JOHN SIBI-OKUMU has had a long and illustrious career as an actor, director and playwright. He has played more than 40 characters on stage, including Shakespeare’s Romeo, Shylock and Oedipus, and has acted in films, including the Hollywood production, The Constant Gardener, where he played a corrupt minister. He has also been a TV presenter, and has hosted successful TV shows, such as The Summit and The Zain Africa Challenge. He is credited with being the only TV host to have had a one-on-one interview with the late President Daniel arap Moi. John has also taught French at two international schools in Nairobi, and has written a book for young adults called Tom Mboya: Master of Mass Management. RASNA WARAH spoke to the veteran thespian about his career and the future of the arts and culture in Kenya.
Q. Like most unsung heroes in Kenya, you were recognised for your contributions outside the country before the Kenyan government deemed it fit to give you an award. You were awarded the Carthage Theatre Award in Tunisia in January 2022, and only received a presidential award for your contribution to theatre and the arts in Kenya on Jamhuri Day last year. How does it feel to finally be recognised by your country for the tremendous work you have done to promote culture and the arts in Kenya?
Awards come with validation and affirmation and those are blessings, not to be scoffed at. So, I was really glad to have become OGW (that is: one named in the Order of the Grand Warrior). But my life’s ambitions have not been fuelled by a wish to win awards. Awards are a gratifying by-product. And there is a qualification to be made: within the fields of teaching – a foreign language, French – and drama, I had already been well recognised, with several lifetime achievements and “people’s choice” awards. All Kenyan. So, I have been “sung”.
But should I be gnashing and grinding my teeth for lack of recognition for my contribution to journalism as a presenter and columnist? And to film, as an actor? Or should I now connive to be elevated to the Burning Spear or Golden Heart? No. I don’t think so. I think that one should be exercised by personal passion and drive, and let recognition take care of itself. More often than not, full recognition is posthumous, anyway. So, I wouldn’t be around to experience that. And I must add that were I to be given the opportunity to choose, I would provide the names of kindred spirits who are equally if not more deserving but who are yet to be recognised. The process of recognition is neither objective nor egalitarian.
Q. Your play, Role Play: A Journey into the Kenyan Psyche, which was performed in 2004, turned race relations in Kenya on their head. You made white actors play Black characters and Black actors play white characters. The play was hailed for exposing uncomfortable truths about race relations in Kenya. Newsweek described in as “an unapologetic look at racial stereotypes in modern Kenya”. What prompted you to write this play?
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Rasna. I had been thinking of making the switch from actor (with around 40 productions on my list) to playwright for some time. A visit to New York (I forget the year) allowed me to see the play Fences by the African-American August Wilson on Broadway, with James Earl Jones in a leading male role. It was an unforgettable experience. So much so that I returned to see Billy Dee Williams take over Jones’s role a few weeks later. I discovered that Wilson’s project was to mine the history of African-Americans in the USA in the 20th century on stage. So, I thought to myself: if he could do that with a century, why couldn’t I do that with the 50 odd years of my own very young country?
Like all initial attempts, I now feel that Role Play was too dense, in the sense that I tried to get too much into slightly over an hour, without an interval. Since Kenya is multiracial, I wanted to get all the races in there, but from the skewered perspective of one putting itself in the shoes of the other. So, for instance, South Asians will see an evocation of the pillage and rape visited upon their community during the attempted coup of 1982. White Kenyans will see safari runners. And all of us will see our stereotypical politicians, as well as the dark hours of our political assassinations. Even when cross-racial casting could not be replicated in subsequent productions, the audience was still called upon to imagine different races. I learned to be more focused as a playwright and ended up with five more plays inspired by the Kenyan condition, with grand themes like ethnicity, corruption and integrity, which feature in my Collected Plays 2004-2014. These were published in June 2021, to become the first such collection from a Kenyan playwright since independence.
Q. You once said that tribalism is the single most destructive element in Kenya. Tribe played a big part in the 2007 and 2013 elections, and was manipulated in the election in August last year. Do you think that Kenyans will one day look beyond ethnicity, not just during elections, but also in other aspects of their lives? Do you think the current government has exacerbated or reduced polarisation along ethnic lines?
May I start, Rasna, with the end beat of your question and say that so many months in, it is early days for the current government and, therefore, too soon to pass judgment. But on an empirical level, I would say that people are goaded into prejudice, hatred and violence in response to certain triggers, which, on a national scale, a government can seize upon and provide. We all remember the school playground where an admired leader could call upon a group to create hell for skinny people or fat people. And we all see the “populist” movements emerging around the world. So, we must use the word “Kenyans” reservedly. Given my own education and exposure and, by extension, my own widened capacity for tolerance and accommodation, I am unlikely to walk across a valley, armed with a bow and arrows, to torch my neighbour’s homestead. And the moral there is that people come together when they do things together in order to survive together. That is more and more the case, worldwide, and therefore, even as prejudice persists in various forms, it is being steadily eroded as successive generations become more “woke”, if that is the with-it description. I believe that all will be better in human relations in the days to come.
Q. There was a time in the 1980s and ‘90s when theatre thrived in Nairobi, with plays being performed at Phoenix Theatre, which is sadly no longer in existence, and even at the National Theatre, even though it was decrepit and decaying due to neglect. Though most of the plays performed in theatres were apolitical, in the sense that they did not disturb the ruling elite, they drew lots of audiences hungry for live performances. How do you see the future of theatre in Kenya?
I would take issue, Rasna, with your generalisation that the plays produced in the past were apolitical. In fact, I would argue quite the contrary: original Kenyan productions have always tested the limits of holding a critical mirror up to our society. But, in looking to the future, we must address one commonplace: the performer cannot perform in a vacuum and needs an audience. People who watch the English premier league on TV do not pay directly for the experience. But they are familiar with its offering and are drawn to it. So, with only one or two plays on our school syllabi, and the same ones for years on end, at that, and with only a few schools having a drama tradition, who are we Kenyans to draw to the theatre, and at a price? So, as they say in gangster movies: “It is what it is!” And here, government has a definite role to play: government must make the arts “cool” by investing in them. If the artist is perceived as a social reject beside an IT practitioner, then we have got what we deserve. But you are asking the wrong person because, for me, the arts are sacred.
Q. You have acted in Hollywood productions like the First Grader and the Constant Gardener. Unfortunately, Kenya’s film industry is still in its nascent stages, and the films being produced are not of such high quality. What is preventing Kenya from having a vibrant and successful film industry?
Rasna, I do wish that we could make common agreement on your descriptions! The generalisation should be that our films are of high, not poor, quality. My lament is that we are working to imitative, external formulae, with far lesser budgets. Although I myself have been in some of them, I would say so as to hone my craft, our film series, for example, are about murder, violence, love triangles, marital infidelity and the like. But we know that we don’t have secret agents; we don’t have the same legal system as they do in LA; our police rarely solve the big cases. And so on. Yet we are creating entertainment based on fantasy, whereas the ideal would be to create based on our reality. Then foreign viewers would approach our offerings with a big question mark, not knowing quite what to expect, rather than encountering what is, for them, predictable and finding it inferior, for having been made with fewer resources. And internally, we would be telling our own stories, as we are forever being encouraged to.
Q. One of your most memorable interviews as host of The Summit, which was aired on KTN, was with the late President Daniel arap Moi, in which you asked him whether he was aware that many Kenyans saw him as a dictator. This was in 1997, when Kenya still had hangovers of being a one-party state and Moi ruled with an iron fist. How did you gather the courage to ask this question and how did Moi react during and after the interview?
My family and friends were very concerned for me after the event, but I don’t think that in my own mind, courage came into it. What I did know is that The Summit gave me a huge platform on which to play and, as with Batman, with great power came great responsibility. So, my mantra for every edition was: ask the Great and Good, or Not So Good, the obvious questions. If I were to be talking to young journalists, the advice would be: “Do your homework, thoroughly!” So, I had rehearsed how I would put the question to President Moi. As I remember it, I asked (in paraphrase) “People (not me) are calling you Moibutu. How does it feel to be compared to someone known to be a dictator?” Now, there is no offence in that, is there? Similarly, I put it to Robert Mugabe that there are those (not me) who thought that he was worse than Ian Smith. And I asked George Saitoti if he had had anything to do with the Goldenberg Scandal? And Simeon Nyachae how come he was so rich, flying around in helicopters? I think the English would say that, by temperament, I “had the nerve” to do it. Off camera, at the end, Moi was recorded saying to me: “Wewe ni hatari!” I guess that could be interpreted as: “You are dynamite!” However, two things must be made clear: Moi had no harm done to me and he did not have me receive an envelope stuffed with money. As for finally airing the interview, now that’s another story, altogether. For the memoirs.
Q. In some ways, there was more press freedom in Kenya when you did that interview than there is now. After Moi repealed Section 2(A) of the Constitution in 1992, paving the way for political pluralism, the media opened up quite a bit. Cartoonists like Gado even had the audacity to caricature Moi. President Mwai Kibaki didn’t care what the media said about him so there was a lot of diversity of opinions in the media though even his rule was marred by the raid on the Standard Group offices in 2006. President Uhuru Kenyatta tried to capture and influence the media, which resulted in many columnists, including myself, either being fired or forced to resign. His government was also known for hiring trolls who harassed dissenters online. Now under President William Ruto there is a feeling that journalists who were perceived as being against his presidential bid are being purged from media houses. Do you think we are entering an authoritarian phase in our politics where dissent will no longer be tolerated?
We often forget that the Machiavellian definition of politics is the holding on to power, at all costs. And that definition puts much that occurs, socio-politically, into perspective. We are put in mind of politician John Michuki’s reference to a rattlesnake which will bite if antagonised. So, those in power are simply doing what it takes to stay in power. And they will, generally, turn a blind eye to anything that does not pose a cataclysmic threat to them. What is more encouraging to remember is that society always provides opposition to injustice. Even little kids will opine: “No! That’s not fair!” As adults, we can always do something about oppression and repression. And we should, in our own small ways, when the need arises.