Wednesday, 28 February 2018


                                Peter Kawa and Cecimercy Wanza who produce Sanaa Talks

By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 1st March 2018)

Peter Kawa is best known to me for his leading roles in plays like ‘Eduta’ where he starred in the title role, and most recently, in Hearts of Art’s ‘All I ever wanted’ where he was the Judge who had to make tough decisions affecting other people’s lives.
I hadn’t seen him co-starring as Yusuf in   Biko Nyongesa’s feature film ‘Get Some Money’ which premiered at the Garden City IMAX a year ago. Nor did I know how fully he’d shifted his focus, as have so many other Kenyan stage actors, from live theatre to film and TV.
But it’s not just that he’s acting in other people’s film. Kawa is also making films of his own, both shorts (like ‘Nazif’ and ‘Witness’) and features (like ‘Njamba’ and ‘My First Story’). Ever since he started Spearhead Media Entertainment in 2016, he’s been producing and directing his own films, including ‘Torture’ which was nominated to win a Kalasha award for Best Local Language Film in 2017.
He’s also been showcasing the stories of other young ambitious Kenyan creatives on ‘Sanaa Talks’, the weekly KUTV talk show that he co-produces with Cecimercy Wanza who’s a KU graduate from the Film and Theatre Arts Department as well as a TV producer and director in her own right.
‘Sanaa Talks’ premiered 22 November 2017 and the half-hour (26 minutes) program has been on Facebook live every Wednesday night at 8:30pm ever since. Hosted in Kenyatta University’s television studio and anchored by Gilbert Lukalia (acclaimed film and stage star who also authored and directed ‘Edufa’ two years back), ‘Sanaa Talks’ was screening its tenth episode this past Wednesday night.
“We featured producers Martin Kigondu, of Prevail Arts Productions, and Lucy Mwangi who produces ‘Aunty Boss’ and its spin-off show, ‘Varshita’,” Peter told BD Weekender just hours before the program aired on Facebook on its Sanaa Talks web page.
“The following Wednesday will be the Finale episode of Sanaa Talks so we’ll be having music producers like Jackie B, who produces gospel hits and Brian Oluoch, who produced Sauti Sol’s ‘Live and Die in Africa’ album,” added Cecimercy who met Peter on the set of ‘Get some money’ where she was assistant director.
“I call Ceci my producer but actually we co-produce Sanaa Talks,” added Peter whose background in Information Management is a perfect fit for his media work at Spearhead.
“But I don’t just co-produce and direct Sanaa Talks. I also market the show through YouTube where every episode can be found, as well as on Instagram and of course, on Facebook,” he adds.
Ceci chimes in that there will be two more ‘mashup’ episodes after the finale which will feature the most memorable moments of Gilbert’s interviews with everyone from local filmmakers, screenwriters and spoken word poets to musicians, cinematographers and actors, including the current chairman of the Kenya Actors Guild, Chris Kamau. 
“We want people to understand how difficult to be in the arts in Kenya today,” says Ceci who believes that if the public understood all the challenges and obstacles that creatives face, they’d be far more supportive of them.
“We plan to begin our second season in May. That’s when we hope to put the program on live,” adds Ceci who admits the programs are currently pre-recorded to air Wednesday nights. “But we get such great online feedback from our viewers that it would be great if those on camera could answer viewers in real time.”
That may not be possible from a logistical point of view. But both Kawa and Ceci would love to see conversations at Sanaa Talks not be only between those in the studio but also engage their viewers.
In the meantime, Kawa draws a multitude of local eyeballs to his Instagram page, Sanaa Post where he puts up slews of photos of what can easily be called Kenyan celebrities. The snaps are mainly taken at high styled media events, featuring the nouveau ‘who’s who’ of those who know where it’s ‘happening’.
Many of them have already been interviewed by Gilbert Lukalia. Many more will most likely be invited to chat during Sanaa Talks’ second season.
In the meantime, the movement of local media activism is currently taking social media channels by storm and the swell of activist artists is refreshing to watch. 

Monday, 26 February 2018


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 26 February 2018)

Dream Kona provided a ‘dream come true’ this past weekend when scores of elders, artists and youth joined hands and hearts to celebrate the arrival of Elkana Ong’esa’s multi-ton granite stone sculpture, ‘Elephant Family’ to Uhuru Garden.
The sculpture had been delivered, courtesy of TICAH (Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health), from the Nairobi National Museum where it had lain on NNM’s front lawn for the last four years.
Originally, the work had been scheduled to go to Washington, DC as part of the Kenyan cultural showcase during the Smithsonian Institution’s biannual summer festival. But that was never to be.
Despite promises having been made to one of Kenya’s most esteemed and venerable artists and teachers, Elkana’s sculpture had been left behind literally on the runway as the plane took off for the States.
The museum was kind enough to give it a temporary home. But now, thanks to TICAH the ‘Elephant Family’ stands proudly in the heart of Dream Cona, like the monumental national icon it was meant to be.
But that dream wasn’t the only one that came true last week. The whole idea of Dream Kona, according to TICAH’s founder-director Mary Ann Burris, is for Kenyan creatives (whatever their genre or age) to have a venue where they can work, play, perform and share ideas in an open, arts-affirming space.
And that’s what was happening last Saturday all around Dream Kona where artists and elders from no less than 15 Kenyan communities came early to prepare for the open day. They’d been invited from all across the country, from the Sabuat, Ogiek, Kuria and Pokomo to the Maasai, Luo, Kikuyu and Kisii among others.
The elders (many of whom were artists in their own right) had been together the whole week prior to Saturday, courtesy of TICAH. In fact, many had been participants in the four-month exhibition, Hekema and Urembo at the Nairobi Museum which TICAH had organized and which closed the day before in a grand ceremonial style.
‘Hekima’ had been all about elders from a wide range of Kenyan communities giving programs where they shared their wisdom related to everything from traditional medicines to cultural practices and philosophies.
‘Urembo’ on the other hand, exhibited aspects of indigenous beauty, both contemporary and traditional.
So while the twin exhibitions closed the previous day, Saturday was when aspects of both shows came out and illustrated what indigenous Kenyan culture looks like on the wider ‘Dream kona’ platform.
There were demonstrations (and teaching) on everything from beading by Maasai mamas and weaving by Pokomo men to pottery-making by Luo ladies and carving by Kisii stone carvers.
There were even elders on hand who specialize in preparing natural plant products to heal assorted maladies. They were sharing some of those skills on Saturday.
And as Health (as well as culture) is one of the key concerns of TICAH, these ‘medicine men’ have inspired the Trust to document their indigenous knowledge (including their ‘dawa’ recipes) so that their wisdom won’t be lost. (One of the ways elders’ wisdom is also shared is through TICAH’s annual calendar which contains one indigenous herbal recipe every month in a year.)
But as important as the elders were on Saturday (especially as they prepared bottles of dawa said to heal), it was the painters who seemed to dominate the day since they had one gigantic wall on which to paint colorful images highlighting the theme of wildlife and humans’ relations and responsibility to endangered species like Elkana’s elephants. The painters arrived from assorted art centres in Nairobi, including Dust Depo, GoDown, Kuona Artists Alliance and Brush tu Art Studio.
Meanwhile, art classes went on for children from several Nairobi ‘informal settlements’ where TICAH also works.
But the day would not have been complete if there hadn’t been plenty of music and dancing.
Some of it was especially designed for the youth while there were also music and dance performances by groups like Kenge Kenge and the Pokomo Vuggula Cultural Dancers who wore leg rattles that they’d woven themselves out of dried palm leaves filled with noisy granite stones.
TICAH’s engineering of the whole event at Dream kona, especially their giving the ‘Elephant Family’ a permanent resting place, is all part of the Trust’s larger vision. Appreciating indigenous culture and the arts and their role in healing people’s bodies and minds is something we hope the government will strive to emulate.

Friday, 23 February 2018


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 23 February 2018)

Nairobi has got a number of Italian restaurants. But none offers quite the same authentic Italian experience as La Salumeria (situated just behind Valley Arcade in the Dhanjay Flats). There everything from the wines and cheeses to the cured meats and porcini mushrooms are regularly flown in from that high-heel shoe-shaped country.
“Even our olive oil comes from Tuscany, our Balsamic vinegar’s from Modena and our salt from Sicily,” says Stephano Rusticali, the proud owner of La Salumeria.
“Of course, we get our fish flown in from the Kenya coast and our vegetables come in every week from one farm in Limuru,” adds Stephano who has only owned the restaurant since 2016.
But ever since he came to Kenya in 2013 and opened his first restaurant, the Geko Resort, he’s made it his mission “to bring the original authentic Italian dishes” to the country.
It isn’t only the vast array of pizzas, pastas and pesto that Stephano serves fresh at La Salumeria that makes his menu authentic. It’s also that his Top Chef Murielle Minchella has trained all the kitchen staff in the finer points of Italian cooking.
What’s more, just last month Stephano flew in a Top Chef from Sicily to help him launch his new Sicilian Special menu, featuring several new fish and pasta recipes.
“He even taught our pastry chef Margaret [Kasude] how to make a Caprese cake with chocolate and almonds which also come from Italy,” says Stephano who insists we try a bit of everything on the menu.
I was tempted to try either the vegetarian lasagna, parmigiana (made with eggplant) or lobster Spaghetti.
Then again, the range of pizza made my head spin. There was the classic Margherita (with tomato, mozzarella and oregano), Capricciosa (with mushrooms, artichokes and parma ham added), Bresaola, Funghi, Formaggi and Diavola to name a few more.
                                                    Shadrack serves my friend Robert his Chicken scaloppina

But ultimately, I settled for a delicious grilled red snapper garnished with a garden-full of fresh vegetables. My friend Robert had the Chicken scaloppina (chicken breast sauted in lemon sauce) although he too was tempted to be more adventurous and try either the beef Tangliata, grilled lamb chops with honey or mixed seafood platter, including crab, calamari, prawns and fish fillet.
                                                   My grilled red snapper served with fresh veggies from Limuru

Stephano himself had a sumptuous serving of fresh Burrata cheese dressed with leafy lettuce and tomatoes. “Our cheeses are flown in every fortnight. They arrive from Milan on Saturday and we serve them from Sunday through Friday. By then, there usually all gone; otherwise, since we add no preservatives, they’re only served that week,” says this cheese connoisseur.
After that, he has a platter-full of assorted salamis, which again are another Italian delicacy. The bread, accompanied by whipped garlic butter, is made fresh every day, says Stephano, who explains it’s the same delicious dough used to make their pizza.
An etching of St. Marco in Venice, one of many Italian images on Stephano's wall.
Wines are also flown in from his mother land. “It was actually my friend Flavio who has a home in Watamu and also a wine shop next door to the restaurant, who told me about the owner’s plan of retiring,” says Stephano whose Italian wine list is extensive.
But wine is not my weakness. Chocolate is. So when he tempted me with tiramisu, chocolate mousse or gelato, I didn’t hesitate to comply: mousse was my favorite. Meanwhile, my friend tried both the tiramisu and the hazelnut parfait which are both Margaret’s specialties.
And as no Italian meal is complete without an espresso, macchiato or cappuccino, I was happy to have a macchiato freshly made with Stephano’s Buscaguone espresso-making machine.
But there was one more surprise that our host wanted us to try before we left. He called it Limoncello, which sounded innocent enough for a teetotaler like me, especially when Stephano explained it was made with lemon rind imported from you know where.
Like an espresso, a sip or two of limoncello at the end of every meal is the test of its truly Italian authenticity. So I took a sip of this delicious liqueur which he served in a short-stemmed goblet. And our meal was complete.
Did I mention that throughout our meal, the Italian tenors, Il Volo gently crooned in the background? Or that on every wall hung a painting or print by an Italian artist, be he Leonardo di Vinci or Gian Paolo Tomasi whose art is currently being featured in Stephano’s Artistest Gallery, just next to La Salumeria which itself has its own intimate, artistic ambience.

Thursday, 22 February 2018


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 22 February 2018)

John Nottingham was an anomaly. He was a Briton who became a ‘Kenyan at heart’. Some Brits must have considered him a traitor to his roots, to his race and to the government that brought him to Kenya in the first place.
Yet John was a man of conscience. A scholar who majored in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University, he was only 19 years old when, following his father’s insistence, he got a job with the British Colonial Office. It was 1952 and he was posted to Nyeri as a new District Officer.
But early on, he felt uncomfortable about his work and indeed what he was doing in Kenya at all. He arrived just as a State of Emergency was declared. That meant rather than assisting Africans in areas of development, he was advised to shoot them on sight. Shortly after he arrived, he witnessed one DO assault on old African man. He went to the resident District Commissioner named Hughes and registered a complained against his countryman. The DC vowed to see the DO was punished. But John quickly found that nothing came of his complaint.
But that one assault was insignificant compared to the torturing of Africans that he found once he was reposted to the Mwea Detention Camps. The scale of cruelty toward the indigenous people finally compelled John to resign. But instead of the Colonial Office accepting his resignation, they reposted him the North Tetu in Nyeri.
“That’s when I decided to secretly help the other side,” he said in an interview with Citizen TV. It was the British, he said, who’d given the pro-Independence activists the name Mau Mau. But to him, they were aggrieved people who had a just cause.
Sympathy, and indeed, stealthy support for Africans’ independence struggle eventually led to John joining the Mau Mau Veterans who filed a law suit against the British government several years ago. Serving as a witness in support of the claims that British troops had tortured, raped, wrongly detained and forced labor from Africans, John stood for the human rights that the British government claimed to uphold.
Noting that no more than 32 white settlers were killed during the anti-colonial war, over 13,500 Africans died in the same period according to official figures. However, according to unofficial figures, it was more than 50,000 Africans who died and many more who were tortured and maimed for life. But many of them lived to tell their stories to historians like Dr. Caroline Elkins (who wrote the award-winning ‘Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya’) and Dr. David Anderson (who wrote ‘Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and The End of the Empire’)
 After Kenya obtained its Independence in 1963, John stayed on and founded Transafrica Publishers which came out with more than 300 titles. They mainly focused on African history, politics and education. A number examined the lives African leaders like Nyerere, Kenyatta and Dedan Kimathi. And at age 85, he could still be found pouring over manuscripts in his offices in Runda.
Ironically, John’s own book which he co-authored with Carl Gustav Rosen, entitled ‘The Myth of Mau Mau: Nationalism in Kenya’ was not one of his Transafrica book titles. Instead, it was published by the prestigious New York-based book house, Praeger in 1966. Since its publication, it has served as an important antidotal text aimed at refuting the racist claims that Kenyans’ anti-colonial struggle was atavistic, barbaric and so brutal that it justified all the human rights violations the British inflicted on the African people.
John Nottingham was a humble, soft-spoken man who was alarmed by the hypocrisy of his fellow Britons which he witnessed first-hand during the Emergency as well as in the aftermath.
When he arrived in Kenya, it was only seven years since World War Two had ended and Britain had signed the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Yet the degree of human rights violations that he saw perpetuated by his own countrymen against Kenyans clearly had a profound impact on his life.
His accompanying Mau Mau veterans to London in 2016 to advance their law suit against the British Foreign Office made him the only white-Kenyan to stand with the Africans. Yet because his cause was just and his conscience was clean, John Nottingham lived a grand and noble life. He remained true to his conscience and his convictions to the end, and he deserves to be reckoned a hero by both the Kenya Government and the Kenya Human Rights Commission.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 21 February 2018)

Lupita Nyong’o isn’t the only Kenyan acquainted with Oscar-winning potential.
It was just a month ago that the German-Kenyan film ‘Watu Wote’ was nominated for Best Live Action Short Film by the American Film Academy.  
The film’s producer Tobias Rosen and director Katja Benrath are both Germans from the Hamburg Film School. They heard about the Al Shabaab attack on a bus in Northern Kenya that was foiled when one Muslim man on the bus refused to disclose identities of Christians, thus saving many lives.
That act of heroism and humanity inspired them to come to Kenya, link up with Lightbox Film and Ginger Ink and create a heart-wrenching film that might again earn Kenyans an Academy award.
The scriptwriting of Watu Wote (All of Us) was headed by Julia Drache, another German who consulted with Kenyans’ Brian Munene and Alexander Ikawah to create a captivating story line.
“Katja and Tobias originally came to Kenya to make a different film. But then they changed gears, got in touch with Lightbox’s Blamuel Iro who assembled the Kenyan cast,” says Justin Mirichii who plays James Ouma in the film.
“I play the guy who gets shot running away from the terrorists,” he adds.
Based on a real life story, the film revolves around a young woman who’s been widowed by Al Shabaab who also killed her daughter. Jua (Adelyne Wairimu) is taking the bus to Mandera and lets her hatred of her family’s killers be known to one Muslim man, Salah Farah (Abdiwali Farrah) who tried to befriend her.
As it turns out, it’s Salah who saves her life and those of the other Christians on the bus. After the terrorists arrive, he and the other Muslims are given the option to live if they disclose the identities of the Christians. But his refusal in the face of impending death sparks similar behavior from the other Muslims.
In fact, the Muslim woman sitting next to Jua immediately covers her in a headscarf once the gun-slinging terrorists attack.
Watu Wote is a timely story about respecting the lives of our fellow human beings irrespective of their creed, race or color.
One can only hope the Academy judges love the film as much as Kenyans do. I saw the film in Lamu where Blamwel Iro fielded a Q&A session for an audience appreciative of the film and especially its powerful message.


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 21 February 2018)

All the hype that we’ve heard about ‘Black Panther’, the new Black super-hero film by Disney’s Marvel studio has not been hyperbolic as was proved this past weekend when BP broke all box office records, earning USD241.9 million in North America alone and USD426.6 million globally (excluding China, Russia and Japan) since it opened a week ago Tuesday.

So it’s not an overstatement to say the film’s sheer genius and a joy to see a nearly all-black cast, including Kenya’s own Lupita Nyong’o, in roles that are noble, well-rounded, regal and complex.

The film is dazzling in every detail. From costuming to makeup, cinematography, casting, gender-sensitivity and story line, all are exquisitely well-crafted.

One can hardly detect the comic-book element in the film, apart from when our hero T’Chalia, the new King of Wakanda (Chadwick Boseman) acquires his fantastic super-powers and Black Panther metamorphic skill once he drinks the High Priest’s (Forest Whitaker) enchanted potion. After that, he takes a dive into the ancestral realm where he meets his father for assurance and consultation.

For sure, Black Panther’s got elements of sci-fi fantasy combined with action-adventure, a touch of romance and comedic wit as well. It’s also an adrenalin-infused drama that makes ‘Star Wars’ look like old school technology. The fact that it’s all wrapped up in African tradition and exquisite interpretations of continental culture makes it all the more appealing, particularly to African audiences.

What’s also clear about Black Panther is that it’s a film that transcends a merely racial classification. True, all the characters apart from two, Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman, are black. Also true is that the story is set in a mighty African kingdom which has managed to keep itself hidden and intact for centuries, unbeknownst to the rest of world.

That feat of historical stealth has been achieved through the wisdom of peace-loving elders and a super-strong metal Vibranium that’s only found in Wakanda. The magical metal has been used extensively by Wakanda’s scientists (including the King’s sister) to improve and advance the quality of life for their people.

The Wakandans love peace but they’re also realists. Consequently, they maintain a powerful standing army led by a General who’s a dynamite woman. They’ve also used vibranium to make virtually invincible munitions to ensure the self-defense in their kingdom.

That stability is sorely threatened however once King T’chalia’s ‘cousin’, Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) arrives on the scene. He’s a half-caste ‘lost child’ of Wakanda since his father was brother to the former king, T’chalia’s dad.

The discovery of Killmonger’s existence only comes after the King, assisted by Lupita’s character Nakia and the General go to Seoul, South Korea, to catch the culprits who not only stole the kingdom’s artifacts from the British Museum. They’re also complicit in the death of the late king.

T’Chalia’s committed to bringing the artifacts and the killer Klaw back for trial in Wakanda. His failure to achieve that goal is only explained after the young king compels the Priest to tell what happened when they went to retrieve the late king’s brother in America.

Turns out the bro had fallen in love with an African American woman and they had a son Eric. But there was an argument and in Cain and Abel style, one brother killed the other. The king survived after saving the priest’s life.

After that tragedy, the king left his dead brother’s son behind. But Eric had already been given a ring and tooth grill of vibrantium to protect and empower him by his dad. Unfortunately, the boy grows up embittered and intent on revenge. His singular goal in life is to reach Wakanda somehow, claim the kingdom’s crown and then conquer the world with Vibrantium-fueled fire power just as the white man had done centuries ago with his shock and awe-styles of conquest.

Nicknamed Killmonger by his cousin the King, Eric turns out to be a brilliant strategist and ruthless killer. Once he reaches Wakanda, he challenges and ‘kills’ the king, seizes the crown and starts preparing to rule the world.

That’s when Nakia’s moment arrives. She leads a band of women to the rival kingdom, finds the king’s still alive and thereafter, her fate is set.

King T’chalia never forgot his father’s mistake of leaving his blood kin Eric behind in savage LA, USA. So he returns, buys a city block and set up a multipurpose centre for enlightening inner-city kids, all in memory of his family legacy and reconnect with the Black world.

A fabulous film, barring none!

Tuesday, 20 February 2018



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 20.2.2018 but written 4.2016)

Don’t let her diminutive and delicate demeanor deceive you. Anne Mwiti is no ordinary doctoral candidate in fine art at Kenyatta University. She’s actually an award-winning Kenyan artist who’s exhibited her work both locally and internationally, and on one occasion even shared gallery space with no less an imminent person than the late, great South African Head of State Nelson Mandela who’d occupied a fair amount of time while incarcerated on Robbin Island learning to paint. He also managed to assemble a substantial collection of works which the Belgravia Gallery in London managed to obtain so as to include in their 2014 World Citizen Artists Award Exhibition.
Anne Mwiti was also in that exhibition, only she had first taken part in the Awards Competition as did hundreds of other artists from all round the world. The difference between them and her is that she was one of the top 15 finalists selected to feature in the prestigious global arts show.
Another difference is that she was the only African (and one of the few women) to be among those top 15. But probably most important of all, Anne earned First Prize for her highly symbolic abstract painting that depicted her perspective on war and peace, including her deep-seated feelings derived from her personal experience of Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence.
Using multiple layers of white and black acrylic paint, Anne’s painting looks deceptively simple. The upper half is white symbolizing peace, justice and hope while the lower half is jet black, symbolizing the antithetical themes of death, destruction and war.
There are two more colored lines in her painting which she includes where the basic black and white colors converge. One is red, symbolic of the bloodshed in times of war generally, and specifically, during Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence. The other color line is green, again significant of the fertility, lush abundance and prosperity that can come once there’s peace and reconciliation established among the former adversaries.
The key to the painting’s meaning is first in the title ‘A Stitch in Time’ and then in the threaded needle that’s been used to cross-stitch across the antithetical colors but which has been left dangling half-way through the color lines.
Explaining that her painting (which she’s now selling for Sh1 million in her Karen Village studio) has an interactive feature to it, Anne said that peacemakers are meant to pick up the needle and complete the cross-stitching.
“It’s meant to signify that the reconciliation process [on both a global and a local level] has yet to be completed, but there is a way forward if people will only continue working to make it happen.”
Anne went to London to receive her award in late 2014, after which she returned to KU where she’s been teaching, mentoring, mounting art exhibitions and mothering her two children ever since. She’s also married to man who she says is extremely supportive of her work and the sort of hours only a workaholic can keep.
Anne admits that she could be called a workaholic except that she’s been a high-energy activist all her life, especially from age five when her father, the head teacher at her Rwanderi Primary School in rural Meru County first put a pencil in her hand and got her started drawing and painting.
Her father also taught her Mathematics and English, but since he was an artist in his spare time, he’d sit with his first born child for hours, prodding her to paint and advising her on how to enhance her drawing.
Anne loved the rural life and took part in all the domestic chores that other little girls had to do, like fetching firewood and water from the river. The only difference between them and her was that the land on which they played belonged to her family, so she really didn’t have to work that hard. “But it was so much fun since we all saw it not as hard work but as play,” she said.
From her mother, Anne learned to stitch, crochet and knit. “I used to make my own dolls out of maize husks and then stitch clothes for them.” That early experience is partly what inspired her painting “A Stitch in Time”.
But as much as her imaginative upbringing prepared her to become both an artist and mentor, Anne is curious about what changes make children lose their early spontaneity and inhibit their imagination. That’s what she’s currently researching for her doctorate, which is why she spent the last six months teaching art to children in Kibera slum.


BY Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 20 February 2018)

Traveling to Lamu to attend last Sunday’s Mad Hatter Dhow Race was a journey and a half.

As I didn’t want to miss my 9am flight from Wilson airport to Manda Island (where all Lamu-bound visitors must land) I first took Kimani’s boda boda taxi to the airport gate; then Maingi’s four-wheeled taxi into my airline entrance.

In fact, I’d almost missed the flight since police stopped my boda man who, as it turned out, didn’t have his license with him. I pleaded, implored and finally we got away (no chai given), but Kimani was spooked and dropped me before we’d reached the gate.

Fortunately, Maingi came to my rescue and I made it in time to board the flight, first to Mombasa, then to Lamu where it was already after noon and scorching hot.

Again, I was blessed when my friend Herbert sent Captain Nasir and his dhow Lady Gaga to collect me and the German sculptor Joachim Sauter to take us straight to Shela jetty and the Peponi Hotel, the favorite watering hole of ex-pats and Kenya cowboys who come periodically to Lamu.

Peponi is where I met Herbert and the three judges of the Shela Hat Contest, one of three competitions involving locals and promising substantial cash prizes to the winners that weekend. On Saturday the 5th Shela Hat Contest would stimulate more grassroots creativity than ever before, in part because all of the top thirty winning hats would win a minimum Sh2000 and a maximum of Sh50,000. Then while the judges were deliberating on which hats were the most imaginative and well crafted, there would be five Tug of War contests with the three winning teams also getting cash prizes of tens of thousands per team.

And then on Sunday, all classes of Shela citizenry would show up at the seashore to watch the Mad Hatter Dhow Race which also promised major cash awards to the winning dhows. The dhow crossing the finishing line first would win sh80,000; the second one, sh60,000 and the third Sh40,000, so there would be lots of tension in the air.

Herbert had also called in two young Kenyan filmmakers from Routes Adventure to cover the Hat Fete, but they would stick around through Sunday so they could shoot the Dhow races. Herbert kindly lent his media friends, including the filmmakers, photographer Eric Gitonga and me his speed boat so we could quickly follow the dhows all the way around the race.

This was the most thrilling feature of the weekend since the dhows are propelled by wind. But we had the advantage of a proper engine and speed that could make our boat virtually fly across the water. We also had an excellent pilot and navigator who both had experience following previous dhow races. They both understood instinctively where the boat needed to be to get the best shots of the dhows in motion. They also knew how to crisscross between the dhows while keeping sufficient distance so as not to interfere with the wind on which the dhows relied.

Both the navigator and pilot are local guys so they, like everyone from the village had a personal preference and cheered on their respective team. In fact, emotions ran so high that when we went back to shore to see how the race would end, we found there were already rumors of who would win and who had cheated so they’d appear to be first.

Ultimately, the judges would sort of the winners and losers. But they would have help from Herbert’s filmmakers who’d brought along a drone that had been following the race. Hopefully, its footage would rise above the high-pitched emotions and provide visual evidence of who really won.

Meanwhile, bystanders were busy dancing on the beach to the electronic sounds master minded by the Chinese female DJ Qiu Qui who’d come all the way from Beijing to attend the Dhow Races.

After the emotional high-pitch of all of these contests, our evening was relaxed and low-key. By dawn I was set to board Lady Gaga again and fly back home to Nairobi.

My one regret was not taking the chance when I had it to ride a donkey, the preferred mode of transport in Shela. But the moment passed while I was preoccupied watching the way drones have a peacetime utility, following the dhows and seeing if it was the dhow called Lady Lulu or Galaxy who ultimately won this year’s Mad Hatter Dhow Race.


BY Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 20 February 2018)
          The Martins' house is a twin to what will be the fabulous CASBAH designed by Uwe Rybin with Herbert Menzer

Retired German restauranteur Herbert Menzer landed on Lamu Island some ten years ago. It was apparently by chance. But today, it seems more like fate. For once he was there, it took him less than a week to buy 62 metres of supposedly useless land atop a sand dune in the fishing village of Shela.
It might have looked impulsive, but Herbert already had a plan. “I immediately called my [life-long] friend Uwe Rybin who’s an architect and asked him to come help me design a house on that land,” says Herbert whose been working closely with Uwe ever since.
Herbert knew Uwe had built gracious homes all over the world, but never before in sub-Saharan Africa. And never on a sand dune, and never with the stipulation that Herbert needed the design to have a distinctively Swahili architectural style.
“So I went to work, did my research, drafted my design and sent it to Herbert who brought in local artisans and masons to enhance the Swahili style,” says Uwe who commutes between Germany and Kenya whenever he can.
Both agree the construction was very much a joint effort although Herbert has always been the master mind and man on the ground more months of the year than Uwe. Otherwise, they both have their base in Hamburg.

That first joint effort resulted in construction of Bembea House, a stunning four-story Swahili style home that became the first of six luxury town houses. The sixth, the Casbah, is still under construction. But it already stands out on the Shela shoreline as one of the most spectacular constructions, built like the rest with traditional coral stone, stucco and sand as well as with modern building materials of steel and nero cement.
But after Bembea came Fishbone, then Hibibti and Yaha Houses followed by Uwe’s twin designs of the Casbah and a private home built right next door.
“Herbert didn’t mind my completing the Martin’s house before we finished work on the Casbah since it allows people to see what ‘s coming once we complete our work on the Casbah,” says Uwe who can’t help admiring the garden terraces, pools and overall elegant Swahili style that he created for Casbah’s neighbors.
Herbert also hopes to create a new up-scale neighborhood with the Casbah and the Martin’s house being a central focus of that luxurious community.

Shela is actually filled with remarkable homes owned by European aristocrats and corporate elites who come to spend their winter months in Lamu. The beauty of Herbert’s and Uwe’s designs is that they can be rented, suite by suite or house by house through Herbert’s company, Lamu So someone need not be a prince, CEO or countess to experience the delight of luxuriating on the side of Lamu where life is leisurely, and the sun and sea breezes have a soothing influence on life generally.
Meanwhile, since Casbah isn’t quite complete, construction continues, and Herbert and Uwe agree to show me around. What becomes clear as we walk from one magnificent suite to another is that Herbert is a visionary who was able to envision mansions and mini-castles where others could only see sand.

With five-metre high first floor ceilings covered with traditional mangrove poles and mangati wooden beams, reinforced with steel and concrete, the Casbah’s four stories make the twin-structured site (connected by the pool deck, baraza lounge, library and restaurant) one of the tallest in Shela.
All the spacious suites have glorious views looking out on the sea or the elegant green gardens and splendid snowy white Swahili homes. For instance, the Channel Suite looks out on the water separating Shela from Manda Island. The Dune Suite offers a glorious view of the sandy mounts that had once included the land on which the Casbah and Herbert’s five other ultra-modern Swahili houses now stand.
Herbert’s right-hand handyman, Mafreezer tells me a bit more about the Casbah’s construction. “What Herbert initially did was remove all the sand from the site and then build the basement out of cement and steel,” he says.
The basement extends the length of the two sites and will contain the elegant Baobab Suite which will look out on the garden and ancient Baobab tree that Herbert wisely refused to chop down. 

It will be separated from the laundry room and gallery that Uwe suggests should be filled with paintings created by the European and Kenyan artists who attend the biannual Painters Festival that Herbert also founded a decade ago.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018



BY Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 14 February 2018)

Despite his having passed in 2012, Francis Imbuga cannot easily be referred to in the past tense. He was and still is a literary colossus whose contribution to Kenyan literature, performance, scholarship and education is immeasurable.

Immortalized by his plays, poetry, novels and even his children’s story books, Professor Imbuga was an esteemed academician and guru who inspired countless students to love literature, writing and especially the stage.

Imbuga is undoubtedly best remembered for being a playwright, especially as his play ‘Betrayal in the City’ (which represented Kenya in 1977 at FESTAC in Lagos) was just reinstated as a set-book for schools. He also wrote plays like Aminata (commissioned to represent Kenya in 1985 at the UN International Women’s Conference in Nairobi), The Married Bachelor, The Successor and Man of Kafira.

But Imbuga was also a brilliant actor, director, producer and satirist whose scripts concealed gems of genius and insight not easily seen by the naked eye or the corrupt human beings who he consistently exposed in his writings.

‘The Successor’ is one of Imbuga’s most profound and politically-provocative plays. It’s also one of his most important and timely scripts which is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it in 1978, the same year Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta died. The question of political succession was (and still is) such a hot topic that Imbuga’s play has rarely been produced since it was published in 1979 when Imbuga himself starred as Emperor Chonda.

Yet this is one reason to celebrate – and attend --today’s performance of ‘The Successor’ at Kenyatta University’s Harambee Hall from 3pm. The play is being produced by KU’s Department of Film and Theatre Arts, performed by KU students (including James Andare, Mark Maina and Lucy Oruta) and directed by its Chairman Professor Emmanuel Shikuku.

The performance is meant to honor and commemorate Professor Imbuga. But it’s also meant to rouse Kenyans’ awareness of their incredibly creative theatrical tradition embodied in the writings of Imbuga.

What also makes his plays so fresh and timely is his mastery of the subtle yet slippery skill of satire: saying deep and disturbing things with such a light, witty touch that only the pure in heart and those with profound insight can appreciate the hidden depths of Imbuga’s words.

Kudos to Professor Shikuku and his KU cast for bringing us back to appreciating one of Kenya’s greatest man of letters.


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 13 February 2018)

It was a killer weekend for anyone wanting to keep up with the local Nairobi art scene.

In the past, we’ve described the art scene as ‘exploding’ but what we saw this past weekend was more like a tsunami whereby an unbelievable range of Kenyan artists (and several artistic non-Kenyans) got swept up in the spirit of creative expression that’s moved among us of late.

For us who appreciate the arts, one needed either a helicopter or dedicated boda boda driver to make it round to see all that was going on.

If you started late Friday afternoon and stuck to the city centre, you could’ve made it to several events, starting with Coster Ojwang’s one man show at the Fairmont Norfolk Hotel. A French company with appreciation for fine art just took over the Hotel. So they were open to William Ndwiga’s suggestion for the hotel to host Coster’s exhibition in the hotel lobby for two weeks. That means there’s still time to see how rapidly this young Kenyan from the Lake has morphed into being an accomplished painter in a relatively short time.

From the Norfolk, you could have run to the Nairobi Gallery next to Nyayo House to see the marvelous exhibition of works by Yony Wa Ite. The original co-founder of Gallery Watatu had planned on the gallery’s curator Alan Donovan preparing her show. But as Donovan has been unwell, Yony was left to curate herself. This she did ingeniously, including her Nude on the Sofa which she originashowed at Polka dot Gallery last year. Yony’s exhibition is warm, intimate and reflective of her persuasive appeal in black and white. She does landscapes and wildlife in her own inimitable way, but as her show is all about ‘Ecco Homo’ and ‘Migrants’, she includes androgynous stick people whose ties to the environment are deeply drawn. It’s a fabulous show, which has gotten little publicity. But it’s her finest, embracing not only her paintings and prints but her wall hangings and provocatively painted nude sofa.

After that, you had to reach Alliance Francaise where, in the name of ‘Afro-Futurism’ the funky photographer Osborne Macharia teamed up with fashion designer Kevo Abbra, graffiti artist Kirosh Kiruri and DJ Blinky Bill for an overwhelming night. It was packed with young people fixated on taking selfies and climbing into the interactive exhibition.  Blinky Bill’s [Ms1] music were even more addictive, making it difficult for AF’s Harsita Waters to shut down the night.

Then Saturday was bound to be hectic as I not only needed to head to Circle Art’s ‘New Threads: process and material’ show (where a dozen outstanding mostly female artists are exhibiting) and also get to One Off Gallery where Rashid Diab’s desert delights are on display. I also needed to get to Sankara Hotel where OO’s Carol Lees had also put together the trio show of painters featuring David Roberts, Olivia Pendergast and Linda Furniss.

I also wanted to get to Kobo Gallery to see Gemini Vaghela’s ‘Broken Illusions’ and then, if I’d had a helicopter I would’ve flown to Banana Hill where Samuel Njoroge is exhibiting at Shine and Rahab Tani’s Gallery.

All that was the ‘to-do’ agenda before lunch. After that, the big issues of the weekend were reaching two all-day events: first was Kikolacho starting Saturday through Sunday at the British Institute of East Africa where Craig Halliday and Joost Fontain had coordinated the third ‘Remains, Waste & Metonymy’ phenomenon. Then came the all-day Sunday Open Day at Brush tu Art Studio in Buru Buru.

But in between, I spent the weekend helping adjudicate the first phase of the Kenya Ismaili Arts Festival at the Aga Khan Pavilion in Parklands. That’s why I had to dash from BIEA in Kilileshwa to Parklands on Saturday; then Sunday I dashed from Parklands to Buru Buru, finding the core Brush Tu artists and devoted friends still celebrating the events of the day.

What made all three events so compelling is that Kikolacho and Brush Tu’s open day were for one weekend only events. The same was true of the adjudication. Thus, they were all not-to-be-missed.

BIEA’s Kikolacho was all about food and the city. The 15 artists took over the Institute’s facilities and grounds, filling them with phenomenal installations (featuring live goats and goat roasters), storytelling, painting and provocative films. It was the best out of three “Remains, Waste and Metonymy’ that have been held at BIEA, largely because the concept has been taken over by Kenyans who embraced it with heaps of energy, imagination and ingenuity.

Craig Halliday and Joost Fontain of BIEA managed to assemble an amazing array of artist-intellectuals including painters like Wycliffe Opondo, Elias Mungora, Kevo Stero and Onyis Martin. Those who preferred creating installations like Wambui Kamiru Collymore, Mwini Mutuku, Joan Otieno and Gor Soudan. Filmmaking was also an art form on display as Craig made two short ones that featured different aspects of street food culture while Joan Otieno’s video was part of her Fast Food installation which critiqued the way westernization has afflicted Kenyans with multiple maladies.

I couldn’t see everything at BIEA although I admired Mwini Mutuku’s installation which, like Joan’s, was cautionary and multimedia. Sounding the alarm on cassava, the new ‘wonder food’ that’s supposedly the perfect staple when drought afflicts. But it can also kill if not cooked properly.

I missed the writers, photographers and animating energy that built throughout the weekend. But I did partake of the popular makeshift kibanda (designed by Joost) where visitors hung out and tasted freshly roasted Kimiko mbuzi and drink Ethiopian coffee.

My early departure was my loss, but at least I managed to make it to Brush tu Sunday night where I met the core artists still there.  David Thuku, Boniface Maina, Michael Musyoka, Waweru Gichuhi, Elias Mongora, Abdul Kiprop, Emmaus Kimani and Boniface Kimani all had transformed their studios into gallery-like spaces. They’d even reclaimed a portion of land adjacent to their studio-house, clearing out illegally dumped garbage and transforming it into a garden and hospitality space.

It was a perfect way to end the weekend: witnessing the powerfully transformative power of the arts at Brush tu, a place reflect of what’s really happening among bright young Kenyans right now.


Monday, 12 February 2018



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 12 February 2018)
Wajukuu Art Project got its name from the Swahili proverb, “Majuto ni mjukuu huja baadae”. It loosely translates: The grandchild suffers from the mistakes or regrets made by his forefathers.
“For instance, if a grandfather sells off the family land, he’ll leave his grandchildren poor and landless,” explains Josephat Kimathi, a long-standing member of Wajukuu Art who was introduced to the project as a child.
“I learned to paint when I joined Wajukuu’s Kids Art Club,” he says.
The kids club is still running on weekends and school holidays. Only now Kimathi (aka Kim) is one of the art teachers.
“The kids come from all over Mukuru [slum] and most of them are around six years old,” says Lazarus Tumbuti who’s been with Wajukuu since it started in 2004.
“We started it with Shabu [Mwangi] soon after we’d both finished training at MAC [Makuru Arts and Crafts],” says Lazarus who is one of several Wajukuu members who had the benefit of studying art at MAC, a two year art program started by an Irish Catholic nun, Sister Mary, in 2002.
Wajukuu was officially registered in 2007. But by then, not only the kids’ art club had taken off. Aspiring artists like Ngugi Waweru, Joseph (Weche) Waweru and Paul (Pablo) Njoroge had also joined. The project had equally inspired a number of more-established Kenyan artists to run training workshops at Kuona Trust and GoDown for Wajukuu’s emerging artists.
They included Peterson Kamwathi and John Silver, both of whom shared their skills in printmaking. The fruits of that training are clearly manifest in the prints that Wajukuu artists have tucked away upstairs in their Lunga Lunga Road studio.
“We don’t have a printing press per se,” says Ngugi. “Instead we make blocks [covered in plastic] and use them to press by hand.”
It looks like a long and laborious process. But what Wajukuu printmakers like Ngugi, Waweru, Lazarus, Pablo and Sammy Mutinda produce are impressive prints that will hopefully be on display in public quite soon.
The crew also paint, with their works most recently shown this past year at Kuona Trust and in Circle Art’s ‘Young Guns’ exhibition. Meanwhile, Shabu’s art continues to evolve while he’s in New Orleans attending an art residency.
But the best place to see the newest works by Wajukuu artists is at their upstairs studio. For instance, works included in Waweru’s ‘ant series’ are lovely, but they also conceal cryptic socio-political and personal commentaries on the realities of poor people’s lives.
In fact, nearly all the artists at Wajukuu were born and raised in Mukuru. “Most of us are sons of single mothers who couldn’t afford to send us to secondary. So we were fortunate to find ourselves learning to be artists,” says Lazarus who notes that MAC was free, and so is membership in Wajukuu.
“But when one of us sells a painting, he contributes ten percent to [the collective kitty],” Waweru says. “And if a [sold] artwork was made with materials provided by Wajukuu, the artist contributes 20 percent of his sales,” he adds.
Initially, Wajukuu was helped both with training and obtaining art materials from fellow artists like Patrick Mukabi, Kaafiri Kariuki, Anthony Wanjau, Mary Ogembo and Wambui Collymore.
ISK also collaborated with Wajukuu artists after art teacher Liza MacKay met Shabu. Parents from ISK even raised funds to help construct Wajukuu’s facilities.
Waweru adds their project has been assisted by many more generous supporters. But most notably, it was the Italian NGO, Movement for International Cooperation (MOCI) that also helped construct their double-decker centre.
“MOCI was impressed with our kids’ art program so they invited us to do art therapy with handicapped children at their vocational training centre in Makueni,” adds Ngugi.
They helped build a library in an adjacent building. “We also helped us buy land so we now own the art centre and library next door,” adds Waweru.
Wajukuu artists have exhibited in various art centres in Nairobi. But right now, the best place to see the rich treasure trove of Wajukuu artists’ work is at their Lunga Lunga studio.
You might need help finding the place, but the city block on which the studio resides is conspicuous for the colorful mabati and wooden wall murals painted on people’s makeshift shops. Plus there’s a huge Graffiti sign reading ‘Wajukuu’ painted outside the centre’s second story window.
‘Wajukuu really belongs to the whole neighborhood,” Ngugi concludes.

Shabu Mwangi’s life story on canvas and mabati

"My dream" by painter Shabu Mwangi. His life story is well told through his paintings currently up at One Off Gallery (photo by Margaretta). 

Like so many Kenyan visual artists, Shabu Mwangi has an amazing story to tell. It’s a story well told through his paintings currently up at One Off Gallery.
Covering everything from his views on international (Evolve Observer) and local politics (Acceptance and Abreast) to more intimate and autobiographical accounts of his family (Family Post mortem and My dream), his former life as a ‘bad boy’ and righteous rebel (Black Moon) and his realisation that he had a higher calling (My shadow) which now inspires him to assist children, the disabled and aspiring young artists through teaching them art.
The challenge of fully appreciating Mwangi’s paintings has to do with his consistent use of subtle symbolism which is not easily deciphered.
He describes his symbols as ‘metaphors’ which make loads of sense once the artist shares his interpretation of his work, something that he graciously did for me during the first days of his show at One Off, his second solo exhibition there and his third overall with the first one held at Le Rustique in 2012.
Having lived most of his 29 years in Mukuru ‘slum’ in Nairobi, Mwangi has had the good fortune of doing art in school from the time he was in pre-primary.
He learnt the skills of print - and mosaic-making while attending the Rubin Centre in Eastlands where he discovered early that an artist didn’t necessarily need costly materials to be creative. He made mosaics with raw maize, beans and glue, and created prints using banana stalks and leaves.
Drop out
But as much as he learned early that he had a knack for the arts, Mwangi was rebellious, having unmentionable troubles at home which led to him to drop out of school. Getting an education on the streets of Nairobi, he eventually made his way to the Matrix Education Centre in Buru Buru where he was able to study on his own, take the necessary exams and complete his ‘O’ levels with good marks.
At 17, he had the good fortune of meeting Kaafiri Kariuki at the Mukuru Art Centre together with a number of aspiring young artists. It was an encounter that shaped the rest of his career since Kaafiri (who founded MAC) saw Mwangi’s potential and gave him a job working in the Centre’s gallery and shop that sold the students’ art.
“But once we’d graduated from the Centre [in 2004] we didn’t have anywhere to go,” recalled Mwangi who decided there and then to start his own Wajuku Project where he and other MAC artists would explore ways of making and marketing their art.
That’s also when his work of teaching art to Mukuru’s children began, work that he’s continued in his Kids Club every weekend since.
ISK art club
Wajuku Project opened up many opportunities for Mwangi. He began working with art students at the International School of Kenya, which led to the Project mounting an exhibition to fundraise for its own centre and workshop.
The funds raised were more than matched with ISK art club’s contribution to building Wajuku’s mabati-walled art centre and studio.
Then in 2010, Mwangi’s work with slum children attracted the interest of an Italian NGO, MOCI or Movement for International Co-operation.
“Through MOCI we’re also teaching art to disabled youth in Makueni. The group also helped us build a second structure for the Kids Club,” adds Mwangi who noted that the new building not only has space for teaching the children but also has an art gallery and library which will be officially launched on June 16 by Carine Ouvry, wife of the Belgian Ambassador, who has helped fill Wajuku’s shelves with art books and books on many other subjects.
Fortunately, running the Wajuku Project isn’t all Mwangi does.
His painting style has evolved significantly since his first one-man show at Le Rustique. He uses far more colour in his work now than he did previously; but he continues to tell sensitive (albeit cryptic) stories through his art.
Most of his work at One Off is mixed media on canvas, although two of his paintings are on the burnt mabati he salvaged from the 2012 Sinai fire that devastated a whole section of the Mukuru slums.
One hallmark of Mwangi’s art is his sensitivity to the plight of the poor, the disabled, the abused and discriminated against, including the Somali population which he feels have been unfairly stereotyped.
Mwangi did an art residency in Germany in 2012 which enabled him to travel all over Europe. But he never intended to stay abroad.
“My home is Mukuru and that’s where it’s always been and always will be.”
Shabu Mwangi’s paintings will be up at One Off Gallery up to June 24th.