Today on Man Around Nairobi we feature Martin Kigondu. Having started his journey in the arts at The National Theatre as an actor; Kigondu went on to work with the Phoenix players as a stage manager, actor and eventually director. He has also worked with The Theatre Company as an actor, playwright and associate director. He now runs Prevails Arts Company as the producer. The budding playwright is also passionate about using the arts as a tool for social change; he is particularly passionate about waste management, leadership and mentorship. In his eleventh year in the arts, he intends to venture deeper into theatre production and successfully invest more in the arts.
1. Did you grow up in Nairobi?
Yes, I did. In Nairobi mostly. I’m blessed to have parents who were teachers that did not believe government employment was their ideal work situation and so a better school/opportunity was always around the corner. Having said this makes it less surprising to learn that from my early childhood education to finishing primary school I’d gone through seven schools. We lived in Uthiru/Kangemi when I was toddler then moved to Mwiki – Kasarani before the flats and tarmac happened.
Growing up in Mwiki back then had a simplicity and charm that would be considered rural. We had ‘dufo mpararo’, bata ngoma and I had a homemade school bag with my name on it that I went to school with (St. Dominics). When I was about seven we moved to Ngong to a very urban school (Serare) which was the complete opposite of my earlier experience. I went from taking the train to performing a solo verse in another public school for festivals – to sitting in the audience in a massive auditorium to watch new levels of performance in the mind-blowing experience that Joseph And The Technicolor Coat musical was.
We did a couple of years there before moving to Thika, Embu, Kikuyu then Ruaraka. That was just my primary schooling years though, from then I went on to High School and I had stints in Nakuru and Eldoret. I now live in Kahawa West, having Embu as my ‘ushago’ of choice. I loved every bit of the journey growing up.
2. What do you love about Nairobi?
There is so much to love about Nairobi! The people are interesting that’s for sure, the trends, the language, the music, the theatre and art scene is phenomenal and certainly the all round biashara energy is great! A heavenly experience in Nairobi for me has been and would be – walking along Parliament Road around 5 p.m just after families have made the exodus from Uhuru Park and the Jacaranda trees around Holy Family are in bloom, after a light shower, perfect late afternoon sun and in good company heading to catch a play after leaving a music gig. That is my Nairobi; trees, colour, families, music, church, laughter, good weather and good theatre.
There is so much to love about Nairobi, especially in the arts. I dare say we have some of the most skilled actors in Africa. A great platform to compare with the rest of the continent would be Shuga – the MTV series. Everyone saw how deep the Kenyan acts went (and that was a while back), they ought to bring it back to Nairobi now and you’ll see what we produce. The theatre scene is vibrant and eclectic thus has variety.
How good our films are fed a great lot from how great the theatre scene is and clearly, we are on the right track looking at what’s been on the big screen lately. Shout out to the ’18 hours’ film team with Nick Ndeda doing great in there and to the ‘Kidnapped’ film team lead by Nick Njache and Lukhalia – great artists who the theatre scenes owe a lot too. Another platform to sample great acting would be at our upcoming play ‘What Happens In The Night’ starring Chichi Seii, Bilal Mwaura, Shivisi Shiviske, Nick Ndeda and Salim Gitao – a team of spectacular actors.
3. What would you change about Nairobi?
Garbage control! We need to rework the system. We can do better. I have been to Dandora, I have accompanied trucks collecting garbage, I have organised clean ups in my hood, and we have mobilised schools and youth and churches to clear up mountains of dirt. We have tried making our little backyards cleaner, we have tried involving ward environment offices, we have bent down to unclog gutters only to rise and notice it’s almost as if we’ve been doing nothing. Have you seen the river running through City Park? A place where a garden sits in memory of former Vice President Murumbi and Pio Gama Pinto, as in shouldn’t that be almost sacred?
Garbage sits at every other corner in Nairobi. Fines against littering should be stiffer. The County government should reduce the politics played at the top as we’ve seen in the previous regime and give the opportunities to private companies in fairer processes. We need to rethink the Dandora strategy and start thinking of recycling plants and beyond. We need to make Nairobi clean again or better yet – make other towns as outstanding – that way we can have more of us settling and working out there too – we all see what Machakos is trying, now that devolution is here – even Marsabit should be ‘happening’.
Change? In terms of the arts I feel as much as we are better off than most cities and countries; we need to rework the training and appreciation of artistic skills. In Nairobi (as the rest of Kenya) – a few colleges and universities offer weak courses on film, theatre, dance and the crafts. If there was something I could change? I would choose to fill that gap with legit Art Schools (like the Cuban dream almost 40 years back). The closest we have to that is BIFA or The Go Down or Juliani’s Dandora Hip Hop City – we need more. Not just galleries and auditoriums but more legit training facilities. I’ve gone to one or two dance shows this year, about a dozen plays and a couple of concerts in 2017. I’d like to go double that number in the near future because a lot more is on offer. We’d also love to have fuller houses and less expensive auditoriums. I assure Nairobians and visitors that we stage stellar performances at Prevail Arts Company, perhaps they’d help solve the full house challenge by showing up even if it’s just out of curiosity – let them come and I promise they’ll keep coming.
In terms of appreciation; I believe we need more credible award shows. The music and TV ones seem to be improving, the theatre one(s) are not quite there yet. I’d love to see that change. It would be great for nomination procedures to be laid out, assessment standards laid out, a legit board in the arts to lead the process and dear Lord, let the school awards stick to the Drama / Music Festivals! In fact what these festivals (particularly School Drama festivals) campaign for is a grotesque style of acting that deforms kids future careers in film/theatre and this should seriously be looked at. We also need more James Njoroge collages in the restaurants, more Nduta Kariuki and Mbinya Muthoka paintings in our home walls, malls and public arenas. We can do better in appreciating the arts as Nairobians. Less of Rihanna – more of Serro, less of Usher more of Mandela!
4. As a professional how is it working in Nairobi? Is Nairobi open to what you do or what could be better?
My craft is in the arts. I’m a director and theatre producer at Prevail Arts Company. I write and occasionally act too. So far Nairobi is the most receptive to the theatre but we can do better. The playhouses that established the industry at the start were mostly expatriate oriented and our struggle is now trying to make the theatre scene relatable to a bigger chunk of Nairobians.
Different companies target different audience but we at Prevail Arts Company target an urban and mature audience ready to be intellectually stimulated and engaged in mind-blowing experiences by spectacular actors. For instance our upcoming play – ‘What Happens In The Night’ – set for Saturday the 16th of December 5 pm at Daystar Valley Road is a riveting drama interrogating the on-goings of Kenya in frustrating political times with a focus on a fictional prominent family. In reviews the play has been described as ‘..a delicious cliff-hanger that you need to see, ..the sort that sticks with you long after you watch it’ – quoting The Business Daily and the cast has in another review been described as ‘..intensely pulsating and impeccably effective in their explosive presentation’ – quoting The Daily Nation.
The biggest challenge which a few of us have managed though inconsistently is bagging corporate support. Music festivals seem to have a way through but as theatre guys we are yet to get there. This means most projects then end up draining more than they give back to the artistic investors and producers. Unfortunately the Cultural Centres and guilds that can actually help with this are busy getting a foot in the business too – busy putting up stage productions and films instead of being the ones aiding companies and artistes to do so. It’s good for the industry, yes and those behind the projects are financially happy too, yes, but it should not be in their business. It’s like KNUT opening their own school or a nanny eating the children’s food because it is good for them too, it doesn’t make sense. That’s just my thinking, just as an observer and a practitioner.
With lots of challenges comes lots of opportunities. Not so many people partaking of theatre only means there is huge space for growth. There’s only a handful of Kenyan playwrights having their shows produced – that’s another opportunity too. I think the County can jump in too, help organize more day time street art events. The biggest opportunity lies in the younger generation too, we need to expose them to more theatre and good film – that way we’ve invested in the storytellers of the future.
5. If you had a tourist friend coming in from outside the country what three things would you say to sell them the idea that Nairobi is worth visiting?
The Go Down Arts Centre would be on that list, certainly because of the work the artists put out but also the artistic life and vision the place holds.
I’d recommend a live music gig that features Ayrosh or Victoria Gichora or Eric Wainaina because a performance from any of the three is always beyond and definitely on my list.
A Prevail Arts Company play wouldn’t miss on that list – because we are an excellent platform to sample profound and stellar Kenyan stage productions.