Kamiriithu Protected Village - Courtesy: @KResearcher

A History of Kamiriithu Theatre

The Kamiriithu virtual reconstruction is part of the Kamirithu Afterlives project that was initiated in 2020 by Kenny Cupers and Makau Kitata. African Digital heritage was brought as a partner in 2022.

Kamiriithu is a town near Limuru in Kiambu County. It was established as an emergency concentration village during the State of Emergency. Such villages were set up under a ‘villagisation’ policy in 1953 in order to cut off communication and support between the MauMau and their supporters.

This villagisation policy was adapted from the “New Villages” programme established as part of the Briggs Plan in 1950 during the Malayan Emergency. Like Kenya, the villages established were basically internment camps surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers, intended to interrupt the flow of support between Malayan National Liberation Army and rural Chinese communities. Like the New Villages in Malaysia, the villages established under this policy in Kenya persisted long after independence. 

Kamiriithu is marked by three roads; to the North, Narok road, to the west, Limuru-Mutarakwa road and the Nairobi-Nakuru highway to the East. Because of villagisation, most of the occupants of Kamiritho consisted of peasant workers who had been resettled. They provided cheap labour for the elite living in Limuru, working on tea and coffee farms, at the Golf Course and racecourse. Following Independence, Kamirithu didn’t change much, being occupied by three main groups of peasant workers; those who worked for surrounding multinationals like Bata, commercial and domestic workers, and the agricultural proletariat who provided a source of cheap labour to the tea and coffee plantations in Limuru. 

Location of Kamirithu theatre – today Kamirithu Polytechnic

The Kamirithu Community Educational and Cultural Centre (KCECC) arose from a call from the community. It was formed when the villagers sought Ngugi wa Thiong’o to teach them. He recalls a woman, Mrs. Armon, incessantly coming to his house and saying to him, “We hear that you have a lot of education and write books. Why don’t you and others of your kind give some of that education to the village? We don’t want the whole amount; just a little of it, and a little of your time.” (Thiong’o, The Language of African Theatre, 1986). This is how Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ngugi wa Mirii became involved in the KCECC.

Although Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ngugi wa Mirii and their associates from the University of Nairobi took part in the organisation of the KCECC, they did not take up the role of experts modernising village-dwellers through education. The KCECC was run by an executive committee consisting of community members. They made decisions collectively, as seen through their process of writing and editing their seminal play, “Ngaahika Ndeenda” (I will Marry When I want). Ngugi wa Mirii was in charge of the adult literacy program, in which the first round of students wrote their life experiences forming the subject for the play. In line with their community-first approach, multiple revisions of the script (that was written by the Ngugi’s) were undertaken to include the feedback of the executive committee and the village at large. In this way, both Ngugi’s were not alien intellectuals but rather active members of the community, learning from the community aspects of their history they didn’t know. 

In post-colonial Kamiriithu, there was a youth centre- a rudimentary mud-walled building – that had been a social hall during the state of emergency. After Independence, the centre came under the care of the Limuru Area Council where they offered carpentry classes (Thiong’o, Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary, 1981). In 1974, when the area council was disbanded there was no one to take care of the centre, it was abandoned. It was on this 4 acre piece of land that they built the open air theatre in order to preserve their space for social gatherings and prevent land grabbing. The people of Kamirithu came together to design a prototype-using matchsticks- and fundraise for the materials to build the theatre.

This was their “Harambee of Sweat’ ‘(Kidd, 1983); they refused to have a regular harambee to seek funds from the elite members of society and instead pooled their resources together to build a theatre for themselves, a product of their own sweat. This is what marked Kamiriithu as a singular theatre model; as it was built by the people, for the people.

Ngaahika Ndeenda Original Cast Member, David Njaramba Kaguura, showing the Kamirithu Virtual Reconstruction Team how they conceptualized Kamiriithu Theatre using matchsticks. Courtesy – Wango Alfred

Their first play opened on the 2nd of October 1977 and ran for seven weeks attracting an audience of 2,000 from surrounding villages and Nairobi every Saturday and Sunday. Inevitably, the play was banned, and the KCECC’s licence revoked as the District Commissioner, Eliud Njenga, claimed it was inciting strife between classes. This led to protests and debates about foreign control over Kenya’s cultural institutions. The massive reactionary response culminated in the arrest of Ngugi wa Thiong’o on 31st December 1977. Even after his arrest, the literacy work of Kamiriithu continued, as Kamiriithu wasn’t a project based upon one person but upon the community at large. On his release, he was welcomed back to the community, and they began work on the second play “Maitu Njugira.” (Mother Sing for Me). This play attracted people from all over Kenya who sought to take part in it. Additionally, cultural aspects from other tribes were included in order to widen the community base and reach a larger audience.

The subject of this play was the evils of colonisation and the ways in which they persisted through neo-colonial domination. They sought to stage the play at the Kenya National Theatre, but when they arrived for rehearsals in February 1982, they found the theatre locked and were chased away by armed policemen. They moved the rehearsals to The University of Nairobi, where they performed for ten nights with an audience of approximately 1,000 per night. (Kidd, 1983). The University shut down the play due to pressure from the government, and a few days later the KCECC was disbanded, and the executive committee was sacked. Further, the open-air theatre in Kamiriithu was razed to the ground and an adult education centre was built on the land. 

The KCECC is extremely significant in the history of popular theatre and community organisation in Kenya. However, this is not a story we find in the public domain. Its relevance is found within its success as a movement for community care and direct action to meet community needs and political education (Karwitha Kirimi, 2022). The people of Kamirithu give us a lesson on camaraderie and communal participation in cultural expression. They show us how to use the tools we have to build the futures we want through their use of theatre, dance, song , music, and mime for political education and the redirection of their labour towards building the open-air theatre.

Faced with state oppression through criminalisation of poverty and consistent corruption, the Kamiriithu model is extremely relevant to community organisers today and all people working for collective liberation, in that, they teach us to prioritise processes that make sense to us.

They teach us to reclaim our labour from capitalist exploitation and use it for community development. When they wrote a play about their lives, they taught us that reflecting on our collective experiences is resistance in itself. Through witnessing and naming their economic conditions and critiquing the systems that created the inequality they were facing, they teach us that through making art together and learning together, we can create safe spaces for collective reflection and internal liberation. In this way, they remind us of the potency of story-telling for building solidarity and building collectivist futures in the quest for collective liberation. They root us in indigenous knowledge systems that are constantly at risk of erasure. 

Kamiriithu was a significant actualisation of decolonial resistance in the face of the culture bomb. Centering their stories in a language that made sense to them, they show us that collaboration and artistic expression are necessary for the decolonial project. They remind us of the importance of making work for us; that we are our primary audience.

They assert to us that our histories are living and for our collective liberation. Recognizing the power of this event, Kenny Cuppers and Makau Kitata have created a YouTube series of some surviving cast members of the Kamiriithu Theatre on the history, experience, and afterlives of Kamiriithu that can be found here

The decision to virtually reconstruct the Kamiriithu Theatre was an obvious one, given that the land on which the theatre was built is currently occupied by a polytechnic. Additionally, the story of the Kamiriithu theatre is mostly found in academic archives out of reach to the public and the individuals who took part in this freedom project.

The team approached this project as an opportunity for collaborative 3D visualization and archiving. We begun with desktop research which used secondary sources to inform the first draft of the model. Thereafter through connections facilitated by Kenny Cupers and Makau Kitata, the ADH team members received feedback on the first draft of the model and had the opportunity to meet the original cast and present to them the final versions of the digital reconstruction. This has been an exercise in collective memory, and an experiment on the role of innovative technology in recapturing sites that have physically changed.

Here, we were met with further opportunities for exploration of the use of digitisation in the restoration of our collective cultural memories and practices. Ultimately, this project has developed an open source 3D archive available to the Kamiriithu community and the Kenyan population at large. 

By Muthoni Mwangi

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