Report & Essay

Say My Name
Samuel Munene

 With the advantage of hindsight, Samuel Munene retrospectively muses on three major Kenyan literary events: the Storymoja Hay Festival; the Nairobi Book Fair and the Jukwaani Cultural Festival and what they mean to the Kenyan literary and cultural scene and calendar. The first of these three musings, Say My Name, Say My Name is from a Jukwaani session that tries to capture the elusive but essential nature of the myriad of poetry events that have sprung up all over Nairobi and the rest of the country over the last few years.


Ngwatilo Mawiyoo is the artist formerly as Neema Mawiyoo. On a recent Saturday afternoon at the Goethe-Institut during the Jukwaani! Festival for Performance Literature, she stood in front of a group of about 150 people, teaching them how to pronounce her name. Ngwatilo was moderating and curating a session titled ‘The Shape Of Poetry’. She was barefoot, having removed her shoes some minutes before the start of the afternoon, as if in reverence to the poetic space she and the audience were getting into. She wore an orange dress .

It took the gathered students in blue and green school uniforms, men and women with graying hair, a minute to get her name right. The ‘shape of poetry’ session, apparently, was supposed to be an exercise in appreciating the different forms of poetry that happen in the city in particular and the country in general.

“Say Ngwa-ti-lo “ she chanted. The small crowd obediently repeated her chant.

“There are over ten poetry events happening in Nairobi every month and each represent a different taste,” Ngwatilo said. “Kwani? Open mic, is it second Tuesday of the month…”

“First Tuesday”, a quarter of the crowd shouted.

“Daas? ”

“Third Friday!!!” the shouts again.


There were murmurs but no clear answer.

A young beardless man with a soft face and long , neatly combed hair waited for the murmurs to subside, then said “Second Saturday”

“Kenya Cultural Center?”

A mumble, then the young man “ First Friday”

“St Andrews? “

“St Andrews?” a number of people repeated. The young man again, “First Saturday”

The audience laughed as they turned their heads to look at the young man; a live What Is Happening in the Nairobi Art Scene Buzz. Many shook their heads. “Aaai”s, punctuated the air. If every poetic venue represents a unique taste, a person who attends all is one of the ha(wa)jielewi,- this is probably, what the mirth meant. The young man smiled to himself, and sneered to all when the session righted itself back to normal business.

During the session , it was clear that not all forms of poetry, at least those proposed by Ngwatilo, were represented. This suggests that the differences highlighted by poets and their audiences, especially in Nairobi, are cosmetic and brand oriented; a case of different strains from a large swirl pool of urban poetry. Sampling and classification of Kenyan poetry requires a more rigorous process than a single afternoon at a Nairobi Cultural festival to locate and differentiate dramatised poetry, oral literature, performance poetry, spoken word, hip hop, straight out karaoke, bunge-la-wananchi like Jeevanjee sessions and anything else that involves an individual(s) standing in front of an audience of one or more and uttering words in dramatised form.

Ngwatilo presented the first useful example of poetry in the city, if not the country; a skit from Cut Off My Tongue , a dramatised collection of 17 poems by Sitawa Namwalie III.

The poem is part dirge, part play on the hypocrisy of the political class. With tragicomic overtones, it explores the bathos of a society that practises impunity in all its possible forms.

For the commission of enquiry. Witness number 1473

You consume me with words,

Litter my path with careful analysis

Obscure my plight

With your sound investigation

Who did what to me?

Who killed me?

Who raped me?

From the same poem, there was the National Broadcast, a second part of Cut Off My Tongue.

…Stop making such a big fuss!

Someone has to do it-

Someone has to ride around in a Benz

I am up to the task;

Not everyone is

Second Act. Hymnal Offerings Of Nairobi. Renee Mboya, writer and performer read ‘We Became What We Ate’, a poem by Phyllis Muthoni, a Kenyan poet who has won several local awards.

We pick our neighbors’ heads

off their shoulders

for the geographical sins

of their fathers’ migration;

a government’s

electoral crimes of commission;

or because their men don’t cut off

the foreskin…

Renee’s style of delivery was guarded and academic; the commas, full stops, question marks and semicolons were emphasized. This was after all, Government, The Electoral Commission, The Post Election Violence, being picked apart.

Even before the third act, Jacob Oketch launched into his poetry, part of the audience smiled, albeit awkwardly, as if expecting an embarrassing occurrence to accompany his appearance on stage. Oketch held a small strip of paper, a ‘small scud’ almost, the kind notorious in our universities, carried into exam rooms to jog along memory. He was accompanied by a percussionist in a corner, tentatively rapping on two minute twin drums.

“When I say mirembe, you say mirembe Te!” Jacob greeted the audience.

And so it was. After every few lines of his love poem and without warning came:


The audience faithfully answered “Mirembe Te! ”. Some in the room displayed anxiety, saying “Mirembe Te! ”even before Jacob had called out “Mirembe!, or was done saying it.

“Is it love when you want me to go with you everywhere? Mirembe! Mirembe Te! ”

“If you love me, you have to let me go! , Mirembe! Mirembe te!” ended the poem amidst giggles from the audience.

His second poem was in Dholuo, an ode to president Barrack Obama . “I wrote this when Obama was still a Senator” he explained in highly American accented English. “I am not an also run who started doing Obama praises when he became President.”

Performance poetry is all about interacting; Ngwatilo tried to kick of a mini debate in the audience by admitting she had caught nothing of the Luo poem and whether this meant that a poet should translate his/her poetry. Should a sheng poem be translated for the sake of those who cannot understand it or be read in its original form? Does translation water down a poem? Is it more useful to listen to a poem in its original language, one that you may not understand, or is a closer version in English , albeit one in which some metaphors may have lost some punch, more useful? Some wit in the crowd shouted: ‘Ask Ngugi.’

Alacoque Ntome, the fourth act and sample of the differentiated forms of Nairobi/Kenyan poetry came on next. Brevity is the soul of wit – poetry is distilled essence. And true to form, Ntome only spoke for less than a minute out of an allocated ten minutes. Hands raised skywards as if in appeal to the Gods were dropped suddenly, and now pointed to the floor. He then sat on the floor, lay on his stomach, muttered the Buddha-like New Age words: “Am I in the inside of the outside or the outside of the inside?”

“What’s all this?” an author seated next to me, with three published books to her name whispered. On stage, Ntome lowered his trousers and then shirt to reveal a black and white skintight suit tracing his body parts. “This is who I am,” he said.

Ngwatilo struggled to get the audience back. “…my background is in music”, she said. Clearly nobody was biting. “No, people don’t say such things,” she declared. “I will recite a poem instead …” She recited a poem titled A Debtor In Debt in Pidgin English( or is it black American English?). Her second poem was titled A poem for a census and forecast.

My government wants to know if I live, if I am dead….It wants to know

my tribe, the place I was born, if I own a fridge. My fridge

shall help my government plan what to do with bodies and carcasses …

Dennis Inkwa and Number 8 delivered poems. Tony Mochama sauntered in when the session was half done. He wore a Smirnoff cap, a white vest, some loose trousers, and casual shoes. It was hard to tell where he was coming from- it could have been from any number of places; bed, a swimming pool, a gym or a bar. He moved to a seat near the center of the room, waved at Ngwatilo, removed a large notebook and started writing.

“Now, here is a small exercise … everyone of you is going to write a line of poetry,“ said Ngwatilo, holding some small white pieces of papers. “Just write what you think is your best line of poetry.” Hands outstretched.

“You’ve got seven minutes”. Less than a minute later someone handed back her paper. Killer.

A thirty-something woman next to me wrote: “The water has stopped under the bridge.” She surreptiously looked at her neighbour’s outpourings and cancelled that. “ Evil overcomes good,” is what she came up with next. Sharing this with her neighbour, she crumpled her piece of paper and moved to the next empty seat. There she wrote another line, carefully folded her paper, and handed it over.

Exercise no. 2. The audience split into informal groups and Ngwatilo gave each a number of the one liners, “Choose what you think is the best line,” she implored.

“I think this is the best one.” This was a white man with gray hair sitting near the door to his group. “A hole is not a whole but a wall,’ a white haired white woman sitting next to him giggled after she read it. “….does it mean anything to you?”

“But that is what poetry is all about” the man shrugged.

“What do you know about poetry?” the woman said and laughed loudly.

“Here we go again …” the man said. ”Everyone agrees this is a wonderful line,” he said.

“Do you agree?” the woman asked the other three members of the group. They all looked away and the woman looked at the man triumphantly.

Also in the audience were doyens of Swahili poetry led by Abdilatif Abdala, given these lines to come up with a meaningful poem. As they tried to make sense of the one-liners in English, Swahili and Sheng, Mochama literally jumped on stage, went to the grand piano in the corner and played some meaningless notes. He then strode to the center. “Today I have decided I am going to read a poem about somebody, Count Pushkin the Russian genius …”

He ended up reading a poem titled How To Be Neema Ngwatilo, which was what he had been writing since his arrival.

“ … when you are Ngwatilo you are in an orange dress……and you don’t know whether to remove it….” The audience bellowed with laughter.

The Swahili poets, with graying hair, gave up trying to make sense of the communal poem writing task given to them, sat back and watched the proceedings with gravitas. After a while, Ngwatilo picked up the poem compliled by the Swahili poets and went in front to start reading. So people adjusted their seats, stretched their necks and waited to hear if their lines had been picked.

And the sun shown upon her writings

and there was beauty in it.

This and that and those and there and then

it was not the words you spoke that told the lie:

“Wewe si mkenya, sisi tumeamua.”

A hole is a wall and not a whole .The white man smiled. The white woman sneered.

I have the wisdom of a snake that climbs a tree and yet has no limbs -

over shadowed, underpaid, sidestepped and backstabbed.

“Why not?” A cough from the audience

“I am not a poet” Careful laughter from the audience.

That was the last line of the chosen few. And those were the shapes of Kenyan poetry presented that afternoon.

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