Cut Off My Tongue

One of the great treats of living in Nairobi has been all the live poetry I get to see. The Kenyan poetry scene is a performance scene (ok well at least the part of it that’s not online) and there are events just about every week. After years of hearing about these events, reading the poetry, and talking to the artists from a distance, I can finally mosey over to any poetry reading I feel like. It’s just sugar.

Last week I saw Sitawa Namwalie’s spectacular Cut Off My Tongue at the Braeburn School. Unlike most poets who perform in Nairobi Namwalie is not under 30. In fact she makes a point of her age – nearly 50 when she started writing – because, as she explains, “a political regime that did not tolerate vocalization” stole her voice during her “fuming twenties” and “barely mellow thirties” (“Gifted Almost Fifty”).

Namwalie burst onto the Kenyan literary scene in 2008, in response to the disputed national elections which sparked vicious politico-ethnic violence. The first performance of Cut Off My Tongue opened barely four months after the fires were put out in the Rift Valley, Kisumu and Kibera. Many of the poems, such as “Would You” and “Language of Tribe,” thrust their fingers painfully into the still-hot ashes:

Would you wield a machete in Burnt Forest,

Cut a stranger down?

Slash a man as he pleads with you for his life,

Lead the crowd baying for his blood? (“Would You”)

Out of the cinders the troupe “lit this poetry to roaring flame on stage.” The original show featured nine performers and two musicians, one on drums and another on a lyre-like stringed instrument, the nyatiti. They built a roaring flame to stand against the fires on TV.

In contrast, last week’s performance at the Braeburn School was stripped down, with a mood that was more reflective than furious. The school’s upstairs theater holds 100-odd people, and the seats rake down steeply to the stage so that the performers – Namwalie, Shan Bartley, Alice Karunditu, and instrumentalist Willy Rama – stood at the audience’s feet. The house was fully packed, with some audience members even sitting in the aisle.

The performance itself was something between a reading and a series of acted vignettes. The performers wore black (with some very dramatic jewelry), and carried folders with the poems. There was no intermission but the “set list” of poems was split into two distinct parts. The first half spoke in the language of aftermath: accusatory, demanding, but also anguished and doubting. The poems were personal, but offered a collective “Kenyan” voice in which to ask the searching, self-critical questions that the violence called forth – “You now tell me I must hate and kill?/ Must I cut off my tongue?” (“I Come from Everywhere”).

The second half, meanwhile, emphasized satirical humor and individual portraits: a police spokesperson apologizing for inadvertent good service; a rich woman (in gorgeous gele headwrap) lamenting the poor public image that her consumerism has created; an African leader lambasting his people for being “too black.”

Each of the performers brought unique gifts: Bartley, a beautifully expressive face and studied, wrought mannerisms; Karunditu, fierce poise and masterful comic timing; Namwalie, grace, strength, and voice that’s rich without being decadent. I especially appreciated the measured pace of their delivery. Unlike the poetry which dominates Nairobi’s literary scene, influenced by slam, hip-hop and spoken word, Cut Off My Tongue allows each line – at times each word – to echo in a brief moment of silence. I could feel the words entering my consciousness individually, and feel precisely the emotion with which each line was delivered, rather than chasing after them. The pace of delivery was ideal for Namwalie’s direct, communicative style.

I was curious about the choice of venue, the uber-posh Braeburn School. Something about it made me feel like I didn’t belong there, even though I was a paying audience member and I myself went to a (somewhat posh) private high school. The Ksh 1,000 ($12) ticket price (high for Nairobi theater and very high for poetry), and half-dozen tables in the lobby covered with books, t-shirts and other swag also contributed to an upper-middle-class atmosphere.

That said, for me the intimacy of the theater itself contributed to the thoughtful, reflective yet upbeat mood of the performance. I’d be interested in how other audience members read the intimacy of the space. It was a very mixed audience by race and age, much more so than most Nairobi poetry audiences who are almost all young and African. Many people laughed at the Kiswahili jokes, but more laughed at the English jokes. The audience may have sung the Kenyan national anthem loudly at the beginning (a first at a poetry reading for me), but I wonder whether people felt like the show brought them together “as Kenyans.”

Lastly, I’m interested in the differences between the show and the book that grew out of it. (The book contains about 15 poems that are not in the show, as well as several essays about the work by Kenyan writers.) Most significantly, in the show there’s very little of the “pleasurable danger of love and desire” that the scholar Keguro Macharia finds in his essay about the book. Macharia delights when Namwalie sings of “the intimate, risky forms of loving that have the power to transform our social and political worlds simply by being public and daring to exist.” The show, though, is much more about anger and guilt than love, unless it’s a (somewhat forced) love of country. There’s laughter, but it’s more the cathartic laughter of self-recognition than the delighted laughter of discovery.

When this current election season is over, will Namwalie sing about all the other things one can do with a tongue besides cutting it off?

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