This 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 in as a partner in 2022.
The Kamiriithu theater in Limuru, Kenya, has been celebrated as a powerful experiment in African decolonization. In 1976, local workers and community members came together to build an open-air theater and stage a play that quickly attracted huge audiences from across the country and beyond.
Written by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Ngũgĩ wa Mirii and directed by Kimani Gicau, the play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) became the means by which the actors confronted land dispossession, industrial pollution, and neocolonial injustice. Soon after its establishment, however, the Kenyan government imprisoned Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and eventually demolished the community center.
Kamiriithu Virtual Reconstruction aims to preserve the heritage of Kamirithu theatre by creating a 3D model of the original open-air wooden theatre structure.
A History of Kamiirithu
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.
The Kamiriithu 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.”
A Community Based Approach for 3D Reconstruction
In honour of the Kamiriithu Theatre model of collective decision-making, and in alignment with ADH values, and the collaborative ethics of Kamirithu Afterlives, the process took on a collaborative approach. The process involved the use of secondary sources for the first draft, consultations with the original cast members to get the most accurate depiction of the theatre to make further changes, plus a visit to a model theatre for inspiration.
To date, there are very few visual archives on the theatre and its surrounding environment. The team employed a range of approaches and sources in coming up with this virtual reconstruction.
Sources for 3D Reconstruction
- Oral testimony – The Kamiriithu Virtual Reconstruction relied heavily on oral histories from community members and former cast members to create the visual reconstruction. This process involved going through interviews Makau Kitata and Kenny Cupers had conducted during their research, as well as frequent consultations with the original cast members, where knowledge gaps existed.
- Written / Visual sources – Where descriptions of the theatre exist in archives, books, newspapers and academic papers, they also contributed to the reconstruction.
After studying the available visual sources, African Digital Heritage created a draft model and formulated a set of questions about the stage itself, the changing room, the space and the materials used in the construction. Kenny and Makau brought these questions and images of the draft model to the original performers to get their detailed feedback, which allowed ADH to tweak the first draft.
During the meeting, the performers suggested that the theatre space was inspired by the theatre space in the Education building of the University of Nairobi, called ED II. Makau gave the reconstruction team a tour of the “ED II,” in order to get a better view of the Kamirithu Auditorium layout and dimensions.
After revising the model, a second meeting with the Kamirithu performers and the whole project team was organized by Kenny Cupers and Makau Kitata. The actors provided for final comments and approval. The entire group subsequently visited the polytechnic, in order to virtually imagine the built structure on site and ascertain its former placement on the site. This allowed us to arrive at the most accurate model of the theatre.
The impact of putting this history in the public domain – in a creative, collaborative & truly groundbreaking way – is potentially huge. We stand at a tipping point in Africa’s cultural heritage, where an interconnected, digital savvy generation is using its collective voice to disrupt the prevailing narratives that have dominated public histories in recent years.
It is our hope that this digital reconstruction will contribute towards the legitimization of oral history as a primary research source for interactive digital productions. Pushing back on colonial knowledge hierarchies that have often placed written sources above other indigenous forms of knowledge.
Creating digital reconstructions that will serve research, entertainment and educational purposes is an act that has the potential to create new imaginations of what theatre, resistance, arts and culture could look like in Kenya.
- Mike Khakame – Kamirithu Theatre Virtual Reconstruction Artist
- Muthoni Mwangi – Kamirithu Theatre Virtual Reconstruction Curator / Researcher
- Mutanu Kyany’a –Kamirithu Theatre Virtual Reconstruction Lead
- Kenny Cupers – Kamiriithu Afterlives Lead and Principal Researcher
- Makau Kitata – Kamiriithu Afterlives Principal Researcher
African Digital Heritage has previously worked with the Museum of British Colonialism to create digital models and renderings of British concentration camp villages in Kenya (For more information about this project, see: Documenting and Mapping Detention Camps from the Emergency period in Kenya). Since they began building this digital archive, the history of detention camps in Kenya has reached a wider, intergenerational audience in both academic and non-academic circles.