or deeply intellectual in their art. But being mainly decorative, they are uniformly the type that one could easily take home and feel you now have a better grasp of beautiful East African and especially Ugandan art.

                                                               Lukwago Saad at Kuona Artists Alliance 2017

Tuesday, 17 April 2018



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 17 April 2018)

The second season of US cable TV series, ‘Legion’, just got started this past Tuesday night in UK. So it’s a good time to get on the bandwagon and catch up with season one of FX’s most successful comic book TV series.
Some folks love Marvel comics better than DC’s; some feel the exact opposite. But either way, this cerebral series based on the Marvel comic book character, David Haller, was a must-watch show for millions of fans who could hardly wait to find out what insanity would afflict David from week to week.
It is never wise to watch a second season of a series without catching up on the first, which I highly recommend. Not that you will fully grasp all the mental acrobatics that David, a telepathic mutant, goes through.
But it’s good to know that one big problem that David encountered as a child was being misdiagnosed ‘a schizophrenic’, and getting medically drugged up as a consequence.
It takes several episodes for even David to understand that he’s a mutant with super-human powers. And even by the end of season one, it’s not clear that he fully understands himself or his incredible capacities. That’s the only spoiler I will share.
Otherwise, David was medically misdiagnosed because, from childhood, he was ‘hearing voices’ and ‘seeing people’ in ways that feel quite like what Russell Crowe’s character endured in the award-winning film, ‘A Beautiful Mind.’ That film was based on the true story of Dr. John Nash. In contrast, David’s originally a comic book character. But just like Nash, David’s also a genius or at least someone with off-the-charts mental powers.
What’s more, with the British actor Dan Stevens (who previously starred in the popular BBC series, ‘Downton Abbey’) playing David, this mutant, for all his crazy demons, is brilliantly portrayed by Stevens.
For anyone who’s heard about the Bible story of Jesus casting out a ‘legion’ (meaning a multitude) of demons from the mad guy whose name is also ‘Legion’, the title of the show will make heaps of sense.
Sometimes the show seems truly psychedelic since we the viewers get to follow David’s trippy hallucinations into crazy realms of consciousness that often seem insane, which might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
It’s actually in a mental institution that David meets and falls head-over-heels for Syd Barrett (Rachel Kelley). She’s a beautiful blond girl whose mania includes not allowing anyone to touch her, not even David.
David’s journey leads him to a secret cadre of fellow mutants who start to help him learn to control his powers, (including the cacophonous voices and crazy hallucinations). They also help him to understand what kind of a demon he’s been battling with.
I don’t want to give away more. But ‘Legion’ is well worth watching if you like psychological dramas that have unbelievable twists. If you don’t mind watching a series that combines fantasy, science fiction, mystery and cerebral struggles, then Legion is a series not to miss.