Mumbi Kaigwa – Trailblazing thespian

One of the foremost leading lights in the Kenyan theatre scene, Mumbi Kaigwa is a veteran whose longevity and dedication to the arts have won her well-merited recognition on the international stage.

When she performed in a television production as the little girl in Wole Soyinka’s The Strong Breed, 10-year-old Mumbi Kaigwa had no inkling that she was starting out in the career that would define her life. But this she knew: she loved acting.

“I wasn’t nervous at all. I think I have always been a performer and the chance to be in that Voice of Kenya TV production excited me. In any case, performing for TV is not as hard as it is for the theatre, because you don’t have an immediate audience as is the case with live performance,” she says.

Fast forward to 40 odd years after her VOK debut Kaigwa, now in her 50s, is rightly considered one of the leading thespians in Africa. In recognition of her work, she recently received the Lifetime Achievement Award and Most Influential Woman in Business and Government (Arts and Culture category) by South Africa’s CEO magazine. She was excited by the recognition. “I am one of the few people who have stuck to the arts for such a long time. People tend to take up art and then leave it behind after a while,” she explains. “I feel that the Lifetime Achievement Award recognised my dedication to art. It is also recognition of the important role that art plays in society.”

While she is widely known as an actress, Kaigwa also doubles as a playwright, director and producer for socially conscious plays. She also considers herself to be an ‘artivist’ – an activist who uses art to promote causes – with a particular passion for issues affecting women. Her successful acting career has allowed her to perform not only in East Africa but also in North America, Asia and Europe.

Kaigwa favours theatre over other performance art forms. In 2009, she played the role of Anna Mali in Eric Wainaina’s musical Mo Faya. It was staged for six weeks in Nairobi and eight weeks at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in the United States. Her semi-autobiographical Swahili musical Kigezi Ndoto (A Hook for Dreams) has toured Europe and over 30 towns in Kenya and Tanzania. Kigezi Ndoto is the second part in a trilogy whose first part is titled The Voice of a Dream and the third They Call Me Wanjiku, staged at several venues in the US.

Although theatre is her main focus, Kaigwa has also ventured into film and television. In 1995 she played the role of Rachel, a strong Maasai woman who gives a visiting Australian woman priceless life lessons in the Australian soap opera Neighbours. She played the role of Grace Makanga, another strong female character fashioned after the late Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, in the 2005 award-winning British film The Constant Gardener. Her most recent film is the highly acclaimed The First Grader, which tells the story of Kimani Maruge who joined Standard One in 2004 at the age of 84 after the Kenyan government instituted a free primary education programme. She plays the role of the Education Secretary.

While she likes to recognize 1972 as the year when she first got into professional acting, Kaigwa says that she had been acting way before that. “In school, I was very active in drama and won many prizes for it. My father was the Deputy Mayor of Nairobi from 1962 to 1965 and like most politicians, was a great orator, a gift that he might have passed on to me. He especially loved Shakespearean plays,” she discloses.

An affinity for the arts runs in the family; Kaigwa’s mother loves to sing and one of her brothers, Gakunju Kaigwa, is a renowned sculptor. Kaigwa, who describes her childhood as “fun and simple” went to Nairobi’s Hospital Hill for her primary education and later Limuru Girls’ School. After high school, she joined the University of Nairobi to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Arabic and French.

She explains, “I have always loved languages. I had taken French in high school and wanted to advance my knowledge of the language. As for my choice of Arabic, I thought it would be nice to learn a new language that was spoken in Africa. I can speak French fluently, but I seem to have forgotten Arabic.”

Kaigwa went on to work for the United Nations as an archivist. She quit her job with the UN in 2000 – after 10 years – to follow her passion for performance arts full time.

Since November 2011, Kaigwa has been celebrating her more than 40 years in the trade by staging a series of shows, which include Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, solo performances of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads: Bed Among the Lentils, Margaret Edson’s Wit, Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is Enuf and Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues.

The celebration culminated in 2015 with Kaigwa’s own semi-autobiographical work They Call Me Wanjiku. Talking of the celebration period, she says, “It has been a very fulfilling period. Initially, I thought it would take only 12 months, but it lasted much longer.”

Ever the activist, Kaigwa played a role in reconciling warring communities after the 2007-2008 post-election violence (PEV). In collaboration with the UNDP through the project Peace, not Pieces, she helped set up performance workshops in various communities and helped the locals to develop community theatres for use in peace building, conflict resolution and healing. Some of the communities which have benefitted from this project are Narok, Nyahururu, Eldoret, Kisumu, Nyeri, Sotik, Nairobi, Nyamira and Mt. Elgon.

“I consider my work in that project as one of my highest achievements. I am proud that I was able to use art to bring healing to the people who had been grievously affected by the PEV.” She explains that in some instances, conflicting communities would come together to develop a joint production. That helped them talk out their issues and forgive each other. She adds, “We also arranged sessions where people could share their stories and find healing. It was so emotional. The people said they never imagined they would ever again sit together and talk.”

Kaigwa tells the story of a man in Borabu who talked about how he had seen his children being hacked to death. “Every parent who was there, regardless of their tribal persuasion, felt that man’s pain. The man was also relieved to finally share his story and find some psychological healing.”

I am proud that I was able to use art to bring healing to the people who had been grievously affected by the PEV

After quitting her UN job in 2000, Kaigwa started The Theatre Company and The Children’s Theatre with the help of her former husband and fellow thespian Keith Pearson. When the two divorced in 2008, Kaigwa created The Arts Canvas (Turubai ZaFani), which she hoped would provide a platform for her own work and career growth.

“In that respect, The Arts Canvas has been a successful venture. It has given me the much-needed time to focus on developing my own skills as a writer, actress, producer and director,” she says.  The Theatre Company is now owned and run by Keith Pearson while The Children’s Theatre has since closed down.

What does Kaigwa think of the Kenyan performing arts industry?

“I was recently going through a website called Nairobi Now and I was amazed at the number of plays being staged,” she comments, noting that the theatre scene in Kenya is evidently becoming more vibrant. However, she couldn’t help noticing that most of the plays were comedies. “When I was starting out, plays were mostly focused on social issues. I am not blaming anyone; I think that the theatre is only responding to the society’s demands.”

However, Kaigwa worries that theatre is not yet at a place where the people it employs can comfortably earn a living from it. For her, the mark of a theatre industry which is improving would be when people can do it for a living, as opposed to being just a hobby. “As far as I can tell, we have not reached that point yet.”

She confides that out of the six shows she staged to celebrate her 40 years in performance, only two have made profit. The losses she made from the other four were so big that it was hard to recover. “I am now at a point where I don’t want to arrange any new shows for fear that I will not be able to cover the cost of production.”

She cannot ask the other actors not to expect monetary remuneration. “Even I don’t fully rely on theatre for a living. I always try to find other ways to make money from my skills, such as scriptwriting on a consultant basis.”

For Kaigwa, the fact that the monetary returns from theatre are dismal is especially sad because it takes a lot to stage a good show. A lot of time goes into any production: writing, rehearsing and setting up. “A good show will require at least six weeks of intense rehearsal. Not many people have the passion and patience to do all that without the promise of a good pay cheque.”

She believes that making performing arts part of the curricula in schools will help people appreciate theatre more, and eventually lead to the growth of the industry. “I think performing arts should be promoted as a career choice in schools, just as they promote sciences.”

She also wishes that the government would form a Council specifically focused on the performing arts, which would ideally help fund plays. “Even in developed countries, theatre has to be funded externally so as to succeed.” She however notes that artists are part of the problem. “Sometimes we don’t rehearse enough. Sometimes we start shows late. We are part of the reason why the audience doesn’t respect our craft and hence the ticket prices and sales remain low.” She insists that artists cannot expect the audience to respect their craft if they themselves don’t respect it.

She has no regrets about leaving her secure job at the UN to follow her acting dream, which she says has been “very fulfilling”.

On the future of film in Africa, she points out that there is a hunger for more African stories. “The world is curious about what life is really like in Africa, and Africans themselves want to enjoy stories which they can relate to. This is why Nigerian movies are so popular. It is a great time to invest in Kenyan film and theatre.”

Does she ever get stage fright? “Oh yeah! For live performances, you never really get over stage fright. The important thing is to rehearse as much as possible so that you don’t forget your lines,” she says, adding, “But if you do forget your lines, find a way of making it work without the audience noticing it.” To remember her lines, she writes down scripts from memory.

Kaigwa is the mother of two young adults: William and his older sister Mo. Mo is an upcoming artist but is also taking an interest in performance arts. She played a part in the 2013 production of Vagina Monologues and For Coloured Girls.

“I am happy and proud to see that my daughter is following in my footsteps, even if not all the way.” Her children have grown up into solid, wonderful young people. “I feel like I have been a great role model to them. That, more than anything else, is my biggest achievement.”

Words of Wisdom

  • “Pursue your dreams. They might seem impossible at the time but if you keep at it, you will be amazed by what you can achieve.”
  • “Take a stand and do what you want to do even if you don’t get the monetary remuneration you dreamt about. Most of your work will be a labour of love.”
  • “To be successful in acting, read widely and expose yourself to as many interesting experiences as possible. Be very observant of other people and don’t be afraid to ask questions.”
  • “Live in the moment. Focus on making every day a success instead of worrying about the future.”
  • “Be as honest as possible and own up to your mistakes even before they are found out. When a relationship lacks honesty, there is a certain tension. Honesty is hard to practice, but try to stick to it.”
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