The state should harness the potential in art for inclusive governance

Posted by on 8th October 2019

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The curtains of the 2019 Too Early for Birds (TEFB) Tom Mboya edition came down after five 3-hour shows that were a rollercoaster of emotions. The cast had the audience on the edge of their seats, delivering facts in between puns and new-age music and social media references that resonated on so many levels. To imagine that the life story of the iconic Thomas Joseph Odhiambo Mboya would have hundreds hooked, who were born decades after his assassination, is unfathomable.  Even more interesting, was the fact that the cast was one that probably experienced the Moi era during its last decade, but whose delivery felt as though they lived during his time and experienced him.

Beyond the bursts of laughter were many learning moments. History was being experienced in a different and memorable way that almost felt like a new encounter with this story. It was a realization that perhaps certain facts were omitted in the history books most grew up reading or these unknown facts finally hit home by the simple act of humanizing this political firebrand.

The play did more than re-enacting the events of the short life of the celebrated Mboya. It reawakened a sense of ownership of the country. The heavy scenes of his death, burial and a distraught nation mourning the loss of their adored son and leader hammered the message home, that indeed we cannot run away from our history. It was a realization, especially for the young that our country’s distant history has everything to do with the discourse of our nation’s politics and leadership.

The bold Mboya’s achievements as captured in the play were a symbolic reminder to an audience that despite being rendered helpless over the past few years, they can and they should be in prominent positions of leadership to drive change.

The young demographic has over time been associated with a sense of resignation and pessimism in the face of politics. Rightfully so, considering how murky the political waters are, it only takes the brave to attempt a dip and very few manage to navigate them. However, by the end of the shows, the mood spoke of a reignited fire to take the reins of the country back and achieve what Mboya was able to do at his age.

But this wouldn’t have been made possible had the delivery of this story taken another format, attesting to the power of art and the need for it in the political space. During the launch of the Kenya Arts Diary, Cultural Analyst and Managing Director, Dr Joyce Nyairo urged the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Arts to start prioritizing art. Her sentiments being that beyond the need for expression by artists, there is a worrying vacuum in the social justice space that can be addressed through art. Artists over time have used their voices to address and influence political issues, reggae legend Bob Marley being a prime example.

Art presents a unique opportunity to reach out to a huge chunk of young Kenyan voters who have missed out on or refused to exercise their democratic right, for the simple fact that they don’t feel like they belong. There is a great need to bridge the gap between voter apathy and civic awareness & engagement among the youth. Through art that delivers history in a palatable way, youth will have a chance to make informed decisions whenever called upon to.

It is clear as day that young people have a burning desire to engage in politics and governance that needs to be satiated. So to have an artist who looks like them, speaks like them and hears them is the solution we just might need if we’re ever going to tap into this demographic that has the right numbers to drive change.

The recent “Play Kenyan Music” wave is a perfect case study of how much young non-conforming folks can achieve, so the task lies in the hands of the government and civil society organizations be in tune with them and achieve the vision they have for our nation.