Growing Up Through Sarafina: Kenya’s First, Second and Third Liberations  


Growing Up Through Sarafina: Kenya’s First, Second and Third Liberations  

I am not sure whether I am awake or I am dreaming. I am also not sure what day of the week it is, but since we are having mukimo for supper, it must be Saturday. I am seven years old.

My old man fishes out a video tape and pushes it into the mouth of the JVC video cassette recorder. The JVC swallows the video tape, gurgles for a bit, pretends to choke and then belches. After some manyunyu, images start to appear on our black kisogo Sony TV. On screen a train chugs by and in a split second a handful of silhouettes emerge out of nowhere, between the rail track and the indigo backdrop of dawn. 

Today, I restage an act that I have perfected overtime; on mukimo days, two or three bites into my serving, I pretend to be too drowsy to finish the rest of it, and my old man, in his larger-than-life empathetic persona says to Mathe,Hakuna haja kumlazimisha amalize. Wacha aende akalale,” and just like that, I escape having mukimo for dinner. 

However, this essay is not about mukimo. Neither is it about my award-deserving theatrics. This essay is about the silhouettes running inside the TV, that made me abandon my theatrics, at least for that Saturday evening. 

It is the running of the dark shapes that intrigues me the most. It seems overly coordinated, robotic even; speeding feet hastily clomping on the ground and in effect producing a footfall that could easily be mistaken for a troop of at least twenty marching soldiers. Interestingly, in this haste, no figure seems to overtake the other. For a brief moment, an empty classroom appears on the screen, and then a roving bus. The dark figures approach a barbed wire fence which they effortlessly cut through using pliers. In the darkness, they make their way through a narrow corridor, run over a pool of water, and turn into a veranda before bursting into an empty classroom wielding molotov cocktails in their hands. At this point, time seems to slow down dramatically. Silhouette number one launches his molotov cocktail and it emphatically crashes on the chalkboard. Silhouette number two, who I later come to learn is called Crocodile (played by Dumisani Dlamini, rapper Doja Cat’s biological father), hurls his molotov cocktail too and it crushes on a table with a globe and some books on it. My eyes light up as the blazing inferno greedily consumes the desks and everything else in its wake. 

For a moment, I am lost within myself (I blame it on the mukimo). When I come to, school kids with bowling hats are singing and dancing on the streets of a slum as a crowd cheers on. The centre of attention appears to be a slender, light-skinned girl with an iridescent smile and expressive eyes. They are calling her Sarafina. They sing, and my seven year old ears hear: 

 Twendee Sara-finaaaa! Twendeee Sara-finaaa! 

Twendee Sara-finaaaa! Sara-finaaaaaa-aaa-aaa! 

Sarafinaa Kristo mama weeee,  

Turu-turu-turuntun, turu-turuntun, Sarafinaa-aaa… 

In a flash, an anti-riot military vehicle approaches in the distance behind the students as they sing and dance to Sarafina on the street. As the military vehicle approaches, it grows bigger and bigger like a looming mountain and eventually it tears through the throng of dancers causing them to scamper for safety. A befitting introduction to what I consider to be the greatest ever political musical, Sarafina!  

Sarafina! is a 1992 film adaptation of the 1987 musical written by Mbogeni Ngema and William Nicholson. Set in the township of Soweto, South Africa, the film is based on the happenings of the bloody four-day riots that were carried out by Black school children in June 1976 that were sparked after the apartheid regime passed a regulation to make Afrikaans, which was regarded as the language of the oppressor, a primary language of instruction in Black schools. Interestingly, the film was shot at the Morrison Isaacson High School in Soweto, which was the centre of the student uprisings of June 1976. Also, many of the film’s cast members and extras had actually participated in the real-life resistance in Soweto sixteen years before the film. 

The teen protagonist, Sarafina, played by Leleti Khumalo, fantasises about becoming a renowned film star who will one day win an Oscar and secure the release from prison of her idol Nelson Mandela. In the ensuing detentions, violence, torture, bloodshed and deaths, Sarafina is forced to appraise her views about politics and liberation. 

I am sixteen now. 

It’s Wednesday afternoon, and it is sweltering hot. I am in high school and in the middle of a history class. We are discussing the World Wars. An earlier memory comes to me. Sarafina’s teacher, Mary Masembuko, played by Whoopi Goldberg, is standing in front of their classroom, just about to be whisked away by the apartheid police. Before they do, she says: 

“History is a beautiful thing. Do you know why? Because history teaches you where you come from… I want you to be proud of what we got right, the truth about what we got wrong and learn from it. Otherwise, what’s the use of tomorrow if you don’t learn? All you’ve got is today and today and today!” 

Following Mary Masembuko’s arrest, a new history teacher is brought in. There appears to be a disagreement between the new history teacher and the students. On the one hand, the students hold that Napoleon’s campaign in Russia was thwarted by a popular uprising. On the other hand, the new history teacher holds that it was the Russian winter that was the undoing of Napoleon’s army. “Oh, the ambiguities of history!” I think to myself. 

I think about Kenya’s history, the truth about it and its ambiguities too. Take for example Jomo Kenyatta, our first president. A figure without whom Kenya’s colonial and post-colonial histories would be incomplete. He is adored as the father of the nation, a man who sacrificed seven years of his life in incarceration for his association with the freedom struggle, and a figure who was at the heart of the Lancaster House negotiations in the short years leading to independence in 1963. What is often not talked about, however, is how Jomo Kenyatta and his government went against KANU’s pre-independence promise to Kenyans to resettle the landless in the vast farms left behind by departing settler farmers. 

Instead, the government opted for a willing buyer willing seller policy, which politicians, including Jomo Kenyatta himself, exploited to acquire land for themselves at the expense of the majority poor and landless. Inadvertently, this sort of disenfranchisement of the masses became part of our national psyche, and a bourgeoisie political class was created and power handed down to its progeny over generations to date. So, on what side of history does the father of the nation lie? Is he to be remembered as a liberation hero, or a conniving opportunist who spotted an opportunity and gleefully grabbed it with both of his hands?  

The ambiguities and contradictions surrounding the Mau Mau rebellion come to mind too. Was the Mau Mau war a nationalist cause that hastened independence for Kenya or a class war between the Kikuyu haves (the loyalists and collaborators) and the Kikuyu have-nots? In a 1986 paper, Mau Mau through the Looking Glass, historian John Lonsdale wrote, “In a Kikuyu population of little more than one million at the time, perhaps 25,000 Mau Mau guerillas were opposed by about the same number of British-led Kikuyu Home Guards. 85,000 more Kikuyu – around one-third of the adult male population – were held in detention camps, many of whose guards are also Kikuyu. Of the 14,000 Africans officially estimated to have been killed during the emergency, almost all were Kikuyu.” 

Perhaps, the middle ground (and half-truth) for all these ambiguities would be the venerated Kenyan historian, Professor Bethwell Ogot’s description of history as “Above all a discipline of context”. 

Upon the release of Sarafina! in 1992, various film critics such as the late Roger Ebert criticised the film as lacking any clear moral position on murder. In the film, trigger-happy soldiers are seen to shoot at and kill school kids indiscriminately and the students burn police constable Sabela, played by Mbogeni Ngema, to death for the atrocities he had committed against some of them. In his critique of the film Ebert writes, “This movie doesn’t know what it believes. ‘Sarafina!’ shows black children committing murder, and lacks either the courage to condemn them for it, or the courage to say it was justified.” Putting that into perspective, what was lost to Roger Ebert is the fact that the film deliberately sought no such thing as having a moral ground. More than anything the film sought to immortalise and retell the tragedies of June 1976 as they happened, a feat which it achieves expertly well. Had the film’s script writers and producers sought to find a moral standing for the film then, they would have been rescripting a distorted version of the events that took place in the Soweto uprising. 

The film’s biggest win is the adept ability with which it was able to wrap the personal story of the protagonist, Sarafina, around the greater story of the film. There is a delicate balance between Sarafina’s personal struggles: her yearning for stardom, the tensions with her mother, and her position in the struggle against apartheid; and the greater struggle within the film, that of a people pushing against the injustices of the apartheid regime. The film also deftly carries the emotions of its audience through music; from the opening song Sarafina! that is filled with inexplicable verve and vim, to Nkonyane Kandaba that ignites revolutionary fervour, and Safa Saphel’ Isizwe that makes you weep with Sarafina and her school mates as they get arrested and tortured. 

For Sarafina (and Black South Africans at the time), the day of liberation would come when Nelson Mandela would be released from prison. It is 2023 now, I am 22 and have concocted a theory: Kenya’s first liberation was in 1963 when it broke free from the chains of colonialism, the second liberation began in 1992 when Section 2A of the old constitution was repealed, re-ushering in multipartism, and was finally consecrated in 2002 when the 24-year reign of Moi came to an end. The third and most crucial liberation shall come when ordinary Kenyans become fed up and angry enough to reject the mediocrity of the political class who have, since independence, captured and weaponised the state solely for their own good and continued to ride roughshod over the masses. 

Freedom is coming tomorrow!  

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