Lamu and Nairobi poets hang out.

Poetry residency features at the 16th Lamu Cultural Festival

The Lamu poetry residency a new one in the country featured as part of the Lamu Cultural Festival 2016. It was sponsored by Alliance Francaise and the French embassy.

The Lamu Cultural Festival which is in its 16th year was hosted in the Kenyan coastal town from 7-13th November. The festival brings visitors from all over Lamu to enjoy a series of cultural activities unique to the coastal town. They include dhow races, donkey races, swimming, and more. There is also presentation of traditional Swahili poetry, henna painting and bao.

This year there was something as a poetry residency was hosted bringing together seasoned spoken word artists Nairobi with the washairi (poets) from Lamu under the coordination of Ian Gwagi of Cre8tive Spill. The latter were young members of the Lamu Theatre Artists association as opposed to scholarly poets.  The 5 poets from Lamu were Said Hassan, Faraj M Faraj, Khalid Kanjenje, Sharifa, Mohamed, Firdaus Ahmed. The Nairobi poets were:  Ken Kibet aka Mufasa, Dennis Mutuma aka Dorphanage, Rosemary Wanjiru aka Rozet and Gregory Ochieng aka Mbunge.

Cre8ive spills is an organization that brings together writers, visual and performing artists to discuss, create and showcase works that are meant to ignite conversations around socio-cultural and socio-political issues to promote progressive development. They also organise the quarterly Poetry Slam Africa event.

Over a period of five days, the poets met in different parts of Lamu, in school grounds and roof tops, on land and sea, sharing art, experiences and learning from each other.  The Nairobi poets were able to share their spoken word performance art and writing skills with the Lamu poets.  While the content of the pieces from Nairobi focused on gender violence, governance, national cohesion and unemployment, the poets from Lamu talked mainly about their heritage: culture, food, traditions, areas that are not necessarily covered by the advocacy driven spoken word art form.  Drugs and extremism were other themes covered by the Lamu washairi.  The Nairobi poets discovered that drug abuse is a huge challenge for the youth in Lamu.

The Lamu poets were perfect hosts and introduced and guided the Nairobi poets through a whole range of local traditions and experiences.   They met boat makers who introduced them to the art of dhow making as well as the evolving nature of materials used:  making of boats using fibre to reduce dependence on trees as raw materials in view of rising awareness of the need for environmental conservation. They came across children making small practical sailing boats out of by plastic bags and bottles, engaging the youth in activities that would keep them away from drugs and idleness.  The poets drew inspiration from the early morning skies, from the moonlight as the moon peaked to supermoon, from the warm hospitality of the hosts, from the sand dunes of Shela, from the burdened donkeys, from the fishermen with their catch, from the swahili food stalls being run by women groups, from the gliding dhows with their lateen sails, from guided visits of the Lamu Museum steeped in history, from the thousands of visitors who had traveled from all over the archipelago for the Festival…

As the performance dates neared, the poets worked on their performance strategies.   They had to convince Khalid (who is blind), a celebrated mashairi in Lamu, used to making up words impromptu on stage, to perform rehearsed poetry. Blindness keeps Khalid away from the conventional process of writing and internalizing that most of the spoken words poets are accustomed to. Khalid preferred performing in ‘freestyle’.  The poets agreed to record him since without saving his freestyle performances; creative and meaningful poetry would be lost for the future.

By the end of the preparations, the poets had incorporated music in the performances, through Acapella and accompaniment of the violin.

For experienced performance poets from Nairobi, stage fright was not meant to be an issue.  However the sheer size of the audience in Mkunguni Square, that was teeming with people packed liked sardines in a can, did rattle their nerves for their first performance on Sat. 12th Nov.    With kikois wrapped around their waists, the poets performed collectively with a choral repetitive verse after each individual’s verse.  The reception was fantastic and the poets gradually became emboldened to perform their best.  The thousands of people gathered would suddenly be quiet, listening attentively, as the poets delivered the might of their words.

The second day was even better, as the poets’ confidence levels had already been boosted to a high by previous day’s performance.

A cord had been struck between the two teams of poets and they aim to continue working together using social media to bridge the distance.

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