We Are Working To Prevent Explosions: Spoken Word in East Africa

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The sun hangs low as the hosts of Fatuma’s Voice step on stage at a crowded venue in Nairobi. Words make the space hum. English mixed with Swahili and Sheng (local slang). People turn and twist mobile phones to capture photos, which are Instagrammed and tweeted with tags like #fatumasvoice. We are at Pawa254, a creative hub situated between the university and State House in the capital of Kenya.

The darkness of the early evening embraces us, and the stark, bright light from the ceiling lamps bounces off the leaves on the trees outside the windows. The leaves reflect back a fluorescent green light, creating a fitting backdrop for what’s about to happen.

Fatuma’s Voice is a weekly event where people are invited on stage to recite poems, make statements, perform music. This evening a group sharing their experiences with police harassment opens the show. The previous week they’d been doing improvised spoken word street performances around Nairobi that the police perceived as a provocation. On stage the group recounts stories of how they were forced to roll in mud as punishment. Among the audience there is no doubt that these young guys are true heroes. The audience shows appreciation for their courage with loud cheering and applause.

‘Poetry sets me free’ says Chris Mukasa, and delivers another image provoking metaphor: ‘The youth of Kenya are like time bombs. We are working to prevent explosions. If words are never let out, we’ll explode! Especially youth need to speak openly about what is going on in their minds. If you we don’t speak about things it will turn into frustration’.

“Poetry sets me free,” says Chris Mukasa, and delivers another image provoking metaphor: “The youth of Kenya are like time bombs. We are working to prevent explosions. If words are never let out, we’ll explode! Especially youth need to speak openly about what is going on in their minds. If you we don’t speak about things it will turn into frustration.”

The people behind Fatuma’s Voice are Chris Mukasa and Nuru Bahati Shukrani, founders of the semi-virtual community, Kenyan Poets’ Lounge. Sitting at a café on busy Moi Avenue in central Nairobi, the two young men explain that they started the initiative among students at the nearby university. The audience grew gradually, and in 2013 the event was transferred to Pawa254, a place also known for its founder, the Kenyan photographer and socio-political activist Boniface Mwangi.

For Mukasa and Shukrani it is also about taking social responsibility and about contributing to the fight for equal distribution of Kenya’s wealth. Fatuma’s Voice is named after a fictional woman who was born dumb, explains Chris Mukasa, adding that the average Kenyan woman utters 2,500 words a day. As Fatuma has not spoken for over 50 years, many words are trapped inside her, waiting to be spoken.

The Kenyan Poets’ Lounge Facebook group has more than 58,000 members. The poems shared deal with everything from activism and politics to religion and romance. The space between fantasy and fact is central here. The space can release freedom of thought. Hence, Fatuma’s Voice’s most precious task is to provide space where fantasy can be given free rein. Mukasa’s and Shukrani’s next mission is to create more local platforms outside of Nairobi.
Read the full story from Global Voices Online here.