In his first post here, Sanya Noel explores the themes around “We Won’t Forget”, a performance that uses poetry, monologues and dance to interrogate a decade of terror in Kenya.
In Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky (2015), a Colonel in the British Army, Katherine Powell (Hellen Mirren), is in command of an operation to capture terrorists in Eastleigh, Nairobi. The operation however quickly changes to a kill-mission when Powell learns that the targets are planning a suicide bombing. Like many drone warfare operations, this, too, is a co-ordination between different countries; the command is in Britain, the pilots in the United States, and the drones and their missiles and targets in Nairobi. When Powell gives a greenlight for the kill mission, a nine-year old girl enters the kill zone and Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), the American Pilot operating the drone, is forced to not fire the missile.
Violence brings an edge to art that makes it—the art— real-life and quite relatable. Art on its part has a duty to portray life as it is, even though the artist has a duty to be gentle in representing these realities of life. Whether this duty to is a moral obligation however is another matter, and this ‘duty’ too should not be constraining. Art, above all, should be free and unfettered by others’ expectations. Fiction achieves this quite well. In fiction, characters can be humanized to a level where crimes like violence and murder never seem to be just random. One notices a path leading to such endings. Well, at least as is with some fictional works.
Life too tends to follow this same arc. One action leads to another and this unlocks cycles of violence that are only stopped when people take a conscious step to end it. In East African history, Idi Amin is a good example of this cycle, learning his sadism from the British during his time serving as a King’s African Rifle when they crushed the Mau Mau. These tactics were what he later on turned onto his people in Uganda after overthrowing Milton Obote.
We Won’t Forget is a theatre performance directed by Wanjiku Mwawuganga and performed by Laura Wanjiru Ekumbo, Ngartia Bryan, Abu Sense, William Mwangi, Carol Tiri, and Bobby Mbece, and stage managed by Hellen Masido. It was performed at the Goethe Institut during the Nairobi leg of the Jalada Mobile Festival. When the performance starts, the curtains open to Danny Eb’s No Sleep playing on the speakers. The whole theatre has its lights turned off except the stage lights, which have been switched to a dim red. There are two dancers on the stage — Carol Tiri, lying on the floor and dressed in red, the stage lights highlighting her; and Bobby Mbece, standing up and dressed in black, looking like a silhouette in the red light.
Danny Eb’s song sounds like the ultimate gym workout soundtrack, and Tiri and Bobby’s performance follows it in a show of violence. Bobby, in black, bends low to grab Tiri who is moving in what the audience understands to be pain. Then he throws her back to the floor. It is a show of power as he steps on Tiri then raises her and smashes her into the seat on the stage. This first introductory performance gives away the mood of the remainder of the show: There will be violence here. At the end of their dance, as if it was an afterthought, Bobby moves back, steps on Tiri’s head, then crushes with the heel of his shoe the way one would crush something he hates. Then he walks away. The lights and the music fade away with Tiri crawling to safety before a period of silence when the stage lights become bright again, with Laura Ekumbo standing on the stage alone.
It is tempting to try interpreting the first scene in the performance. There are no introductory speeches to it, just the music and the violence, and therefore the metaphors used for the dance can only be argued about by the audience? Who does Bobby stand for? Why the violence and what is this violence? It is tempting to say colonialism, but bad governance—fifty plus years after independence—passes well too. Carol Tiri perhaps holds the metaphor for the country, which has been violently abused by both the pre-independence and the post-independence governments. Or perhaps she represents the ‘everyday’ Kenyan as that brings the experience closer as opposed to the blanket of ‘country.’
The second scene is a monologue, at first, and Laura is in a long dress and a headscarf. She stands while holding her hands in front of her as if she’s unsure of herself, wringing her fingers now and then. Her scene is a recollection of the life of a loved one. She remembers the little almost insignificant things that we remember people by, like the self-consciousness her character’s now late husband used to have over the scar he had on his face and the time he spent in front of the mirror touching it. Laura’s character remembers this with a smile, but it is a misleading smile. There is something wistful that hides an explosive grief beneath that seemingly calm surface as she narrates her story.
“Monday I got a call to go identify his body. The kids stayed home, they were so excited to be missing school,” she narrates.
In this sobering, sad narration, one almost misses a significant incongruence in the story, a schadenfreude that stands out like a sore thumb, but not too painful since the general painfulness of the whole show masks the sadness:
“When I got home that evening, my neighbour called out to me as I opened the door. She seemed like she enjoyed being the one to break the news to me.”
This being the news of death of her husband, Ekumbo presents it with a calm that disorients in a way that one almost misses the message: There is hatred here.
But it is William Mwangi’s performance in Sheng that brings out an even bigger incongruence. William’s character is a prisoner dressed in those white and black striped Kenyan prison uniforms. “Ustake jua,” he says. And true, you really don’t want to know what he is in for as he tells the others that they’re lucky to be in for ‘real’ crimes. His is a petty crime of theft, but he was involved in a violent murder during the elections of 2007. He tells of how they killed a fellow young man for having the wrong name and belonging to the wrong tribe and, therefore, as it happens often, supporting the ‘wrong’ political candidate, one that gets him killed. It is a difficult performance to endure as Mwangi delivers it laughing all through. One gets lost between feeling bad for the killed victim and Mwangi’s character’s situation because for a keen eye, his laugh is a mask. One feels the pain in the delivery. His description of how the victim died is almost celebratory. He compares it to a rumba dancer, how his body moved after the hackings with a panga. The image on my mind is a chicken whose head has been cut off and its body released by cynical children.
We Won’t Forget covers a whole spectrum of emotions. William’s character’s best description is, perhaps, aloofness, or indifference. An electioneering period brings out this un-feeling, this lack of empathy, this regarding of others as just ‘things’ that can be hacked down if they do not conform. But there is also despair and dangerous anger.
Ngartia’s performance starts with a back and forth between him and Laura during Laura’s remembrance scene. It’s a little sudden, even intrusive, both in delivery and on the characters’ lives, though this exchange provides a transition from Laura to Ngartia, who then goes into a monologue of a poetry performance in the spoken word tradition of high energy delivery. Ngartia’s performance is a continuation of Laura’s, now from another perspective, but delivered with anger. It’s an indictment of God, or, perhaps, ‘circumstances’ that lead to such deaths. Where is God when you need him, when all the responses you get are the sounds of a gun?
Ngartia manages to bring to life an otherwise quite boring piece of writing. His poem is filled with sound devices. There are alliterations in a significant part of it and rhymes galore. He starts off on a note that would leave your normal everyday-probably-stuck-up poetry tasting reader already skeptical, but it’s these devices that bring it to life.
“Sad thoughts and dreams
of gunshots and screams
plus big shots and schemes
that robbed us of our kin…”
But he doesn’t pause at any of them as he rumbles through, the anger building through his performance. At one point, Ngartia is screaming. You can feel his words punching the wind out of you because you realise that at the end, there is no way out, just hopelessness.
“It’s a forever of terrible gunshots, silence worse than gunshots and forgotten restaurant music worse than both.”
The violence part of Kenya comes out, both in how Laura’s character’s husband was killed and in the words Ngartia uses. At this point, because of Ngartia’s words, the audience connects that perhaps Laura’s character’s husband was killed during the Westgate attack.
“We are running again but they might be around the corner
a man crawling to die under an elephant statue,”
…and this brings in the cycle of violence that was the terrorist attack at Westgate and the subsequent mistreatment of Muslims in Kenya. At the end of his performance, Ngartia walks off in a huff. Then there is a sound of doors opening and closing, before he walks back with Abu Sense, who is in chains and a mask as he is frog-matched and half dragged across the stage by Ngartia.
Abu’s performance, like Ngartia’s, is angry, and a continuation of the previous scene. Abu’s performance is also a poem, and like Ngartia’s, too, a powerful diatribe with stylistic devices that one may not notice easily. It is not even easy to connect that this is a Muslim character at the start unless one paid attention to Ngartia’s mentioning of a man trying to hide under an elephant statue, which was a narrative from the Westgate terrorist attack. Abu’s performance subject is a consequence of the terrorist attack.
After the Westgate attack of 2013, the Kenyan government rounded up Somalis, both Kenyan and non-Kenyan, from Eastleigh and held them for days at Kasarani Stadium where their papers were checked and others deported to Somalia. Kasarani became known as a concentration camp to some people. Islamophobia and xenophobia against Somalis increased. There were incidents where matatu drivers refused Somalis from boarding their vehicles, too, and Somalis in Eastleigh held a demonstration against terrorism in what was clearly an attempt to demonstrate their Kenyanness, something that was disturbingly close to a November 1977 demonstration by Somalis against the Somali government’s expansionist concept of a greater Somalia, that had caused the Shifta War of between ’63 and ‘67. After the Westgate attack, there were raids conducted by Kenyan government forces on mosques in the Coast, deeds that angered many. Abu does not mention any of these things. Not directly. His is a personal narrative, or if not so personal, something one easily gets to understand even if they didn’t know that history.
But its Laura’s final performance that brings home the sorrow and violence of the nation as brought out in Mwawuganga’s work. Laura plays a character who is a rape victim in this scene that is a therapy session. She is hesitant at first. Like many victims of trauma, she is unwilling to open up telling the therapist:
“Maybe you should do all the talking. You’re the one who’s supposed to try to convince me, like my aunt keeps trying.” She is almost clam shut about her pain, but when she eventually opens up, it is so painful that she breaks into tears. And the audience too wipes their tears with her.
Cycles of violence are endless unless a conscious step is taken to end them. Trauma follows both victims and perpetrators and this gets passed down to the next person if it isn’t stopped in time. A child growing up in a violent home becomes the classroom bully, even though they may not be aware of it. Children who are bullied by their fellow children then too become bullies. Bullies become prefects and these violent children grow up to become leaders of the nation who then normalize violence.
Mwawuganga’s We Won’t Forget is timely, especially in an electioneering year like this one. When society understands what violence does, how it destroys people and lives, perhaps then it can become more aware and keener about how we relate to each other.
The Eastleigh scenes in Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky were shot in South Africa. The Kiswahili accents are off and nothing close to the Kenyan Kiswahili, and the location even looks dystopian. To a person who doesn’t live in Kenya, this adds to the narrative. It creates a background that one can use to absolve the whole chain of command when the nine year old girl selling bread eventually gets killed despite the efforts to have her out of the way before the missiles are launched. With the background, one is torn between what-number-these-terrorists-would-have-killed versus this one girl. And yet it brings in an outsider’s gaze that excludes the complexities of her life. This isn’t necessarily an attempt to depict her that way. Rather, it’s just what happens when one tells narratives that aren’t necessarily theirs to tell.
At Alliance Francaise where the full We Won’t Forget show is performed, it starts with a fifteen minute video of Joash Omondi’s Images of Terror. It’s about photojournalist Joseph Matheng’e (who captured the Westgate Attack as it happened) and sets one into the mood of the main show. Matheng’e was en-route to a wedding when he got a distress call from a friend. The images Matheng’e captured show people lying on the floor, some shot dead, some alive but playing dead. At one point, he advises a woman to play dead with her two children, and as they lie still on the floor for over three hours waiting for help, Matheng’e captures them in that state.
We Won’t Forget is an insiders’ perspective of people who have been affected by what the country has undergone. Abu re-enacts what many young Muslim men go through before they make the choices they do, and how they are received in the end, both by state and by other Kenyans. Ekumbo brings home the pain of loss and drives you to tears with her narratives of violence. Ngartia brings in the anger, and William the painful angle of what goes on in the minds of people who would kill for political reasons. Bobby Mbece and Carol Tiri—and later Star Oranga—re-enact what the state is capable of and how the interaction between state and citizens result to citizens mirroring the state, especially when it comes to violent behaviour.
In an election year like this, Mwawuganga’s We Won’t Forget is urgent and timely. It drives the point home and wakes up the ghosts we’d thought we’d buried, forcing us to face them. We look at ourselves and wipe tears away, because we recognise that this is our story, and that while we are capable of inflicting this much pain, we are also capable of healing. We Won’t Forget belongs to the road where everyone can see; this is what we’ve done to ourselves. It deserves a stage much bigger than what has so far accommodated it.
Sanya Noel lives in Nairobi. He’s an editor at Enkare Review.