At a roundtable session held to celebrate Professor Austin Bukenya in Nairobi a few weeks ago, the subject of FESTAC ‘77, also known as the Second World Black Festival of Arts and Culture, repeatedly came up. Veteran thespian Steenie Njoroge was in attendance at #BukenyaForum and he had with him a copy of Kenya’s souvenir programme for FESTAC ’77, which was held from 15thJanuary to 12thFebruary 1977. When I saw it, almost 40 years after the event, I had this strong urge to make sense of our participation at that famous festival.
If you mention FESTAC in Nigeria, there are two places that immediately ring home. One, is the federal housing estate, located along the Lagos-Badagry expressway initially created as residential accommodation for delegates of the festival. The estate has lost the glory it once held. Many of the houses are now owned by private individuals although the federal government still holds a claim on the area.
The second, more popular connotation is the National Theatre in Iganmu, Lagos home to the Festac Festival. This international event brought together 75 countries and communities from all over the world and today, the National Theatre remains a major tourist attraction for Lagos. It is documented that 9,546 participants and over 550 visitors attended the event from 62 FESTAC delegations.
To look through the archives of Festac’ 77 and situate the discussion in Nairobi requires a visit to the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBAAC) located on Broad Street, Lagos. CBAAC was established in 1979 and houses all the materials and core collections relating to FESTAC’ 77. What the space lacks in aesthetics and organization, it makes up for its rich collection of the artifacts and documents hosted in its museum.
A walk up the stairs, leading to the offices and archives section brings you face to face with a framed image of Mzee Jommo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president. Mzee’s portrait accompanies those of Sir Seretse Khama of Botswana, Rwanda’s Juvenal Habyarimana and Gaafar Nimeiry, who was President of Sudan from 1969 – 1985. These portraits speak briefly of the Pan-African efforts of that era. Each of their descriptions ends with the line: “He was President of the country during FESTAC ‘77”.
CBAAC’s archives section is well-organized and it is easy to retrieve data from it. Although the official English program is absent, there are several in French, which was the second language of the event. There are data registration cards for participants from all the countries and from Kenya, a young Professor Micere Mugo leads the pack followed by a host other artistes, some alive, some having long left us.
Lenny Juma, Paul Onsongo, Katana Kazungu, Allaudin Qureshi, Sharad Sandakass and Njeri Mwotia were present. So were playwrights David Maillu, Chris Wanjala, Francis Imbuga and the late Seth Adagala, who directed The Trial of Dedan Kimathiin Nairobi. Adagala is also remembered as the first African director of the Kenya National Theatre, the man who pioneered the very worthy National Theatre Drama School, which was opened by Tom Mboya, the Minister for Economic Planning.
Kenya, like all participating countries at FESTAC ’77 had paid a $10,000 fee and the government gave a further donation of $5,700 towards the event. Tanzania’s donation was $10,000 in addition to its mandatory fees. There’s a sense you get thumbing through the festival proceedings that this new post-independence Africa had camaraderie, a feeling of brotherliness, which was harnessed in consciously growing our culture.
For the event, Francis Imbuga wrote the play Betrayal in the City, and Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Michere Mugo co-authored The Trial of Dedan Kimathi. They depicted the struggles of the people towards independence as well as those of a pseudo-liberal society showing that the reality was “not yet Uhuru”.
Both plays were published in 1976, and prepared for the stage by the Festac’ 77 drama troupe. These Kenyan productions shared the stage with LANGBODO, an adaptation of Wole Soyinka’s A Forest of a Thousand Demons and Kinjeketile from Tanzania. (In a rare case of coincidence, I managed to watch Langbodo at the Kings College on Lagos Island, featured as part of the commemorative events in honour of the school’s 109th Anniversary. It was a mix of the old and the new, part high-schoolers, part professional actors but a throw back in time of the play that won acclaim to represent Nigeria at Festac.)
Although hugely successful at Festac and well received, it had not been an easy run for the Kenyan troupe. Back home, local playwrights and actors had to contend with issues of nationalism, ownership and the identity of African theater almost on a daily basis.
In a series of articles written by Chris Wanjala, Hillary Ng’weno, Phillip Ochieng and Francis Imbuga and culled from the archives by Steenie Njoroge, there were repeated calls for the opening up of the Kenyan cultural space at the Kenya National theatre in the face of the then expatriate owners. An editorial written in the Sunday Nation on October 10th, 1976 by Seth Adagala detailed the struggle and “Long Hard Battle to stage Kimathi Play.”
In 2015, Professor Ngugi wa Thiongo would allude to this struggle in his speech at the official opening of the newly refurbished Kenya National Theatre. The belief of his generation of thespians was that Kenyans had the right to partake of their own nationalism before the plays, which had not been previously performed on stage, were performed for a larger international audience.
All sorts of reasons were given by the powers that were then, to prevent Kimathi from being staged, including the claim that there was a dearth of African audiences in Nairobi’s theatres. “After a struggle and some outcry from the press, we were given three days to present the play,” said Ngugi in his speech.
The theatre was filled with all sorts of people coming to see the play much to the surprise of the naysayers. This episode however, would be the beginning of Ngugi’s run-ins with the government of the day.
Much has changed over those years in the thinking that brought Africa together at what was arguably its largest gathering of the arts in that decade. Festac’ 77 had been preceded by the First Black Cultural Festival held in Dakar, Senegal in 1966. Incidentally, the ideas calling for a “resurgence” of the black man’s culture, as if it had been lost somewhere, were mooted in Paris in 1956 when the Pan African Cultural Society summoned a meeting of Negro Writers and Artistes to discuss the same.
There were also plenary sessions at Festac, bringing together minds from all over the continent on a discussion on the way forward. In a Working group report on Black Civilisation and African languages chaired by Professor Bot Ba Njok (Cameroon) and Rapportured by Prof Taban Lo Liyong, one of the outcomes was that Swahili was preferred by most delegates to be the continental language. It was deemed as necessary to dispense teaching in the African languages to ensure balanced and harmonious training of African youth. And a very strong note that NO European languages is (was) fit enough to express African cultural Values.
Public discussions on the African continent 40 years later are more about leadership, peace and security issues than about our commitment to cultural promotion. Forums like #BukenyaForum are valuable because they allow us to go back in history and assess the gains we made at national, regional, continental and personal levels in achieving the kind of Africa we want. The question of African identity still stands, 40 years after FESTAC and now it is inescapably threatened by that age-old link between our land and eager masters of economic imperialism who are aided by self-serving leaders. Perhaps, it is time for another FESTAC.