Wednesday, 29 August 2018


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 29 August 2018)

‘Matilda’ is a hit musical both on Broadway and the West End of London. But it also made a splash in Nairobi this past weekend at The Banda School and hardly anybody knew about that.

For one night only, 19 Banda kids, from age 9 to 15, performed this box-office hit with panache and pizzazz, thanks to the children’s passion for theatre and their directors’ enthusiasm for the story line.

It’s a bitter-sweet story about a little bright girl who’s unwanted by her narcissistic parents, the Wormwoods (Isabelle Jones and Finn Hennessy-Barrett) and abused by her headmistress, Miss Trenchbull (Findley Grammaticas) at school.

That would hardly seem to be the stuff that would ‘wow’ adult as well as youth audiences. But just as we’re saying ‘Tinga Tinga Tales the Musical’ will have appeal across generations, so it’s also true of this marvelous show, told with music, dance and deliciously wicked comedy.

Banda’s version of the musical was adapted for the Nairobi stage by the school’s Drama teacher Emma Withall who, with the musical’s director Karen Lewis, saw Matilda in London and loved it.

The adaptation was ingenious as Emma (who’s ‘Beatnik’ drama club is flooded with kids) accommodated a larger cast than the original show. She had two girls playing Matilda (Vera Hoffman as narrator and Jessica Viljoen as the spunky girl child) and a whole lot more classroom kids in the chorus.

But to be honest, what’s even more remarkable about this show is the fact that the cast had just one week of every-day rehearsals before they came on stage! Hard to believe although Emma did give her cast the script at least a month before so they had time to learn their lines.

Otherwise, it was remarkable the way everything fell into place, including the special effects, as when the merciless Miss Trenchbull (who frankly starred for ‘her’ comedic cruelty) hurled one student out the window but handily replaced the naughty boy with a life-size doll that ‘she’ actually threw away.

Fortunately for Matilda, she finds understanding kindness from her teacher, Miss Honey (Molly Carroll) and her school librarian, Mrs Phelps (Nina Redinger).

The happy ending doesn’t come easily, but all the cruel ones get their comeuppance and the full cast gets their chance to delight parents with their song and dance performance, accompanied by a live band led by Emma on piano.



Tuesday, 28 August 2018


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 28 August 2018 for Saturday Nation)

Appreciation of women’s role in the development of the visual arts in East Africa has been a long time coming. But that oversight is being rectified as of next Sunday, 8th September when the Nairobi Gallery (the former PC’s HQ just next to Nyayo House) hosts a monumental exhibition featuring the artistic expressions of nine extraordinary “Women Pioneers in the Arts.”
Every one of the nine has an exceptional story to tell, starting with Margaret Trowell, the English artist who came to Uganda in the 1930s and launched the fine art department at Makerere University. That department has produced countless Creatives including several women among the notable nine. Among them is Kenya’s own Rosemary Karuga, now 92, who was the first Kenyan woman to attend Makerere’s fine art department from 1950 to 1952.
Theresa Musoke, the Ugandan artist who lived, worked and exhibited in Kenya for 20 years when her country was in turmoil, got her first university degree at Makerere. But then she became one of the first African women to win a Commonwealth scholarship to study and exhibit at the Royal College of Art in UK. She went on to get a masters in fine art from USA and later taught at Kenyatta University alongside another one of the nine.
Geraldine Robarts didn’t study at Makerere. She taught fine art there as well as at Kenyatta University and trained everyone from Elkana Ong’esa to Gakunju Kaigwa in the process. Yet just like Theresa, her primary passion is painting and she’s exhibited her oil paintings all over the world.
Professor Magdalene Odundo didn’t attend Makerere, but like all nine women pioneer artists, she’s an educator as well as an acclaimed ceramicist. Recently elevated to Chancellor of the University of the Creative Arts in UK, Magdalene is the only Kenyan woman who’s been given an OBE from Queen Elizabeth in 2016.
The remaining four are not academics in the sense of being university-affiliated. But they all have either mentored a myriad of emerging artists in the region or opened doors for them by other means. For instance, the late Joy Adamson may be most renowned for her role in raising orphaned lions and writing books like ‘Born Free’ which was made into movies and TV series that have inspired countless tourists to come here on safari. But she is actually the first artist to paint portraits of Kenya’s indigenous people back in the 1940s. She also drew fauna and flora, but her portraits are invaluable records of Kenyan cultures, many of which are no more.
Two of the nine are co-founders of Kenya’s first commercial art gallery in Nairobi and the first to exhibit African artists like Ancent Soi and Jak Katarikawe. The late Robin Anderson and Yony Waite established Gallery Watatu in 1968. Both brilliant artists in their own right, Yony also founded the Wildebeeste Workshops, one in Lamu where she’s worked with several women groups to create collaborative tapestries, the other at Athi River where she runs artists workshops periodically.
Number nine is Nani Croze, another institution builder who established Kitengela Glass and Research Trust in 1979, founded the Kenyan Arts Diary in 2010 and also established the first Rudolf Steiner School in East Africa in 1969. Self-taught as a painter, muralist and sculptor before she started creating glass art, Nani like Yony has run countless workshops including some for young women from Nairobi slums.
Alan Donovan of the African Heritage House and director of the Murumbi Trust is the one who researched and curated this exceptional show which will be opened by the Ministry of Education’s Cabinet Secretary, Ambassador Amina Mohamed.


 By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 3 September 2018)

Richard Kimathi’s solo exhibition at One Off Gallery entitled ‘Bare Knuckles’ takes one on a fascinating journey in which the artist interrogates the meaning of manhood.
It’s a daunting challenge, given this Kenyan visual artist relies on only oil paints on canvas to convey an inquiry into the issue of Identity from a male perspective. But with the combination of simplicity and directness, his paintings portray a series of boys to men in which his subtle symbolism compels the viewer to get the gist of his inquiry.

The title of his show, ‘Bare Knuckles’ is also a subtle play on words, since it would seem to refer to boxing and the vulnerability of the one who chooses to box with his bare hands, his naked knuckles. So one gets the idea right away that the artist, though painting a series of young boy and adolescents, is exploring an issue that implies a risky business. After all, the knuckles are naked, unprotected as is the unadvised child.
Naked also are the little boys in his paintings, although their torsos are painted as silhouettes so there’s nothing offensive about their nakedness. But apart from the series in the show of solo faces of little boys, most of the remaining paintings include a phallic symbol that gives away the notion that this is an issue that men, be they young or old, must address at various moments in their lives.
                                                                              Richard Kimathi with his sons

The symbol is most frequently associated with dominance and power, but that definition would seem to be what Kimathi is struggling with. He’s a gentle man as well as the father of two young boys and a girl (the lads are six and nine; the girl is three). So one imagines that the meaning of manliness and how to share it with his sons is an internal debate that could have influenced this series of artworks.
One doesn’t want to read too much into his paintings. However, Kimathi is an artist who consistently addresses sensitive issues in his art. He’s never been one to merely paint ‘art for art’s sake’. But this show feels especially personal. There’s an air of innocence in most of the boys’ faces. Occasionally, there’s an expression of bewilderment, as if the child is wondering, ‘what do I do with this thing?’
But there’s also an undercurrent of play in Kimathi’s paintings, as they seem to reveal the joy this gentle artist clearly has in being a father with responsibilities that can hardly help spilling over into his art. (He even brought his two boys to last Saturday’s exhibition opening in Roslyn at One Off Gallery.
Originally from Nyeri, Kimathi attended the Creative Arts Centre in Nairobi in the 1990s before joining Kuona Trust in 1996. He’s an award-winning artist who’s exhibited his art everywhere from Hong Kong and Trieste, Italy, to Washington, DC, Amsterdam, Madrid and Dakar. He also exhibits regularly with One Off where ‘Bare Knuckles’ is currently on display in the white-walled Stables side of the gallery.
                                                                                      Honesty by Kimathi

On the side is the Loft where Carol Lees has also curated a second show, this one featuring works by Peter Ngugi, Leena Shah, Anthony Okello, Timothy Brooke, Fitsum Behre, Olivia Pendergast and Rashid Diab among others.
Kimathi’s exhibition will run through 25th September.


-         “Bare Knuckles,” solo art exhibition by Richard Kimathi at One Off Gallery

-         ‘The Pages of Life’ trio art exhibition by David Thuku, Ron Luke and Onesmus Okamar at Kobo Trust

-         ‘Afro-Cubism: Journey #1” sculpture by Robin O. Mbera and the Mutuma Marangu Kisii Sculpture Collection at Creativity Gallery, Nairobi Museum

-         ‘Afro-Renaissance” art exhibition by Native and Sogallo at Alliance Francaise.

-         ‘People & Places” art exhibition by Coster Ojwang, James Njoroge, Naftal Moganyi and Joshua Mainga at Village Market Exhibition Hall

-         Patrick Kinuthia art at Village Market top floor.

-         Moira Bushkimani, Peteros Ndunde and Jackie Iche at The Attic Art Space September 8th.

-         ‘Art in the Park’ at Dream Kona, Uhuru Garden September 8


Monday, 27 August 2018


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 27 August 2018)

They are nine incredible women “pioneer” artists whose impact on East African art has yet to be fully grasped, but who nonetheless are forces to be reckoned with.
That’s why they are all assembled in one remarkable exhibition, simply entitled “Pioneer Women in the Arts”, which is opening this coming Sunday afternoon in the Nairobi Gallery (the old PC’s HQ) right next to Nyayo House. Researched and curated by Alan Donovan of African Heritage House and the Murumbi Trust, the show will feature not only paintings and drawings, but also ceramics, books and glass sculpture by women who’ve lived and worked in East Africa for many decades.
A few of the nine are no longer with us, namely Margaret Trowell, Joy Adamson and Robin Anderson. But all three are still having an impact on the region, if for no other reason than the rich legacy they have left, both cultural and institutionally. For instance, Margaret Trowell is the reason Makerere University has a brilliant art department: she started it. Joy Adamson’s books, films and TV series which were all based on her life raising baby lions and cheetahs ‘in the wild’ have literally led millions to associate Kenya with wildlife and adventurous safaris. And Robin Anderson’s starting up the first major commercial art gallery in Kenya, Gallery Watatu, with Yony Waite and David Hart paved the way for what’s become the burgeoning art scene that we have in Nairobi today.
But the remaining six in the Women Pioneers show are no less formidable artists whose influence and impact have been both aesthetic (because their artworks are beautiful as everyone will see who comes to Nairobi Gallery any time through September) and educationally since they all have been teachers, lecturers and/or mentors of artists who have followed in their wake.
For instance, Rosemary Karuga who is the first Kenyan woman to attend Makerere’s art department (1950-52) under Margaret Trowell also taught Magdalene Odondo who’s not only Kenya’s first OBE, (given to her by the Queen Elizabeth in 2008). Professor Magdalene is also the first Kenyan woman Chancellor of the University of Creative Arts in Farmham, UK.
Then there’s Geraldine Robarts who, in addition to being an indefatigable painter who’s exhibited all over the world, was a lecturer in fine art first at Makerere, then at Kenyatta University. (She’s taught everyone from Elkana Ong’esa to Gakunju Kaigwa.) She’s also trained rural women and men in a range of self-help projects, from weaving sisal tapestries to solar-drying fresh fruits and vegetables that would otherwise go to waste.
Then there’s Theresa Musoke who spent 20 years teaching and painting in Kenya, at KU, the International School of Kenya and Kestrol Manor. She also exhibited everywhere from Gallery Watatu and National Museum to Paa ya Paa Gallery and African Heritage. But before that, this brilliant Ugandan artist got her first fine art degree from the Margaret Trowell Art Department at Makerere, her MFA from University of Pennsylvania in the US and in between, she won a Commonwealth scholarship to study printmaking at the Royal College of Art in London where she won accolades for her work.
The last two women are also artists and educators as well as innovators who have dared to branch out and break new grounds with their art. Nani Croze is not only a painter and muralist. She founded the first jua kali glassblowing furnace in Kenya which evolved into the Kitengela Glass and Research Trust. She’s run countless glass art workshops, (some for slum children). But she also founded the first Rudolf Steiner School in East Africa and started the Kenya Arts Diary which annually showcases a wide variety of contemporary Kenyan artists.
And finally, Yony Waite’s name is synonymous with Gallery Watatu since she, Robin and David Hart founded it, opened the doors for artists like Jak Katarikawe, Ancent Soi and Etale Sukuro to exhibit there. She also founded the Wildebeeste Workshops, one in Lamu where she’s worked with women groups to create tapestries that tell their stories, the other at Athi River. Yony has also fearlessly employed her art to advocate for issues she cares for passionately, such as peace and gender equity.
Truly, all nine of these women are pioneers who’ve paved the way for others to follow, such as Syowia Kyambi who studied under Theresa, Anne Mwiti who lectures as KU and Moira Bushkimani who with Janice Iche and Peteros Ndunde will be exhibiting next Saturday week at The Attic Art Space.


Friday, 24 August 2018


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 24 August 2018)

Everybody’s got to start working from somewhere. The only exceptions are those folks born with a proverbial ‘silver spoon’ in their mouth, meaning they can rely on the family’s fortune and never need to work a single day in their life.

For Paul Mukoma, his working life began upcountry on a matatu where he got his start as the ‘manamba’ (conductor) who called people off the street to climb aboard and then pay the going rate.

That didn’t last long however since Paul knew there were better things in store for him. Nonetheless, back then he couldn’t have foreseen that one day he’d become the founder and Managing Director of the Talenta Institute, a multimedia college based in the heart of Nairobi’s CBD. It’s a school that teaches everything from broadcast journalism, graphic design and animation to digital marketing, DeeJaying, performing arts, music production and sound engineering.

It’s a school, Paul says, that’s meant to fill in the gap between the theory that media students acquire in school and the practical skills that are required out in the real world.

“We also aim to nurture young people’s talents in a wide range of fields,” he adds.

Admitting he personally never went to a media college, Paul says that didn’t stop him from starting a school like Talenta.

“What I’ve seen is that young people need hands-on experience, and that’s what we give them at Talenta,” says the former photographer and videographer who actually started off in the hospitality field once he found his way to Nairobi.

“I’d gotten a good job as a waiter at a leading restaurant in town,” he recalls, having been taught by ex-Utalii College lecturers at the Career Training Centre (CTC). “But I only lasted three months since I didn’t get along with one of the managers.”

Fortunately, that’s when he caught up with his former CTC lecturer named Njuguna who was now a freelance photographer needing an assistant.

“It was Njuguna who taught me photography and videography,” says Paul who ended up starting the Creative Studio in Anniversary Towers with Njuguna. They filmed weddings and all sorts of events. They even started creating content for television.

But then one of their clients wanted Paul to come make music videos for their church. “That’s when we started making videos for Esther Wahome and other local gospel singers,” he says. He won Groove awards working with Esther. He also won accolades making patriotic music videos with Eunice Njeri who sang ‘Kenya Pamoja’ during Kenya’s darkest hours of post-election violence in 2008.

By that time, Paul had already set up his own company called Princecam Media. “I named it that way because I was known as Prince at the time and I was never without my camera,” he explains.

Still friends with Njuguna, Paul set up shop in his friend’s basement at Anniversary Towers. “We had many interns working with us at the time. Most of them were either university or college students that I had to train since they had the theory but no practical skills.”

That’s when he realized that in spite of not having much money, he had cultural capital and saleable knowledge. Princecam had already begun training raw talent in photography, video and editing. But he realized that there was so much more involved in making music videos. Issues related to costuming, hair, make-up and presentation generally led him to see that the whole field of media was far more multifaceted. Thus, the company was rebranded in 2017. And that’s when the Talenta Institute was born.

Currently, Talenta is based on the ninth floor of Ambank House, across from Kenya Methodist University. But from the look of the numbers and the enthusiasm of the students, the Institute seems it could soon burst at the seams. What’s more, the courses being taught in response to students’ demands are growing. For instance, Joseph Ochieng who heads Talenta’s performing arts department also teaches contemporary dance and Joash Ouma is busy teaching modeling.

“One student said he just joined us because he loved the name of the school. Talenta is what he knows he has but he wants us to help him nurture that talent, which is what we’re here for,” Paul adds.


Wednesday, 22 August 2018



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 22 August 2018)

Daria Mirzoyants is only 16, but the visiting artist who’s come all the way from Eastern Siberia, has big dreams.

The first place to begin understanding how large her lofty goals are is to go see her exhibition entitled ‘Dreams of Childhood’ today (Saturday, 24 August) at the Polka Dot Gallery in Karen.

Most of the art that she has on display at Polka Dot is pen and ink in black and white. Most of her drawings have been conceived while she’s been in Kenya visiting her family.

Both her parents are art-lovers but it’s her mother Anastasia who’s the avid collector of Kenyan artists’ paintings. She’s also active in the development field, which is why she’s living in Kenya currently. But she’s also the one who’s played a large part in inspiring her daughter Daria to take up painting seriously.
Daria is also a devout pianist and splits her time between the day dreaming that she translates into her art and practicing piano and reading. She’s still in secondary school back home in Siberia, but her artwork is enough to convince one that her dreams are not unlike many young people transitioning between adolescence and adulthood.

In fact, one of her paintings entitled ‘Catcher in the Rye’ is the title of the American writer J.D. Salinger’s book about a confused adolescent who struggles to make sense of who he is and what he wants in life. Her painting depicts a child who’s half human, half horse, rather like the centaur found in Greek mythology.

That feeling of confusion is also apparent in her painting entitled ‘My Choice’.  Carefully drawn with a refined attention to detail, the youth in the painting is standing on a ledge as if contemplating whether to jump or not.

We often hear about young people’s slipping into suicidal tendencies, so Daria seems to be depicting that same silent anguish. At the same time, that character on the ledge might be getting set to fly, a skill seen in many a super-hero’s scenerio. But that ambiguity in her imagery is what makes one appreciate the depth of this teenager’s feeling for life.
In fact, Daria also has paintings in her Polka Dot show like one entitled ‘Happiness’ and another named simply ‘Reading’. Both portray a child at peace with her dog, her teddy bear and a good book keeping her occupied and apparently content.

In the end, one can see that Daria deserves to have graduated with honors from the art school in her home town. But still, there is one distinctive quality in her art that she seems to share with a number of young Kenyan artists. And that is a fascination with comic book characters.

Now I could be reading too much into her drawings and totally misinterpreting her intent. But Daria definitely has the skill of a meticulous graphic illustrator, the kind who is currently taking the creation of comic book characters to a level of illustration that comes close to the realm that is called fine art.
Perhaps Daria hasn’t studied comic book characters the way many young Kenyan artists have. But that quality of animated creativity is clearest in her painting entitled ‘Spirit of the Times’. In it, she draws a man who has a semi-Salvador Dali moustache and a roguish smile. Meanwhile, he seems to be surrounded by abstract images that have a cacophonous character to them.
                                                                                                Spirit of the Times
So while Daria’s artistic career is just beginning, she’s already shown she’s capable of taking her childhood dreams into another wider realm altogether.


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 22 August 2018)

‘Brazen’ women had no intention of keeping quiet after their first five performances at the Kenya National Theatre earlier this month.
The Brazen Edition of the theatre troupe Too Early for Birds was a tour de force that put Kenyan women’s theatre on the map. For not only was it written collaboratively by three brilliant women, Aleya Kassam, Anne Moraa and Laura Ekumbo. Speaking last Sunday at The Alchemist cafĂ©, they told the incredible story of how the script was actually crafted over a nine month period (coincidentally the same time required for a woman to give birth to a child).
Brazen also featured an all-female cast, including the writers who framed their expansive story about six phenomenal Kenyan women whose lives influenced the country’s history in critical ways. Four out of the six were portrayed by one remarkably versatile actress, Nyokabi Macharia who dramatized the stories just told in a present-day setting by a group of women who were gathered around their former history teacher, Cucu, played by Sitawa Namwalie.
It was an ingenious means of storytelling, especially as the women group included a sex worker (Akinyi Oluoch), a care giver (Mercy Mbithe Mutisya), a pregnant woman (Laura Ekumbo), a party girl (Aleya Kassam) and the Cucu’s dear friend (Suzi Wanza Nyadawa).
The four great women that Nyokabi dramatized where Mekatilili, the Giriama woman leader who led her people in a rebellion against the British, Wangu wa Makeri, the only woman chief in Kikuyuland, the outspoken Hon. Chelagat Mutai who was the only woman among the ‘Seven Bearded Sisters’ so-named by the former AG Charles Njonjo for their defiant activism, and the nameless woman who brought down the legendary Luanda Magere. Field Marshall Muthoni Kirima, the only female Mau Mau freedom fighter promoted to the top rank of Field Marshall was played by Sitawa Namwalie. And the story of Zarina Patel, the independent woman activist who fought to defend Jeevanjee Garden from local land grabbers was passionately told by Aleya Kassam.
All the crew members were also women. And the unforgettable all-female GQ Dancers added a visual vibrancy and fiery flare to the production as well.
But it was the show’s director Wanjiku Mwawuganga that even the three scriptwriters deferred to on Sunday. They said it was Wanjiku’s brilliant direction that ultimately put the show in perfect shape and ensured Brazen would truly be unapologetically feminist.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018


                                  Tinga Tinga Tales the Musical first staged at The Elephant, now en route to NYC via KNT

BY Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 21 August)

Ever since the Kenya National Theatre got its ‘extreme makeover’ with assistance from East African Breweries back in 2015, the Theatre has been blessed with one major musical production after another.

Thanks mainly to the Nairobi Performing Arts Studio, we’ve seen beautiful performances of everything from Jesus Christ Superstar and Grease to Sarafina most recently.

And now that ‘Tinga Tinga Tales the Musical’ is coming to KNT next Friday to run for the whole of September, Kenyans will have a chance to see one of the most exhilerating, original and heart-warming productions that has yet to grace the National Theatre stage.

Originally based on the animated ‘Tinga Tinga Tales’ that kids can still see Saturday mornings on TV, it was when TTT’s producer Claudia Lloyd got together with Kenya’s own acclaimed singer-songwriter Eric Wainaina that the live and oh-so-magical musical production came into being.

First staged at The Elephant in Lavington in 2016, TTT the Musical was a smash hit. However, some theatre lovers guessed the show was mainly for children, which it is.

But given the quality of the casting, costuming, choreography, storytelling and Eric’s electrifying music (including five new songs), this new version of Tinga Tinga Tales is more than a must-see production.

It’s a show that is already making history as it’s booked to premier at the New Victory Theatre in New York City’s famous 42nd Street District, from October 16th through the end of the month.

TTTTM is not the first major musical production that Eric Wainaina and Sheba Hirst have taken to New York. In 2009, they brought ‘Mofaya’ including its all-Kenyan cast to feature in the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

Eric was the composer and musical director of Mofaya, just as he is for TTTTM. He also co-starred then as now with an outstanding cast. Only this time, he’s got an even larger and more melodious cast. And as marvelous as the original TTTTM cast was in 2016, only Eric (as Monkey), Elsaphan Njora (playing Tortoise) and Karimi Wamae (as Butterfly) are still there.

Auditions for new cast members incited an array of amazing young theatrical talents to come out and get into the show. “They can all dance, sing and act brilliantly,” according to Claudia Lloyd who with Eric and Sheba hand-picked a cast that includes a stunning team of Kenyans whose voices will ring as clearly as crystal bells thanks to the sound crew and superlative equipment that have been brought in specially for this show.

Starting with the former radio broadcaster Eddy Kimani who plays Lion, there’s Ray (aka Raaay!) Kibet as Elephant, Atemi Oyungu as Hippo, Alvan Gatitu as Chameleon, Kendi Nkonge as the Queen Bee, and Nyokabi Macharia (who just played Legends last week in The Brazen Edition of Too Early for Birds) as Giraffe.  

And while Eric is the master mind and maestro of the show, TTTTM shines a light on all in this exceptional cast who’ve been rigorously rehearsing under Claudia Lloyd’s professional direction for weeks.

There are so many exceptional aspects of this production that will hopefully compel both parents with children and all other theatre-lovers to come out in support of this show. The lighting, sound and all the other technical details are being cared for by professionals. The make-up will be magical and even the costuming will be provided by Kiko Romeo.

And then because the seats at National Theatre have such high backs that little people won’t be able to sit and see the stage, Tinga Rain Productions (which is Sheba) ordered 280 zebra-covered cushions so that every child will be able to sit and see everything happening on and off the stage.

The other thing that’s a major change in the theatre is the decision to extend the stage over the orchestra pit. That way, performers can be closer to their audience and there’ll be more room for the Festival of Colors and other magical events that will come alive as the tinga tinga tales are dramatized and told.

Fortunately, Safaricom and the Mount Kenya Nature Conservancy are partially sponsoring the show. But as the production is being run by perfectionists, the costs of the show are high, as are the tickets. The good thing is that a free tickets will be given away daily during the show through Capital FM radio.


Footnote: This story was written for Business Daily but it was never published because the Lion Whisperer's promoter gave the same story to another newspaper including the same photographs, and their story got published the day before mine was to appear. The story is two years old but as this blog is something of an archive for me, I decided to place it here.  

BY Margaretta wa Gacheru (August 2016)

Kevin Costner Is coming to Kenya before the end of the year. The ‘Dancing With Wolves’ movie star will be here making a film with his fellow executive producer Ralph Helfer, the animal behaviorist who wrote true story about an African elephant named ‘Modoc’, which is also the name of  the book, the film rights of which Costner now owns.
Modoc the movie will be made both in Africa and in India, says Helfer, 85, who is no stranger- to working with Hollywood stars, supplying them with tamed African animals. Everyone from John Wayne, Burt Lancaster and Clint Eastwood to Kurt Douglas, Walt Disney and even Marilyn Monroe has called on this gentle, magical man to provide them with both feathered and furry  two and four legged creatures to be co-stars in their films.
“Marilyn Monroe needed a raccoon to be in ‘River of no return’, while Clint Eastwood required an orangutan for his movie ‘Any Which Way But Loose” and Kurt Douglas had to have a rattle snake thrown in his face in the film ‘Indian Fighter,” recalls Helfer who occasionally also acted in films like ‘Indian Fighter’ where he had to be the one to throw the snake since none of the other stunt men dared to play around with a poisonous viper.
Yet Helfer says he’s trained everything from snakes and scorpions to leopards, tigers and 500 pound lions to gorillas, orangutans and baby chimps. His skillful sensitivity earned him the name, the ‘Lion Whisperer’, yet lions are just one breed of creature that he’s befriended over the years.
But it’s not as if he grew up surrounded by animals. On the contrary, his family first lived on the poorer side of Chicago, USA, a windy city he was happy to leave at age 11 when his parents split up and his mother moved with her brother’s family to sunny California. “I never went back,” says Helfer who always knew he’d one day surround himself with live creatures and live in Africa.
At first he thought he’d become a veterinarian but before he fulfilled that dream, his plans changed. It shift began while he was still in high school by setting up his own pet shop. “It was my uncle ‘Irv’ who provided the means for me to open the shop,” he says, admitting Irv couldn’t afford to help him buy exotic or domestic animals to sell in the shop.
“So I’d go out and collect lizards, scorpions and snakes; that’s how I began. People also used to give me animals they didn’t want, so the shop gradually grew.”
Fortunately, his school had a work-study program whereby he’d go to school four hours a day and then work another four hours developing marketable skills. That’s how he got through high school and earned himself enough to start a university program to become a veterinarian.
“But I quickly realized that wasn’t the direction I wanted to go, so I went back to the pet shop which was actually in the heart of Hollywood,”
By then, he’d already evolved his unique system of working with creatures which he calls ‘affection training.’
“Before me, most animal trainers looked on African animals with fear, so they’d train them using things like whips and ropes and cages, which meant that most Hollywood actors didn’t feel safe working in films that featured animals,” he says.
All that changed however, once the stars started coming into his pet shop and learning how well he related to his animals.
“Cornel Wilde was the first film star to come into the shop and after seeing the scorpions, asked if I could set up a fight scene between two of them which the studio would then magnify for a science fiction movie.”
His first success led to many more jobs on movie sets. The main reason he got so much work, he says, is because his style of taming was fool-proof. “The actors no longer feared working with any kind of creature. And people like Walt Disney wouldn’t work with anyone’s animals but mine.”
Over the next 30 years, Helfer’s animals would feature in 2300 productions. His ‘affection training’ would effectively revolutionize the way wild life movies would be made. His training program involves four basic elements which he says are “like ingredients in a soup. All four must be there for the soup to taste good; so my [affection] training involves love, patience, understanding and respect. All four have to be there or the training won’t work.”
In fact, his training style worked so well that at one point he employed 50 trainers (whom he’d taught) helping him work with the 1500 animals he had in residence at his southern California ranch which he named Africa USA.
But the ranch (which was six square kilometers) didn’t happen overnight. A major turning point in his career came when the actor William Holden (who once owned Mount Kenya Safari Club in Nanyuki, Kenya) walked into his pet shop and told him he needed a tame super-sized lion who could work well with the 10 year old girl who was set to star in Holden’s next movie, called ‘The Lion’.
Ralph had just the lion for him. Zamba had been found by an American couple when he was small and nearly dead. They never knew what happened to him but they look care of him until they had to go back to the States. Although the lion cub was already tame, their place in New York City was too small. They knew about Ralph and shipped Zamba to his farm where Ralph brought him up as if he were his son (in the Lion Whisperer’s own words). 
The next time Helfer saw Holden, he was walking into the star’s 20th Century Fox office with his 528 pound Zamba on a leach, as if the lion was a sweet harmless puppy dog. That was in 1961. By 1962, Pamela Franklin, now 11, and Zamba were being filmed in Nanyuki.
That was the first time Helfer had come to Kenya, but it wouldn’t be the last. He went back to California, sold his ranch and set up his Enchanted Village, a 30 acre animal park (which was nothing like a zoo) which he says had up to 600,000 visitors in its peak year. He also set up his own motion picture production company through which he made both documentary and feature films. But that first trip to Kenya worked some sort of magic on the man.
In ‘The Lion’, there was a scene in which a Maasai warrior wrestles with Zamba, a feat which the studio couldn’t find a real Maasai to enact. “So I was enlisted to play the part,” says Helfer whose whole body was stained black for that one scene.
What was the real eye-opener about his ‘being a black man’ for several months came when he and a few of his Kenyan friends were walking along the street in Nanyuki and one British soldier bashed him for no apparent reason. But it seems the soldier was offended that a would-be ‘African’ would dare to walk passed him without deferring to the white man.
It was an incident that Helfer has never forgotten and which only increased his empathy for local Kenyans, one of whom he would eventually marry named Suzzie Mutua.
But long before he met Suzzie who lives with him today in Tigoni on a tea plantation in Kenya, Helfer would travel back and forth between Kenya and California where he would often appear on TV talk shows with hosts like Johnnie Carson of the popular ‘Tonight’ show, bringing on whichever animal the host would ask for that night.
“Betty White [who had her own TV talk show] had one blind girl on her show who had always wanted to ‘see’ a lion, so I was asked to bring Zamba for her to meet,” Helfer says. In front of millions of late night TV viewers, the young girl sat with Zamba and felt his face and mane and even his sharp teeth. That night Betty had an unprecedented number of viewers, it was such a moving experience to see.
Helfer would eventually sell his animal park and his production company. “I knew from my first trip to Kenya that this is where I wanted to live the rest of my life since I always knew I would live surrounded by animals,” he says.
But in the early Sixties, few if any African animals were endangered, unlike today. Helfer admits he’s nostalgic for the past, but that is one reason why he’s become a writer of animal stories like Modoc, which is about an elephant befriended by a boy who never wants to leave the animal’s side.
That was the book Kevin Costner read and instantly knew he wanted to make into a movie. Fortunately, he’s managed to raise several hundred million shillings to make the Modoc film which he hopes will be even better than his award winning ‘Dancing with Wolves.’ By working closely with Ralph Helfer, there’s no doubt that he will.


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 21 August 2018)

The indefatigable Zippy Okoth sent out a call last March for films made exclusively in African languages to vie for awards at her Third Lake International Panafrican Film Festival (LIPFF).
By 30th May when the deadline for submissions had come, Dr Okoth and her team at the Legacy Arts & Film Lab, (organisers of the Festival) had received no less than 1,983 films with 398 coming from African filmmakers.
“It’s a great improvement from last year when we received 1,508 films in total,” says Kenya’s first female Ph.D in Theatre Arts from a Kenyan (Kenyatta) university.
Fresh from producing, directing, scriptwriting and acting in the solo role of “Silent Voices” at Kenya National Theatre earlier this month, Zippy’s story was undeniably autobiographical. For while she never quite confessed her character (the one whose life is documented in her “Diary of a Divorced Woman”) was herself, when she said, (after receiving her doctorate in the play), that she was now on her way to ‘building [her] empire’, we knew this was the real Zippy.
And for sure, the Legacy Theatre & Film Lab which she registered in 2015 is a major step in that direction. But even more so is LIPFF, which will take place in Nakuru 7th-10th November at several venues.
Out of the 1,983 films submitted, the 145 finalists were announced on her website this week. They will be screened at the Nakuru Players Theatre, at the city’s Kenya National Library Services and in two social halls, one at Bondeni, one at Kaptembwo.
“Films from fourteen African countries will be screened during the festival,” says Zippy who noted there are 46 coming from Kenya and 66 from Nigeria. The rest will be from Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Ghana, South Africa, Madagascar, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal and one that’s a collaboration between Congo (DRC) and Kenya.
Four categories of films were submitted for selection, namely feature and short films, animations and documentary films.
Vetting all 1,983 films was an arduous process, but Zippy has a veritable army of assistants who support her “imperial” ambitions, knowing she is lifting up a whole lot of people in the process of her artistic rise in Kenya’s vibrant cultural world.
The best evidence of her building up others as she moves ahead is the film ‘Seredo’ which grew out of the scriptwriting workshop she held last year during the Festival. “Seredo was made by three Kisumu youth groups who wrote the script during the workshop,” Zippy says.
This year, the three-day workshop to be held during the festival will be on acting. One can apply to be in it from 1st September.
Criteria for judging which films would reach the festival finals had everything to do with quality of filmmaking. But even before a film’s quality was considered, the big issue in LIPFF is language.
“All the films had to be made in African languages,” says Dr. Okoth, who adds that English is not included among the languages that qualified.
“All the films must have English sub-titles,” she concedes. But otherwise, the languages that one will hear during the festival range from Kiswahili and Hausa to Xhosa, Afro-Franco and Maa.
Zippy’s grateful to have support this year from the French Embassy, Kenya Film Commission, Kenya Film Classification Board and Nakuru County. But she is still fundraising to ensure African filmmakers see the value of continuing in their artistic enterprise of telling Africans’ stories from their own perspective.

Monday, 20 August 2018


By Margaretta wa Gacheru
It’s no exaggeration for Rhodia Mann to claim that “Everything I have in my house has a story.”
Stepping foot into her Kitisuru home is like walking into a mini-museum of exotic artifacts, all of which have been collected by this intrepid woman traveler who apparently acquired the taste for a nomadic life from her parents.
Having fled Hitler’s European onslaught in the mid-1940s, the Mann’s, Oscar and Erica travelled more than 7000 miles to finally land in Kenya and ultimately become two of the most illustrious intellectuals in Nairobi.
Rhodia actually attributes her wander-lust to her mother’s ‘great, great, great grandmother’ who was a Rumanian gypsy. But whether her aptitude for travelling is genetic or simply a joy grounded in an insatiable curiosity, all one can know for sure is that everything in her home looks so rare, exceptional and unique that one’s got to be curious yourself.
Probably best known for her exceptional jewelry, strung with beads that she’d collected everywhere from Yemen, Rajastan and Ivory Coast to Tibet, Peru and Niger, Rhodia’s bead book, ‘Ushanga: the  Story of Beads in Africa’, is as much of a travel guide and memoir as a guide book for obtaining beads.
Yet what’s surprising to learn is that not only does Rhodia not string beads anymore (she’s more inclined to writing about them). She has given her entire bead collection (apart from several choice strands) to a museum in Jerusalem.
“What else can I do with all of these things?” asks Rhodia rhetorically. Born in Kenya in 1942, Rhodia’s spent her best years on a mission to find beads all over the world and assemble them so they can be enjoyed like mobile artifacts.
It was while living in New York City in the early 1970s that she saw a necklace in a Madison Avenue store window and realized she could do the same herself. She’d already been to Yemen and Niger and begun collecting beads.
Her first jewelry exhibition also featured beads her parents had sent her from Afghanstan, Tibet and Nepal. “Everything in that show sold,” recalls Rhodia, who went on to collect not just beads on her travels.
In her living room under glass and brass coffee table, Rhodia had placed everything from daggers, belt buckles, chains, watch fobs and silver pill boxes, all items picked while she was looking for beads. The items came from Thailand, Tibet, Ghana, Pakistan, Tuareg, Peru and Malaya.
But that was just one coffee table. All her walls are covered either in original paintings or bark cloth hangings covered in jewelry either from Samburu, Borana or herself.
Then there are the colorful handwoven mats covering floors laid down either by some colonial contractor or by Rhodia’s own design as she expanded the formerly single-bedroom house she’d bought in 1998 in order to accommodate all her books, jewelry-making elements and artifacts.
She also had goards acquired not just from Samburu and Maasai, but from Borana, Turkana and Gabra. “I gave all my Samburu goards to the ISK Samburu museum,” she says. “I only have duplicates. The rest I wanted to donate to the Smithsonian, but they said goards break in transit so they weren’t interested.”
So Rhodia’s in something of a dilemma. She’s got so many one-of-a-kind items in her house, like the Lamu poster bed transformed into a sofa filled with cushions covered in textiles, many of which are no longer being made. What to do with those rare textiles?
Then there’s the cupboard she made out of mahogany wooden windows from Rajastan complete with brass elephant handles.
Rhodia still has precious strands of chevron beads and opalene white glass beads from Venice crafted around 1830, she says.
She even has contemporary African art by Jak Katarikawe and Charles Sekano, acquired during the brief year in the 1980s when she was a co-owner of Gallery Watatu.
But probably the most precious things in Rhodia’s home are her memories, like the years when she led camel safaris up at Laikipia, the times attending rituals like the Samburu’s ‘ceremony of the arrows’ and the time she addressed the Royal Geographical Society in London and spoke about her in-depth knowledge of Samburu culture.
The books she’s written thus far begin to tell these stories; but Rhodia’s got many more stories to share. Just knowing how and why she acquired the Samburu name ‘Noongishu’ meaning cattle is a tale of its own. But Rhodia will have to tell that one herself.


                                                                                     Rhodia with her giant Bombax tree


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 20 August 2018)

When Rhodia Mann moved to Kitisuru twenty years ago, her house was said to be at the far end of Nairobi.
“There was even a wall at the end of our road that marked the edge of the city,” says the world-travelled jewelry maker, writer former safari guide and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
Kitisuru has changed a lot since then. She’s got neighbors now who live in mansions surrounded by high walls and electrified fences. The one thing that hasn’t changed are the trees that first attracted Rhodia to move to that area in the first place.
‘The most magnificent one is the giant Bombax,” she says. “I believe it’s the oldest one in Kenya. I’m told it’s well over a hundred years old,” she adds. Noting that the tree is not indigenous, Rhodia believes her Bombax probably came from India a long time ago.
“Most of the trees in my garden are exotic,” she admits, laughing that her trees are rather like herself. Not that she sees herself in that light, but as she’s traveled to so many far corners of the earth in her lifetime, she’s frequently been described with that adjective.
Certainly her Bauhinia tree is exotic, not indigenous. Also known as the Hong Kong Orchid tree, Rhodia’s Bauhinia grows right outside her dining room window. Its bright pink flowers have made it a favorite all over the world. But for Rhodia, one reason she loves it is because, like the bombax, it grows of its own accord.
“The Bauhinia IS the one tree that I planted. Otherwise, I don’t pretend to be a gardener,” says the Kenya-born ethnographer who, over the years, has spent months at a time away from Nairobi. She’s either been traveling up north to stay among the Samburu (where she’s been adopted and renamed Noongishu) or flying to places where she’s collected beads of all sizes, shapes, materials and ceremonial significance.

She’s written about Samburu in books like ‘Safari to the Stars: Secrets from Samburuland’, ‘Talk to the Stars”, “A Woman of Two Worlds” and “Ice Cream in Sololo” which is actually about her time researching the Borana people. And she’s also written about beads in her book ”Ushanga: The Story of Beads in Africa”.
Rhodia has also made films about the Samburu, one of which will be shown September 1st at the International School of Kenya where she recently established a Museum of Samburu Culture in a corner of the school’s library. The documentary film entitled ‘Butterfly People: the Samburu of Northern Kenya’ was scripted, produced and directed by Rhodia with assistance from Mohammed Amin’s film students.
                             Rhodia with the old man her father Dr Igor Mann found long ago on a city street in Nairobi

But in spite of having spent so much of her life up north (where she first went with her father when she was just nine), Rhodia is grateful for the bright blue agapanthus plants that grow all over her front yard and even at her front gate.
“During the rainy season, everything in the yard turns blue. It’s beautiful!” she exclaims.
But so are the flowering Monstera Deliciosa plants that grows in a giant cluster on Rhodia’s front lawn. Nearly twice as tall as the diminutive mistress of the house, the monstera is originally from Central America. But again, nobody knows how it arrived in Kitisuru, only that it is one more beautifying feature of Rhodia’s front yard.
But if someone hasn’t been impressed as yet with all the plants and trees that grow gracefully in Rhodia’s yard, one finally needs to take a left turn as you walk off the veranda towards the Bombax. In the distance, at the far end of her land is a monster Mango tree, the biggest one that I have ever seen. It doesn’t quite rival the bombax in size. Nonetheless, it’s a monument to nature. It’s also exotic, originally coming from India and Myanmar (formerly Burma).    
                                                                     Rhodia with her monster Mango Tree in Kitisuru

So while Rhodia’s also got mats of Kikuyu grass in her yard, it’s the trees that give her end of Kitisuru the natural elegance that’s most memorable.


                           Sculptor Robin Mbera with Kisii sculptor Collector Mutuma Marangu at National Museum

By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 20 August 2018)

Pablo Picasso may be the one name best known to be associated with 20th century modern art.
                                                                            One of Picasso's Cubist paintings

Yet few people probably know how much inspiration Picasso drew as an artist from Africa, especially from the sculptures and masks of West Africa.
Picasso, Matisse and other painters of that time were all impressed with the artifacts extracted from indigenous African cultures and put on display in Parisian museums and private collections. So much so that they went on to create a major cultural movement which has its roots in the African aesthetic, called Cubism.
Yet up until quite recently, most Western art critics have tended to forget that Cubism was inspired by African art. At best, they admit Picasso went through a brief (1906-1909) ‘African period’.
                                                    New Year's Celebration by Robin Mbera

One Kenyan sculptor who hasn’t forgotten that Cubists owe Africa a debt of gratitude for the profound influence that sub-Saharan sculpture has had on their art, is Robin Okeyo Mbera.
At the opening of his ‘Afro-Cubism: Journey #1” exhibition this past weekend at Nairobi National Museum, Robin explained his reason for spending the last five years preparing for this exhibition.
It was to pick up from where the Cubist painters left off and reclaim the influence and the legacy that Africa has had on art and world culture.
                                                                                     Brothers by Robin Mbera

Five years ago, Robin’s dream wasn’t merely to emulate Western art or to pay homage to the Cubists. It was to retrieve the artistic incentive inspired by early sub-Saharan sculptors. And for him the best way to do that was as a sculptor himself, to work in stone indigenous to Kenya.
Afro-Cubism is a name Robin personally coined for the artworks that he hoped to create. It is also the title of the five-year plan he proposed to Kenya’s leading collector of Kisii stone art, Mutuma Marangu.
Fortunately, Mr Mutuma responded positively to Robin’s idea. And ever since then, the sculptor has been creating original works out of stones extracted from his homeland in Tabaka, Kisii County.
                                                                             Math Africa by Robin Mbera

His prototype, the one originally shown to Mutuma with his proposal, was carved out of Kisii stone. But all the other 25 sculptures (which are tastefully displayed in chronological order in the Museum’s Creativity Gallery) have been carved out of Silicate, a hard grey stone that Robin says is much rarer in the region than the traditional Kisii soapstone.
All 26 sculptures in Robin’s ‘Journey #1’ have the good fortune of already being part of the larger Mutuma Marangu Sculpture Collection. That collection (not even a fraction of it) has never been put on public display before. So the Museum has the good fortune of showing off what is undeniably one of the most important art collections owned by any Kenyan.
Other Kenyans may be collecting art and building up their collections. One hopes this is the case. But none other than Mutuma has focused exclusively on Kisii sculpture. This far-sighted Kenyan businessman owns countless masterpieces by such major Kisii sculptors as Elkana Ong’esa, Gerald Motondi, Duke Kombo, Peter Kenyanya and Robin Mbera.
                                                                   By Gerald Motondi, another Kisii artist

And because ‘Afro-Cubism’ is the first exposure of his collection to the world, Mutuma told Business Daily that he’s worked with a team to display Robin’s sculptures in a systematic, professional style. With his team, he says he has produced a documentary on the collection, filmed by Morris Keyonzo and narrated by his daughter, Kinya Mutuma. He’s also created informative panels describing Robin’s art, including the ten-step process he has gone through to create every single one of his sculptures.
What’s more, every sculpture is thoughtfully captioned, photographed from various angles, and included in a 64-page catalogue that lays out all that has gone into curating and mounting this outstanding show. The content of the book is also now online at Both the book and website were designed by Armstrong Mutuma.
The one sculpture that is not in the booklet (but is on display) is Robin’s 27th sculpture, which effectively launches hi and Mutuma’s ‘Journey #2’ of Afro-Cubism. Conceived and crafted out of green basalt, this 27th work embodies the faith that Mr Mutuma has in Robin’s artistic capacity to continue creating works like his ‘Black Kingdom’, ‘Nairopean’, ‘Brother’, ‘Breadwinner’ and ‘Territory Defender.’
One might also see it as a sign that Mutuma knows Kenyan art, especially Kisii sculpture, is bound to one day be recognized as world-class art as well as a wise financial investment.