What if we could turn the stories here into living, breathing performances? On May 17th, we will do just that.
You might not have noticed but yesterday marked seven years since we met here, on the WordPress precursor of this blog. It was a small house, like a single room with poor ventilation. So normally we set a fire outside and gathered with lesos and bananas to share listicles and random, odd stories from Kenyan history. We called it Too Late for Worms.
It’s been seven years.
In blog years, seven is a long time. It’s that age when you must do something drastic to grow. It’s the age where people start asking you openly “Unatuletea mtu lini?” When Kombani keeps tagging you on podcasts and articles about podcasts because you’ve refused to take hints. When Dan Aceda almost pushes you into his studio to test how your stories would sound as a podcast. When Ngartia forces you into yet another Whatsapp group about stories and plays and how he plans to cry on stage.
A blog at seven years has eaten salt. It doesn’t give you time to stop and breath. You dig up old posts to share and marvel at how much your writing has changed. You start to properly feel the fear of atrophying by not innovating, even in how you tell stories. You experiment with current affairs and find new ways to get people to read and share stories. Then, when a crazy plan is mooted to turn these stories into living performances, you don’t think the same way you did at 5. Or at 6, when a random Nigerian director offered to turn a story into a script. It was a shitty story, you told him, and your mother had warned you never to trust Nigerians making tempting offers on emails.
We meet here to tell forgotten stories and to tell old ones afresh. To question, actually, everything. We meet and openly call Dedan Kimathi a megalomaniac; and to remind us all that the Mau Mau didn’t win us independence, men in suits did in a boardroom. It wasn’t even a win as much as it was an inevitability. To say that Paul Ngei only ended up as one of the Kapenguria Six because he got into a fist fight, not that he was busy planning a freedom movement.
It was once just history in snappy listicles, but now it’s many things. Its longer articles about interesting people and interesting things, sometimes even just a curious monkey that shut off power in the whole country. We meet after we’ve followed Osborne Macharia around for a day to watch him photograph interesting people, and to pin Jim Chuchu down and ask him about his series about a vigilante keeping Nairobi on its toes. Sometimes we just meet to share stories of badass people doing badass things, or, absurd ones. Sometimes its stories of people doing bad things.
The main reason we do this is because a society is its stories. Stories give personas, desires, heroes, and villains. They define and describe and dismantle. We need heroes. We need our heroes to be human. We need stories not just for their moral lessons but because they offer us a reality that we wouldn’t otherwise have.
But what has always been different here is that we also seek to tell these stories differently. To explore new ways to write them, new ways to weave these interesting narratives in ways that make them fun to experience.
One of the many things we will do is to turn some of these stories into live performances. We place Ngartia and Abu Sense on a stage and force them, for a few hours, to tell and retell these stories, and tell us new ones. The idea is to breathe new life into even the old stories we’ve already read so many times. It’s also to listen to how many bad puns Ngartia can pack into one evening at the Kenya National Theatre, or whether he can do a show without crying.
The show will be called Too Early for Birds, paying homage to the original name of this space, and will be more than a play.
Too Early for Birds will be an acknowledgement that we need to do more than just text in telling stories. This counts as a stage, of course, but there’s a rawness to a live performance that offers new opportunity. One such story was Ngartia’s piece here about Muthoni Nyanjiru which he performed at Kwani Open Mic in October last year. I’d edited the piece but the performance caught me off-guard; it was raw in ways I didn’t think possible, and its sheer power as a story was, to some level, destabilizing.
The first time I saw Ogutu Muraya performing Hussein Warutere’s story at Alliance Française in 2012, it was stunning! He put so much life into the story about a rickshaw driver’s story and how using the wrong toilet led to him serving 13 years of hard labor in concentration camps, you could feel the pain and astonishment that man went through all those years ago. Even through the humor.
It made you understood why, in another story he did, Said Ongwen Olaga would have such hate for the British as to add sputum to bowl of meat headed for Princess Elizabeth’s table when she visited Treetop hotel. The sickness that was colonialism hits you right in the belly when you listen to someone narrate its effects in first person, with accents you recognize and jokes you would make to dilute the horror. These are both stories from Al Kag’s book “Living Memories”. Reading the book later, those two stories stood out. I already had so much visual and emotional accompaniment; I’d experienced them as living stories. Reading articles and research papers can take the punch out of historical crimes. They are too sanitized. Too edited.
We need stories we can own, in spaces we inhabit. That’s why we want to bring a few of the stories here to life. Stories about people, and how their small deeds changed history.
So, let’s make a date. 17th May. Kenya National Theatre. Too Early for Birds. Tell a friend.
PS: Also, I am taking blog birthday gifts.
One story is good,
till Another is told.