In Summary
  • It is from this premise that a local director has staged a piece of theatre to highlight the bloodbath — Stories From The Mall (SFTM) — a Westgate stage project showing at the Michael Joseph Centre, Nairobi, on October 3 and 4.
  • The stories read out are interwoven by actors’ flair, making the audience eventually feel like they are privy to sentimental conversations and outpourings.
  • SFTM full cast narrates Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole’s tribute to fallen African literature legend, Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor. It ends with an audio clip from Awoonor’s final lecture at Storymoja Fest, just a day before terrorists snuff out his life.

It’s been a year since terrorists attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi.

Some Kenyans are still grief-stricken and for many, the ordeal remains fresh in their minds as if it had happened yesterday.

Yet few artistic productions have been publicly set up and staged to remember the bloody horror and the 67 lives lost.

It is from this premise that a local director has staged a piece of theatre to highlight the bloodbath — Stories From The Mall (SFTM) — a Westgate stage project showing at the Michael Joseph Centre, Nairobi, on October 3 and 4.

“I first came across a very insightful three-part blog post by Wambui Mwangi — A Lamentation of Mourners, a piece recollecting Westgate’s memory,  took me into an emotional experience and after sharing it with a couple of friends, I decided to have selected writers draft original pieces for my show,” says SFTM curator and director, Mugambi Nthiga.

She approached actors she had worked with, who “could bring empathy to this very thoughtful and heavy performance.”

SPINE-CHILLING

The performance borrows from pieces originally created or generously donated by writers like Stephen Derwent Partington, Wambui Mwangi, Wambui Kamiru, Yafesi Musoke, Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, Dr Neal Hall and Teju Cole.

Sentimental conversations

SFTM features a carefully selected eight-man cast — some of Kenya’s best crop of actors including Mumbi Kaigwa (The Constant Gardener), Mkamzee Mwatela (Mali, Stay), Aleya Kassam (Storymoja, Kwani), Dr Julisa Rowe (Groove Theory), Brian Ogola (Jane and Abel).

SFTM is not what anyone expects when they enter a theatre production. All the actors read through scripts of well-written accounts and tales from Westgate in different sequences.

Director Nthiga defines the production as “a series of poems, short stories and tributes that will make you ask questions.”

The stories read out are interwoven by actors’ flair, making the audience eventually feel like they are privy to sentimental conversations and outpourings.

Mumbi Kaigwa narrates The Epilogue, a poem by Wambui Mwangi: “...Sometimes, tears and laughter and hope are all we have. They will suffice …”

Like a dancing piece of paper in the wind, her voice knows when to tremble, whisper and softly caress the guilt most people affected by the Westgate tragedy sometimes encounter in the struggle of going on with life.

“This stuff is moving,” says Mumbi, adding, “When in character, I don’t know who I am but the poem tells me who to be.”

Mumbi has been in several such thought-provoking productions including The Vagina Monologues.

She says her involvement in SFTM is in trying to understand what happens next. “There are still so many questions — what happened, why and what if it happens again?”

SFTM full cast narrates Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole’s tribute to fallen African literature legend, Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor — Letter From Nairobi: I Will Say It Before Death Comes. The story follows sweetly how the two men first meet at 2014 Storymoja Festival, quickly making friends.

It ends with an audio clip from Awoonor’s final lecture at Storymoja Fest, just a day before terrorists snuff out his life.

“ …And I have written about death also, particularly at this old age now. At 79, you must know — unless you’re an idiot — that very soon, you should be moving on…”

STILL HEALING

SFTM inserts the actual audio in the performance piece, leaving a haunting bitter-sweet reverberation of sorrow and celebration.

Cast member Brian says: “This isn’t really a play or simply a reading. It’s a serving of therapeutic emotions and thoughts.

Actors live on stage as different characters, but this production lets our souls feel. This is real and my being part of it is to pass my deepest condolences to those affected by Westgate.”

The performance also features a musical by Patricia Kihoro, art installations by Joshua Obaga and Sharon Nderitu, and a presentation of filmed interviews with survivors of the attack by filmmaker Arjun Kohli.

Patricia says: “This production is an important place to start for those who haven’t found healing or don’t know where to start. For those who didn’t feel emotionally connected to the Westgate tragedy, it’s important too, to come and understand.”

Through one of the few theatre productions staged in remembrance of the Westgate Mall Attack, Director Mugambi challenges artists and the art scene. “If this was USA or any other place, there would have been songs and even screenplays already drafted for Westgate. We, Kenyans, don’t give ourselves much attention; it’s a defence mechanism but people have to start remembering. I hope that through this, people can gain the appreciation of art in telling stories. Art is powerful.”

Cast member, Mkamzee asserts that SFTM’s meatiest addition is the literature.

“It’s the words we are reading and how we read them. Literature elevates something ordinary into extraordinary. Poetry has a long-lasting effect and if it’s true that Kenyans are easy to forget tragedies; they will remember this. And even though you can’t forget beauty, it is some ugliness that inspired this beautiful literature and performance.”

The performance was first staged at the just concluded 2014 Storymoja Festival at the National Museum. The show opened at the Michael Joseph Centre on Friday at 7pm.