By Margaretta wa Gacheru
This year’s International Women’s Day is being celebrated in exceptional style at the Alliance Francaise throughout the month of March with a Festival CulturElles focusing on women’s immense creative potential, particularly expressed through the arts—through their painting, photography, and sculpture – as well as through their poetry and prose, music and drama.
Additionally, in light of Kenya’s new Constitution and the widening role women are playing in the political process, the concept of “Being Wanjiku” came into the creative equation.
“We heard about an online conversation among Kenyan women [writers, social activists and scholars] called the ‘Weaving Women,’ so we contacted them and they drafted a concept paper initially called ‘Picturing Wanjiku’,” said AF cultural coordinator Harsita Waters. “Then we invited as many Kenyan women artists as we could find to respond creatively to that concept in any way they wanted.”
‘Being Wanjiku’, the text, was actually written by Wambui Mwangi, referring to the name former President Moi first used in the 1990s to disparage the popular demand for political change and a new constitution. But now, thanks to cartoonists like Gado and Madd, the name has become synonymous with popular participation by ordinary Kenyans in the political process.
And once the ‘Being Wanjiku’ call went out to women artists, what came pouring into the former French Cultural Centre was everything from painting and poetry to photography and prose.
Women musicians and thespians also came forth, including Mumbi Kaigwa to perform an excerpt from her one-woman play ‘They call me Wanjiku’, and students from Kenyatta University to stage ‘The Vagina Monologues’ accompanied by the KU women’s African Instrument Ensemble.
There’s an inescapable political and social undercurrent in this year’s Festival CulturElles, not only because ‘Wanjiku’ has become an iconic symbol of every ordinary Kenyan (irrespective of gender) who aspires to be part of the democratic process for positive change. But also, because a show such as V-Monologues is raising funds as well as social awareness to bring a stop, once and for all, to violence against women.
From the moment the Festival opened on March 3rd with a spitfire performance by the Ethio-Italian songstress Saba, it was clear women’s activism would be on display throughout March. Accompanied by the Cameroon guitarist Tate Nsongan and Senegalese kora strummer Cheikh Fall, Saba sang her heart out in aid of the AMREF midwives training campaign, entitled ‘Stand up for African Mothers.’
AMREF aims to train 15,000 midwives from all over East Africa in the next five years, according to Nicky Tucker, who said the Flying Doctors have already begun training midwives in Somalia. “The goal is to eradicate maternal mortality in the region altogether,” Tucker said.
This is the 4th annual Festival CulturElles organized by Alliance Francaise, according to AF’s Executive Director Helene Bekker. She inaugurated the first Festival in Nairobi in 2009 after she had witnessed the premiere Festival CulturElles in Port of Prince, Haiti, while still working for the French Government based in Paris. “I thought it would be an excellent project to bring to Kenya, especially to coincide with the international women’s day festivities,” Bekker said.
Unfortunately, the artistic submissions were more than two floors of AF could accommodate. The textual and visual artistry of more than thirty women has been on display at Alliance since March 8th, the official International Women’s Day. The first Women’s Day was launched by women leftists in the United States in 1909, but subsequently, it has been adopted worldwide, including by the United Nations which set as its 2012 Women’s Day theme “Empower Women – End Hunger and Poverty.”
The Kenyan ‘Weaving Women” approach is more immediate and pragmatic. For instance, a second floor slide show featuring photographs by the Australian-based Marziya Mohammedali focuses on images associated with ‘Troubling Wanjiku’ with text by her fellow Weaving Woman (WW) Wambui Mwangi.
Many of the paintings by women artists—from Tabitha wa Thuku, Esther Mukuhi, Kathy Katuti and Geraldine Robarts, to Mary Ogembo, Patricia Njeri, Rahab Njambi and Sheila Hajula—highlight the physical labor that Kenyan women do on a daily basis, since these are the women they feel Wanjiku represents.
Meanwhile, women sculptures on display by Mary Matanda, Lydia Galavu, Nani Croze and Irene Wanjiru all reflect the stoical resolve, resilence and beauty of Kenyan women.
But some of the most striking sights in this show are the ones that partner text with photography or text with painting. For instance, Wambui Mwangi’s concept paper, “Being Wanjiku’ is up on panels right beside the Wangari Maathai Auditorium interspersed with striking photographs by both Barbara Minishi and Wambui herself.
Adjacent to these are similar ‘scribblings’ excerpted from ‘Because Kenyans Have Rights and Responsibilities’ by Mshai Mwangola entitled “Why Wanjiku?” which are framed with paintings on either side of her four-page text by Anne Mwiti and Beverly Onono.
Joy Mboya’s essay, “And I saw myself” is partnered visually with Esther Mukuhi’s mixed media painting, entitled “It’s My Role”. Mary Ogembo’s Market scene is matched up with Jean Thevenet’s powerful poem, ‘The Shadow of Turning’.
And one of the most explosive texts of all is by Rasna Warah, the Daily Nation columnist. Her essay entitled “Their Stories Must Be Heard” is all about how women suffered unspeakably during the 2007-8 post-election violence and it is partnered with the one flaming red abstract painting in the show by Keziah Mruthu.
So while this year’s Festival CulturElles showcases many facets of Kenyan women’s creativity, it also reveals the way ‘Wanjiku’ has become an iconic symbol that has given shape, contour and color to Kenyans’ political aspirations. What’s more, for women artists, the Festival has offered them an effective means to ‘speak’ volumes, using multiple media, about the political, social, cultural and economic realities of their everyday lives.