The RIKA Residency: Vulnerability is the Key

Read a guest blog by Sitawa Namwalie about the RIKA arts residency

The Beginning

I started working on a musical in 2016. The first two years, nothing happened. I couldn’t get the thing I was writing to become a musical. It sat on the ground just staring at me, looking and behaving like a play. I was frustrated. You see a musical bounces, flies, sings, it can’t keep still. This stolid thing was not a musical. I kept writing and rewriting for 2 years until suddenly the thing jumped up, started flying and singing and became a buoyant musical.  

Of course I was ecstatic. Now that I had something resembling a musical I could bring a composer on board. This is how “Escape the Musical” began. The story of the musical is a quintessential Nairobi story set in a prison. It tells the story of three people at a crossroad in their lives, desperate to escape the circumstances of their lives. “Escape” is an intense musical, which takes place over two days and two nights in the one-room home of the Chief Warden of a prison. It brings together Mbogori the Chief prison Warder, Wanja his young second wife and Jamo a convict who escapes and has been hidden in Mbogori’s home by Wanja.  

“Escape” the musical is high energy and steeped in Kenyan culture and tradition both old and new. It captures life in Eastlands, a part of Nairobi which is the home of Matatu culture, youth gangs and urban musical genres such as Genge, Kapuka and Hip-Hop. The musical uses rap, hip-hop, Kenyan, western musical instruments and music to tell a compelling story.  

Sitawa Namwalie with Kendi Nkonge at the RIKA Residency

The Right Music

Being such an urban Nairobi story called for hard-core urban music and my composer L-Ness AKA Lydia Akwabi did not disappoint. I had met L- ness on a trip to Berlin in March 2013 that brought Kenyan and German poets, hip-hop artists and MCs together in a collaborative exchange. Sometimes you can only see your country in all its glory when you are in another country. It was on that German trip that I saw the beauty and power of Sheng. It is literally raw youth energy.

It took another four years of writing and working together to complete the musical. By then Eric Wainaina and Mbogua Mbugua had joined the team as a composers. In 2020 the year of the Corona – 19 virus, the musical was completed and I started looking for money to put it through a dramaturgical process and develop the songs and music that would allow the musical to be staged. Now I was faced with an even bigger challenge. I couldn’t get anyone or any institution interested in supporting this process. I gave up so many times, wondering what was the point of working so hard for four, five years to not get to stage the musical.  

And then one day in early 2023 I went to an art meet-up organised by British Council and met the TICAH team of Eric Manya and Suzanne Mieko. We agreed to meet and we actually met. That meeting was the turning point. Eric and Suzanne agreed to give me money to workshop my musical. What struck me was how easy the process of securing money from TICAH was. Eric and Suzanne did not make me jump through hoops, they simply said yes.  
The RIKA arts residency was a seven-day collaborative workshop that brought the book writer, three composers, musicians and interns together to work together on the workshop. Sounds simple right? After all Kenyans are known for their endless workshops. But a workshop that brings together artists from many walks of life, different ages, socio-economic backgrounds, genders, temperaments, skill sets and much more could have been a disaster. Instead it was inspirational. We all fell in love with the musical and created space for each other to contribute their knowledge, skills and perspectives to the process. Instead of conflict we created magic.  

As we worked together, we learnt to listen and respect each other. We created a safe space for experimentation. Sometimes a joke became the inspiration for a creative idea. So we started to listen out for these “jokes”. You will find them interspersed in the musical.  

The musical uses four languages, Sheng, Kiswahili, Kimeru and English. Several of the artists are fluent in some of these languages and not all of them. The open atmosphere of the residency allowed people to be vulnerable, to translate the script which was written in English into the relevant languages. The characters in the musical, Jamo and Wanja are young and speak in Sheng, however Mbogori who is a middle-aged prison Superintendent would speak in Kiswahili, English and Kimeru. The musicians had to learn different languages as they worked with the different characters. The journey to creating this musical has created an approach that can be used by others that shows that there are no limits to what we can create when we work together.