Too Early For Birds

Elsaphan Njora- © Japicha

January 11th, 2018. Members of the Too Early for Birds crew are seated inside Kenya National Theatre, just off the stage. They are unable to rehearse because of delays with the décor. There is a familiar reggae track playing in the background, a work song for the carpenters and painters onstage. The crew is talking, with Abu Sense (real name Abubakar Majid[1]) using his phone as a microphone. Abu is a handsome man, with a small build and a light brown complexion. His face, about which a lot has been tweeted and posted on Facebook, and which is not-too-subtly used by the show as a marketing gimmick, meshes with his beard in a way that suggests a cute chubbiness when younger, and at the same time somehow confuses one as to whether he is Swahili, Arab or Barawa[2]. Whenever he gets on stage, one is surprised at how loud he becomes, but at this point, neither his face nor his voice are important. What is important is the conversation that has developed this evening as an alternative to the full run of the play they were supposed to do. This conversation, which Ngartia J. Bryan, a cast member who alongside Abu is normally accepted as the public face of Too Early for Birds, keeps on interrupting with his puns[3], is supposed to be turned into a podcast later. The conversation, conducted in Sheng’, centres on domestic violence. Elsaphan Njora[4], another cast member, swears to stay out of other people’s fights. Brian Ogola, a cast member who plays Patrick Shaw[5], the extra-judicial-killing supporting, underage-student-recruiting white supremacist settler Patrick David Shaw, as loud and abrasive offstage as he is onstage, is regaling his listeners with tales of the fights he has witnessed. At one point, he talks about his parents. “That shit, it confuses you. And you end up hating your mother. On the one hand, she is telling you be strong, to be a man. On the other, she is staying in this violent relationship. Hii mambo ya we belong together is absolute nonsense.” Elsaphan asks, in a Ndii-esque[6] manner, “Would you rather stay in that relationship and die? Because sometimes that’s the choice.”

Too Early for Birds, a theatrical production directed by Wanjiku Mwawuganga, sold out[7] on Thursday 11/01/2018, two days before it opened. In a country with a history of state interference in drama,[8] this is a remarkable achievement, especially bearing in mind that the show explores many controversial historical issues. However, while the crew is quick to dispel the notion that their efforts alone will be enough to make theatre a popular activity in Kenya there is an undercurrent of optimism about the work they are doing. Sarah Masese, one of the actors on Too Early for Birds, says, “We’re not there yet, but, I think, Too Early for Birds will give them more reason as to why they need to be at the theatre.”

Abu Sense has been trying to track down his family tree for years, something that has so far proven an exercise in futility. Invariably, something that drew him into Too Early for Birds when Ngartia pitched the idea was the promise of tracking down the tree of Kenya’s history. “I am not a historian, that’s Ngartia and Owaahh[9]. There are just a lot of things that I want to know that I don’t.” Indeed, all of the cast members are quick to concede that they are not historians. Masese says she is just a storyteller, not a historian.  Ekumbo says she doesn’t know much about Kenya’s history, having been fed a certain type of history at the British curriculum schools she attended, and only having to confront her Kenyan-ness when she lived abroad. Even Ngartia, despite his colleagues identifying him as one, is reluctant to accept the moniker. While he concedes that maybe he is a researcher, he also points out that were he to be in possession of an endless sum of money, history would not be the first thing he would pursue[10]. “It would definitely be one of them, but not the first.” So why would a group of people who are not historians, some of whom have nothing more than a passing interest in history be at the vanguard in reclaiming Kenya’s histories?

Abu Sense – © Japicha

In the months leading up to the January show, accusations were levied at Too Early for Birds about their misogyny. The accusers were angered that the main people in the production, Owaahh, Ngartia and Abu Sense were all men, a claim that incensed Wanjiku. “I am the director, the most important part of any production. Miriam (Kadzitu) is the producer. Hellen Masido is the Stage Manager.” [11]Furthermore, Ekumbo points out, Abu, Owaahh, and Ngartia came up with the concept, then invited the others in. “What do you want us to do, tell them to go away, to quit, just because they are men?[12]” In addition, Ekumbo doesn’t mind that Abu, Owaah and Ngartia are the public faces. “If anything happens, it happens to them. The rest of us are just cast.” The crew has had conversations about state interference. When they were doing shows on politics, Wanjiku was worried about their safety. “I would stalk them on social media, Abu and Ngartia, see that they are online, that they are safe. Of course, I never told them this.” And their fears are not misplaced, given the fact that Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the last person to attempt a retelling of Kenyan history, albeit on a smaller scale, was thrown in jail. The crew is also conscious of the fact that because the stories they are telling are of events in the past, and the important personalities are mostly dead or don’t have (sons) in positions of power the risk is mitigated somewhat. Still, they are somewhat of what would happen if they talked more about current events, or about events affected by people who are still alive, or whose spawn hold positions of power in Kenya.

On Thursday night, Kimani the tech guy, and Wanjiku walk down Harry Thuku Road (formerly Kingsway Road), past The Norfolk. Kimani the tech guy is dressed the way you would expect a tech guy to dress, in a black t-shirt, black jeans, a dark grey hoodie, black trainers, wearing a black cap, and a black bag slung over his back. On this street, in 1922, hundreds were murdered when the police and big-game hunters at Norfolk opened fire at a crowd that had gathered at Kingsway Police Station (now Central Police Station) to demand for the release of Harry Thuku[13]. Kimani the tech guy is bitter that the significance of a company called Kingsway Tires near the theatre seems to be lost on the people who come to watch the show. “These people come just for the puns, and don’t think about the show after it’s over.” Wanjiku adds her dismay that people seem to make Too Early for Birds something that happens outside their lives, rather than something that is their lives. Still, she is glad that the perception of history is being changed from something merely academic, to something in the realms of popular culture. Furthermore, she is glad that, because of the show, KNT is slowly being reclaimed from its white owners. The theatre itself has a chequered past. When it was started, it was aimed at the white community, and after independence, at the elite rich community. This history is part of the reason the show is being held at this particular venue. To Ngartia, it is a way of recolonising a colonial space from the whites. “When it was held at Museum, it didn’t feel quite right.”[14] Still, Wanjiku adds ruefully, all the people running the theatre are white. And Kimani the tech guy remarks that, after they chased away the crowds that used to hang around at the theatre, ostensibly because they were smoking weed, KNT has turned into a space where Western corporates and embassies hold their events.

Laura Ekumbo and Abu Sense  – © Japicha

An hour before the show opens, on Saturday 13th January, Wanjiku, the director, is sitting on stage, eating a plate of bhajia. Hellen Masido, the stage manager, and Anne Wanyuru, her assistant, are moving up and down, getting things in order. Laura Ekumbo is seated at another table with Milan, a girl, who at seven, is the youngest member of the cast. The two are playing a word game.[15] There are seven prop pistols on a table bottom left of the stage. Waithera, one of the producers, comes in with news that a small crowd has already started gathering outside. Wanjiku is not flustered. This is the ninth play she is directing, and while before she might have lost her cool and lashed out at people, today she is chill, only worrying about tech. “You can control humans, but I’ve come to learn that you can’t control machines.”

In the dressing rooms, Abu Sense is in his room, getting his hair plaited. Elsaphan Njora, is walking up and down the corridor, singing. Wanjiku and Masido come down, Wanjiku in a red top and denim jeans, Masido in a black vest and black shorts. Elsaphan joins Abu in his changing room, sits on a chair, and starts tossing a bottle of water into the air, catching it, and repeating the motion. Waithera comes in, has a quick conversation with Masido, upon which both go back upstairs. Just off the stage, lies the rustic blue hulk of a car, and on stage, workmen are putting finishing touches on the platform whose ladder the crew has been advised is somewhat wobbly. Milan runs onto stage to greet Laura who is at the bar, filling beer bottles with water, and asks where Abu is. Meanwhile, Ngartia J. Bryan, newly-arrived from the barber, with mohawked dreadlocks and a brown tint on the sides, strides down into the dressing rooms. Abu is still with his hairdresser; his hair being plaited. Not that he’s a play thing, the hairdresser says. Abu is talking to Njora, asking him if he ever has conversations with himself. Ngartia enters the room, which he and Abu share. At both ends of the corridor, there is a notice: Drinks and food prohibited in the dressing rooms and stage (except props).

Ngartia – © Japicha

At 5.38 pm, the theatre is still empty. There is food in the dressing room closest to the stage, and the crew is supposed to eat before the show begins. Zosi, the production manager, moves around ensuring that anybody who is not supposed to be in the dressing room area is not in the dressing room area. Elsaphan and Milan are in Abu’s room, Elsaphan trying to explain to her what a tender[16] is. When Abu’s braids are done, he stands up, remarks to Milan that he looks like her now, and takes a photo with her. Elsaphan asks Abu whether he is nervous. “It just started now, when you asked.” Ngartia, Wanjiku and Masese are having a conversation about the play as they eat pilau in another room.  Waithera, comes down to talk to Wanjiku, and the two agree that the doors will open at 6.50 pm. Ngartia goes back into the theatre, listening to Dre’s Compton album, and sits down, tying a knot that will be used on stage. Elsaphan and Milan come onto stage, Milan running after Elsaphan. Milan trips and falls, and when he fails to get her to stop crying, Elsaphan walks away from the scene of the crime, leaving Abu to comfort her. Ogola is in the corridor, and is, along with Elsaphan, the only cast member already in costume. Abu guides Milan to a bathroom, washes her eyes and dries her tears. Wanyuru is in the dressing room with the food, and even though this is the first time she is involved with Too Early for Birds, and is nervous, she is upbeat. “The show has a lot riding, but it’s going to be a good show, so, you know.”  Abu’s nervousness is increasing with every bite of food he takes. Masido comes into the dressing-room to call the cast and crew upstairs for a quick run-down with Kimani the tech guy. Elsaphan comes in last, and before joining the people on stage, glances at Milan and Laura who are back to their word game. The crowd of people outside has gotten bigger, and some of them are in the club upstairs, drinking and listening to music. Masido and Wanjiku go into the control room for a quick conversation with Kimani and the tech guys[17]. Waithera is standing in front of the control room, ticking things off a checklist. Ogola and Elsaphan are on stage, Elsaphan pretending that he understands Luo. “K’ogalo FC, K’ogalo, that’s how you say hello. Jakwom jakom!” Elsaphan then teaches Ogola how to fake Kikuyu: “Say Makerere Gwekere, then repeat it with different intonations.” Masese, next to them, remarks that Ogola’s Luo isn’t good, that he needs practice. Wanjiku starts talking to her people, informing them about changes to the performance. In the meantime, one of the crew hangs a picture of Moi[18] in the back of the stage. Laura is coaching Milan on her lines, tells her, “If you forget you can just ask me.” The brief with Wanjiku over, while the rest of the cast go down into the dressing rooms, Brian and Elsaphan stay, hammering in one of the curtains into the platform. Down, in his and Ngartia’s room, while the costumer is getting Ngartia’s moustache ready, Abu puts on lip balm, then slips his gun into his trousers. He steps out of the room, bumps into Ekumbo, who kisses him. Further along the corridor, Elsaphan is in conversation with Milan. “Something nobody will ever tell you, dragons like Colgate.” “You’re lying,” she retorts, as cast members around them laugh. Masese is in her room, eating.

Sarah Masese and Brian Ogola – © Japicha

Ten minutes to the scheduled start of the show, Elsaphan is in his and Ogola’s room, tossing a water bottle into the air, catching it, repeating the motion, and looking at himself in the mirror. Masido and Wanyuru are in the corridor, Masido tying Wanyuru’s hands together, testing the strength of the knot to be used in a scene in the show. Abu is in his room, listening to Schoolboy Q’s Torch. Masido goes down the dressing rooms, calling the cast members out of their rooms, and into the corridor. Elsaphan and Milan are the first ones out. Elsaphan is relaxed, tossing his bottle up and down, sitting in the corridor. “I’m not nervous. While I enjoy performing, especially to a sold-out show, I feel like I’m here to support Abu and Ngartia. Their vision is immense. It’s their job to be nervous for the rest of us.” The cast starts warming up, now Masido leading them in a breathing exercise, now Ogola heaving really loudly, now Abu leading them in a chant, now Masese starting a new chant, now Elsaphan screaming longer than everybody else, now Wanjiku leading a new chant, “Pa. Fa. Ka. Da. La! Really really loud. Pa! Fa! Ka! Da! La! The show is eight minutes late so far. Masido comes in, provides an update as to the size of the crowd. Wanjiku leads the team running through the corridor, screaming. “Wasee wasee!” “Eh!” “Mnajua niaje?” “Eh!” “It’s Too Early for Birds!!!” Abu shouts to Ngartia, “I love you, man!” “I love you too, man!” Ngartia shouts back. Ogola to Miriam, who is in a red dress, “Miriam you look very nice.” Ngartia steps out of his room, his makeup done. Ogola declares that he looks like a tall glass of drinking something. Elsaphan says Ngartia has big balls. Milan calls Ngartia a superhero. The cast and crew take turns complimenting each other. 24 minutes late so far. Wanjiku hugs Ngartia and Abu: I love you guys!” Abu hugs Miriam. Abu and Ngartia hug. “Kill it nigga!” Abu says. “Piece of shit nigga!” Ngartia says. Elsaphan and Abu hug. Milan and Ngartia hug. Milan and Laura go onto stage for their scene, the opening scene. Wanjiku starts hugging crew. Ngartia and Wanyuru hug.[19]

Elsaphan Njora –  © Japicha

While the show happens onstage, sometimes it is the things that happen offstage that are the real show. It is Masido coming down to make sure no illegals have accessed the changing rooms. It is the crew and cast who are backstage watching the performance through gaps in the curtains. It is Abu pacing offstage, waiting for his cue to go on stage, practising his gun draw. It is Milan standing offstage, watching Ngartia perform. It is Masese getting out of the room and going up, where she sits, then stands, then sits again, hands followed across her chest, looking down at the floor, now looking up, getting up to sing along to Ngartia’s song on stage. It is Elsaphan pacing the corridors. It is the three pistols left on the table. It is, near the entrance to backstage, the sight of the Norfolk across the road. It is Ogola going onstage, riling the crowd, getting off, then the mad tumult as the crew rush to get him changed. It is Wanyuru running through the corridors holding a rifle. It is Abu going backstage, drinking water, pacing the corridor, Masido coming down to tell him to project. It is the costumer and the costumer’s girlfriend watching the show through the gaps in the curtain. It is Elsaphan going on, doing his dance number, getting off, getting changed, then coming back to wait for his next scene. It is the stage-lights dimming then the crew rushing onstage to rearrange the décor and, when the lights are back on, the sad realization that a toy gun was left onstage. It is Ekumbo getting off the stage, dancing backstage, then going back. It is Ogola in his black suit, striding powerfully through the corridor. It is Elsaphan with a rifle slung across his shoulder. It is Ekumbo and Miriam in the dressing rooms, Ekumbo helping Miriam get changed. It is Ekumbo eating in one of the dressing rooms while the show goes on, her scenes over, reflecting on a desire to be a director someday. It is Elsaphan moving away from his seat backstage when he suspects the audience can see him. It is Masese and Ogola having a tete-a-tete offstage before going in for the last scene. It is the crew hugging in the dressing rooms when the show is over at 10.25. It is Abu and Ngartia chill in their room, legs stretched out. It is Masido going through the rooms hugging cast members. It is six pistols and a rifle on the table bottom left of the stage.

[1] He is also called Norman, something I discovered after hours of snooping around on the Internet.
[2] Abu Sense is of Arabic descent. In fact, his interest in his genealogy and in his personal history is a big reason for his enthusiastic yes when Ngartia pitched him the idea for Too Early for Birds.
[3] Ngartia has developed an online reputation for being a connoisseur of puns. His Facebook and Twitter profiles are littered with puns, some excellent (“Basically watu wa Nairobi wakiamua kuchuja Sonko watakuwa wamedrop Mike”), some passably good (“Start selling cakes with wordplay on them. Puncakes.”), and yet others jarringly cringeworthy (one with a picture of a fan, a Jamaican flag, and the caption “aFanDeh” comes to mind). Interestingly, Ngartia’s name is a pun too. His real name is Ngatia, but when he was seventeen he thought it would be cool if his name had ‘art’ in it, so he added the ‘r’.
[4] Elsaphan Njora, formerly the villain in the video of Just A Band’s hit song, Huff + Puff, currently oscillating between being the elder statesman on this production with a solid non-music-video-related career behind him, and the group joker and prankster, is a figure who dares tell the stage manager that even though he is annoying they all love him anyway. He may or may not be releasing a poetry collection in the near future.
[5] Patrick Shaw was a police reservist who worked at Starehe Boys’ Centre. He used to take some of the students out of school and use them as spies in his clandestine ‘security’ operations. Some of these students, Shaw’s boys, were, after finishing high school, encouraged to join the police service, and ended up joining the dreaded Flying Police. In fact, one of the nicknames this branch of the police service boasted was “Mr. Shaw’s Flying School.”
[6] David Ndii is a Kenyan economist of prominence. On March 26th, 2016, in his capacity as a Daily Nation columnist, he declared the failure of the nation-state of Kenya, arguing that it was a cruel marriage and that it was time we talked divorce. In the two years since, Ndii has rose to become one of the key strategists of the opposition coalition, NASA, has been kidnapped by government security personnel while on holiday in the Coast, been detained illegally, had his passport withdrawn, been let go from his Daily Nation column, and renounced his Gikuyu tribe.
[7] The first show, which had repeat performances over two different days, sold out, as did a subsequent one held on January 19th to accommodate those who had missed the first two. The Kenya National Theatre has a capacity of three hundred and fifty, so that’s one thousand and fifty people who paid for and watched the show.
[8] Eminent Nobel Prize for Literature flirtee Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was detained in 1977 by the Kenyatta regime for a play he co-wrote with Ngugi wa Mirii called I Will Marry When I Went. Security personnel attacked the Kamiriithu Community Education Centre in Limuru, Kenya where the play was being staged, arrested Ngũgĩ, and he subsequently spent a year in prison without trial.
[9] Owaahh is a famous Kenyan historical blogger. His blog came second in the voting for blog of the year in 2018’s Bloggers Assocation of Kenya (BAKE) awards, missing out on top spot by forty votes. Brian Morris Kiruga, the man behind Owaahh, is a bit of a recluse, with few of his readers knowing how he looks like. In fact, in the course of writing this article, the only occasion on which I came across Owaahh was a sighting of his reserved chair before the show.
[10] Ngartia is an actor, writer, poet, spoken word artiste, is studying Film in campus, has been part of a team running a literary journal, has worked in an ad agency, and recently took to the stage with famed Kenyan hip-hop artiste, Juliani. He is also only twenty-four years old.
[11] Interestingly, everyone in the production crew, apart from the tech guy, Kimani, and the costumer are women. Wanjiku, is, as pointed out, the director, Hellen Masido, the stage manager is a woman, as is Anne Wanyuru, her assistant for the January show, while the rest of the production crew is made up of Zosi Kadzitu (who threatened to throw me out when she discovered me snooping backstage just before the show started), Miriam Kadzitu, Janet Haluwa, Veon Ngugi, Gathoni Kimuyu, and Siteiya, all women.
[12] At the time of writing this piece, Wanjiku told me about a plan to have a show made solely by women, with little or almost no contribution from the three big names. This, she assured me, was not a reaction to the backlash the show had faced, but something they wanted to do on their own volition. There has been resistance, further on the grounds that having more female stories in the shows would have been better than have a special show based on women. The writers of the show informed me that the women they have had in their shows were mostly fictional figures they created (for example, Ekumbo’s character in the January show), hamstrung as they were by the fact that Kenya’s written history has been extremely male-centric.  But what does it matter?  Too Early For Birds Brazen, a Too Early For Birds show, written by, produced by, performed by, and focused on women, opens in July 2018.
[13] Harry Thuku, the young, charismatic leader of the East African Association, was arrested and detained by the white colonial government on March 14th, 1922. Thuku, alongside George Mūgekenyi and Waiganjo wa Ndotono, had been arrested because of his opposition to forced labour, especially of women, and the sexual violence they faced from colonial administrators. On March 31st a group of 7000 people gathered at the police station, and were roused into riot by a group of women led by Muthoni Nyanjiru. Thuku was the Munene wa Nyacing’a, you understand, Gikuyu, for ‘chief of women.’ For a piece of dramatic irony, the commanding officer on the day was a Police Superintendent called Captain Carey. When the crowd charged, the police officers opened fire. Some of the crowd tried to flee down Kingsway Road, and were mowed down by white settlers and bounty hunters at The Norfolk Hotel, which still stands on the same spot, opposite the Kenya National Theatre. This incident greatly influenced the choice to have the show staged at KNT.
[14] It was held at the Museum during the 2017 Storymoja Festival.
[15] This word game turns out to be the skit Milan and Ekumbo will act out on stage.
[16] In the arena of Kenyan political parlance, the government tender is the promised land of economic posterity. The logic is simple: Say a project costs 10 units. Offer a bid of 18 units. Out of this, 4 units is the cut to the people making the decision about who gets the tender. Hire someone to do the project for 10 units. Earn 4 units. This doesn’t seem like a lot, until you consider that the first phase of the new Standard Gauge Railway project cost 3.2 billion dollars. Ethiopia, who embarked on a similar project at the same time, built theirs for 3,4 billion dollars. Ethiopia’s railway is electrified and 250 kilometres longer, and the terrain of Ethiopia is significantly more mountainous than Kenya’s.
[17] If Kimani the tech guy ever decided to start a band, he should call it Kimani and the tech guys.
[18] If ever a person’s death has been awaited by a nation, it is that of Daniel Toroitich arap Moi. Moi, baba wa taifa, orchestrated a regime of kleptocracy, brazen land grabbing, state-sanctioned detention and torture, brought Kenya’s down to its knees economically, stumped down on democracy and human rights, banned beards, and when he got out of office in 2002, Kenyans were voted the happiest people in the world. According to wikileaks, companies owned by Moi, his family, and his associates, either fully or partially, include The Standard Group, Safaricom, CMC Holdings, Hotel Intercontinental, Bamburi Cement, Kobil Petrol, Eveready, The First American Bank, Giro Bank, Equatorial Bank, Eurobank, Trust Bank,Citibank, H. Young and Company, Sheraton Holdings, and under a section whose lead-up text is “Open research indicates ownership of:” number 12 is a business venture called Government of Kenya. Moi’s son, who looks like him (the same bald head), and sounds like him (the same raspy voice) is a favourite to become Kenya’s next president.
[19] There were much more hugs than these. The hugging seems to be a key element of Too Early for Birds. I, in the spirit of immersing myself in my research, also participated in the hugging. Were Kenya’s self-appointed moral crusader, Uncle Ezekiel Mutua, to decide that hugging was the logical next step on his banning crusade, then Too Early for Birds would collapse.

About the Writer:
Carey Baraka used to think that cooked bananas are called plantains. Now, he hopes to review restaurant plates some day. He sings for a secret choir in Nairobi, and is Msee wa Lights at Enkare Review.