By JOHN McCLURE
“[The Kenya National Theater] is also known as the ‘Shrine of Tears’.
It was so nicknamed for the mixed bag of fortunes that come to those who call it home.”
—Nairobian Reporter| Thursday, Sept 17th 2015
On a cool, brilliantly clear day in January of 1969 I met a few of my Peace Corps friends for lunch at the Norfolk Hotel, the handsome old colonial rendezvous near the University in Nairobi, Kenya. Our group of some 200 volunteers had just arrived “in country” and were being housed temporarily in modest hotels around the downtown area of the city. We usually hung out at the Garden Hotel on Jivanjee Gardens, seedy stomping grounds for Asian businessmen, Kenyan politicians, aid workers and travelers (not tourists). But the Norfolk, a more elegant place with better food, was only a walk away, and it was just across the lane from the Kenya National Theater, where I had an appointment that morning with Seth Adegala, a friend from undergraduate days at Tufts who had recently been appointed its head.
Sent to Tufts on a Kenyan government scholarship to study engineering, Seth had quickly shifted his major to drama and joined a series of radical groups, including the Black Panthers. That was the rumor, anyway, and it lent Seth, already a romantic presence on campus, further luster. He was a year or so behind me, and I got to know him from civil rights demos, SDS meetings, and the turbulent parties thrown by members of the campus counterculture. I liked talking global politics and theater with him. He was a powerful physical presence, stocky and energetic, with a high forehead, a riveting gaze and a strong voice. His emotional range was dramatic. He could, on any given evening, be wonderfully warm, exuberant, and insightful. But he could also be volcanically indignant, sharply ironic, imperious or grimly withdrawn. Seth was stormy weather. But so were most of us those days. I was often myself, especially after a few beers, ready to fight, sometimes even physically, over what I took to be matters of honor and justice–anything from a personal insult to a direct assault on my passionately held anti-war and anti-racist beliefs.
A couple of years later Seth was back in Kenya, the first African director of the Kenyan National Theater, and I was at grad school in California, on the verge of being drafted and unwilling to go to Vietnam, Canada, or jail. Instead I took refuge in the Peace Corps. I wrote Seth to ask whether it would be politically acceptable to serve in Kenya. He not only gave me the green light but suggested that I could help in some way with the theater during my time there. So I was very happy to see him again that day in Nairobi. Seth was full of enthusiasm for the opportunity he’d been given to head the theater and transform it into a center for African artistic production. Sitting in his gracious office, we discussed his plans: to begin staging more works by African playwrights, of course, but also to found a theater school to train East African actors and a touring company to take theater to all Kenyans. After an hour’s heady conversation, I invited him to join me and my fellow volunteers for lunch at the Norfolk.
Where I promptly made an ass of myself. All of us, I now realize, were in some sort of shock. We had arrived in Kenya only days before after a 24 hour flight; everything was strange, and much was more than a little disturbing—the sheer density of the city center, the poverty of the street people and the greater poverty of neighborhoods a five or ten minute walk from the city center, the sense that we had already been dropped off in a strange place a long way from home and were shortly to be driven one hundred, two hundred or three hundred miles “up-country” and dropped off again, now in ones or twos, not at some place on a global map, but at a school in “the bush,” beyond paved roads, television, personal phones, and electrification.
Whatever the reason, I soon found myself painfully aware not only that we were seated in an elegant old colonial-era dining room among mostly white diplomats, farmers, and tourists, but also that we were all white except Seth, a keen-eyed critic of European empire and American racism. In a desperate effort to make it clear that we were a different sort of white, I began to insist that we should all find ways to dedicate some portion of our modest Peace Corps salaries to good works in our local regions. I suggested, if I remember correctly, a hundred dollars each, every month. Noting that my fellow volunteers were not responding with altruistic ardor and wishing more than ever to demonstrate to Seth that we were, in spite of appearances, fully committed to helping Kenya become a developed country, I grew ever more passionate about our duty to the people we were there to serve. Even I could recognize that I was spiraling out of control, but I couldn’t shut up. I don’t remember who found a way to shift the conversation, or where it went thereafter.
I do remember, however, that things heated up again at the end of the meal, when it turned out that not everyone had chipped in to cover the Norfolk’s rather hefty tab. We were seven or eight and as the money came down to my end of the table, I was too busy counting it up to see who had not paid. I called on the malingerer to cough up his part of the bill and after a few embarrassing moments of silence, when no one was forthcoming, suggested that we all contribute to make up for the despicable freeloader. I only shut up when I realized, way too late, that Seth must have expected that I, having invited him out for this ridiculously expensive lunch, would take responsibility for the bill.
Writing this now, I hear my younger self clearly for the first time. What must Seth have made of all of it, I wonder–the preaching about generosity and the blind refusal to pick up his tab? Why had I suddenly started talking like some nineteenth-century missionary? Why had I put him, unconscionably, in such a bind? I myself spent no time that day addressing these questions. I was too close to a larger sort of panic, and it was easier to push blindly past this visit from my inner demons.
I was not, in other words, the best candidate for a twenty-eight month stint in rural East Africa. But that’s where I was headed. After a couple of weeks in Nairobi, I was given a ticket to travel by Rift Valley Peugeot two hundred miles across the great valley, up into the Kericho Highlands, and down again to Kisumu, on the shores of what was still called Lake Victoria. There, in a cavernous old shed of a hotel, I was picked up by the headmaster of my school and transported up seventy miles of unpaved road to Kisii, the town where I’d live and teach. Kisii was a sometimes dusty, sometimes muddy market and administrative center of about 2000 people back then, connected to the larger world by bad roads and a single public phone outside the post office that was unreliable and drew long lines when it was working. There was no industry; the tallest building was the three story Kisii Hotel; and the only movie theater was a dirt-floored affair with rickety benches that showed early Bollywood films. By day the country around the town was stunningly beautiful, with sensuous green hills divided into small, immaculately cultivated shambas, small farms with plots of coffee, pyrethrum, millet, maize, and bananas. At night the sky was an astonishing sheet of stars over the dark land. (Now, almost fifty years later, the population of Kisii is over 80,000, the downtown has a cluster of high rise buildings, and people can shop at a modern supermarket, if they have the money.)
Settling in at Kisii School was hard. It was the rainy season when I got there and I lived lonely and often cold in a small hut (African House 131, in the jargon of the old colonial school masters) without electricity, hot water, a flush toilet, or screens to keep out the malarial mosquitos. The students, many of them my age, had in most cases spent their first ten years on farms like those around Kisii; now they were studying at one of the best boarding schools in Kenya. It took some time for me to feel comfortable with them and with the still colonial rituals of the academic day.
I was very happy, then, to get away to Nairobi on the creaky and uncomfortable night bus once or twice in the first six months. It took me a couple of visits with Seth to realize that he was not having a particularly good time at his work either. His apparent good fortune—to live in Nairobi, to manage the theater, and to be given the heroic task of decolonizing it–was not so good after all. The theater, Seth explained to me over late afternoon beers in the cool, dark bars along Government Road, had several fundamental problems. The upkeep on the handsome building put perpetual pressure on the company to stage “successful” productions. But this was very difficult: the theater had until a few years earlier been a decisively colonial institution, serving the entertainment needs of Nairobi’s large settler, government, and expat communities, and the economically successful productions were still ones aimed at this community: “Kiss Me Kate” was Seth’s perennial example. The Kenyan population Seth was supposed to introduce to plays—African plays, to be more precise–was quite understandably not drawn to such productions, and in any event most Kenyans in Nairobi had never seen a play, lived too far away to walk to the theater, and were too poor to pay for admission. So when Seth staged works by Africans playwrights, the white audience stayed home and so did most Kenyans. Money was lost. When he staged “Kiss Me Kate” to keep the theater afloat, the seats filled again but the Kenyan press came down hard on him for pandering to the postcolonial elite. Damned by the theater’s economic overseers on the one hand and by fellow Kenyans fighting the war for cultural independence on the other, Seth had no clear route forward. He was trapped, baffled, and increasingly angry. His best hope, he thought, was to build the touring company we’d talked about and send them out into the sprawling settlements and the countryside. That at least would enable him to reach the audience he wanted to reach with the plays—African but also European—he wanted them to see.
That’s where, Seth explained again, I could be of help. To get the theater to the people, he needed to have representatives in the countryside who would arrange for productions, manage the logistics of travel and lodging, and collect the modest fees to be charged to the schools and town auditoriums where the plays would be staged.
So I became the National Theater’s road manager in South Nyanza province. After a day teaching my O and A Level students at Kisii School, I would get on my 175 cc. Honda scrambler and visit headmasters and local officials in the villages scattered along the verdant slopes that ran down from the Kisii Highlands to Lake Victoria, places such as Homa (Fever) Bay, Migori, and Mosocho. These villages, typically, were little more than a scattering of shops and bars, a clinic, a building for the District Officer and Police, and a school. Beyond were fields and thatch or tin roofed huts. I’d immediately become the center of attention: a msungo on a piki-piki was not an everyday apparition. Feeling the effects of the bumpy ride, the heat, and the dust, I would brush myself off, glance around at the dusty green countryside or at Lake Victoria shining like tarnished silver in the equatorial sun. My host would appear and we’d make our way to a shuttered and stuffy office where I’d take a seat before a cluttered desk surrounded by shelves stacked high with documents and be offered tea and biscuits. The headmasters who were my hosts were eager to have players from the National Theater perform in their schools; they helped arrange lodging and transportation and readily agreed to pay the modest sums that would help cover other expenses—the actors’ very modest salaries, bus travel from Nairobi out to our province in western Kenya, etc.
A month or so after the itinerary was established, the players came, a wonderfully lively and cosmopolitan crew from all over Kenya and beyond. A few were political refugees from the wars and insurrections underway to our south, in Mozambique, Rhodesia, and South Africa. They arrived on the bus from Nairobi, and the school lorry came down to town to pick up their costumes and few props. I led them on foot up the jacaranda-lined road out of town to our school, and everyone camped out in my house and the houses of friends. There was a wildly successful first evening production in our school’s American-donated cafeteria, then the company set off to work the magic of theater in even more rural venues. And the magic worked. The productions were staged in various improvised spaces, and the audiences were large and enthusiastic. As a teacher, I got to see just how deeply moved and motivated they were. Watching Kenyan actors stage plays from Shakespeare and the new African repertory thrilled and inspired everyone. When the first night’s performance ended at our school, after the wild applause, some of our younger students, still caught in drama’s heady spell, exploded from the cafeteria and went running off across the schoolyard, whooping with delight. Older students stayed behind to watch the actors step out of character or to discuss the performances. These students, as I’ve said, came mostly from very modest farms deep in the Kenyan countryside. But they were among the region’s most gifted young people, admitted to Kisii Government Boarding School on the basis of excellent results in the national exams, and they would go on to become government officials, headmasters, and officers in the police or military. By reaching them, and the less favored but equally enthusiastic audiences at other, less prestigious schools, Seth’s troupe was touching the heart of Kenya.
But this glorious venture proved impossible to sustain. The fees charged for performances did not even cover costs. And besides, it was often impossible, at least for me, to collect them. I would ride back out from Kisii to the village I’d seen only two or three months before. Once again I’d be ushered into the relative cool of a headmaster’s office for tea and biscuits. All around, but shuttered out a bit, like the sun itself, I’d hear the drone of instruction, the glee that erupted when classes let out, the crowing of roosters and the barking of dogs. But there would be no money forthcoming. The headmaster would make polite excuses and I would accept them, aware both of my impotence and of the desperate lack of resources he addressed every day. A couple of these school heads were probably siphoning off funds—it was common knowledge that our school’s bursar was doing so—but most of them were well-educated and well-intentioned men, with memories of school days in some large town or city, posted into the outback and doing good work far away from their homes. I’d thank them for the tea and conversation, they’d promise to get the money to me shortly and ask me to thank the players once again, and I’d make the thirty or forty-mile ride back up an unpaved road or track to Kisii, a town that had decent hotels, a hospital, a bookstore, three good schools, and direct bus connection to Kisumu and Nairobi. I’d write a letter, a week or so later, reminding them of their obligations. Then I’d let the matter drop. Seth was not, I’m sure, happy with the meager returns I forwarded to him, but I received no rebuke.
With the travelling theater group off in other parts of Kenya and my need for Nairobi abating, I saw Seth more rarely. I remember vividly one long night of drinking and dancing in Nairobi. I was in town on my way to a temporary assignment at the Outward Bound School on Kilimanjaro, and Alan, a fellow PCV and mutual friend of Seth’s and mine from Tufts, was there on leave from Chad. Conditions in Chad were so challenging that in the middle of their two-year term, volunteers were given a break for R&R in East Africa or Europe.
The special treatment made good sense. Alan, for instance, found himself teaching at a school some 400 kilometers of mostly dirt road from the nearest city, Fort Lamy (now N’Djamena.) His school was located on a bit of high ground at the edge of a vast reed swamp that became, in the dry season, a vast dust bowl. There was very little to do there, no weeknight forays like mine into town for drinks and conversation with local district officers, medical workers, tradesmen and bar girls; no weekend runs up to Kisumu for a movie or dinner at Eddie Perera’s wonderful restaurant; no visits from fellow volunteers, Kenyan friends, or travelling teams of school examiners. On the dusty, boiling hot evenings of the dry season, Alan explained, he would join a fellow teacher, a French volunteer, at a sand bar in the vastly shrunken river near the school. They’d slide into the water a little, sit back, and the French guy would share his Johnnie Walker Black scotch and his big game rifle, with which they’d fire at the antelope who came down out of the dry reeds on the opposite bank for a drink at dusk. On his rare 400-kilometer bus trips to the capital, Alan said, he’d break out crying when the city lights first came into view. I had to agree that this was far more exotic, more romantic in a kind of nineteenth century way, than anything I was up to.
To celebrate our reunion, Seth took us out to his “local,” a bar in a modest suburb frequented by fellow Luas from Western Kenya. All the young men and women knew Seth, and we were immediately made to feel at home. There were only two other obvious guests in the bar, a prickly, grizzled old Brit and his younger Asian companion. At first we ignored each other, but then, playing darts, we got talking. The two were trainmen, the older fellow an engine driver and the younger a fireman. They were regulars, it turned out, introduced to the bar by a couple of Luas who also worked on the railroad. And they had wonderful stories to tell about life on the East African Railway.
Eventually a physically imposing, energetic man in his fifties showed up. Seth introduced him as a “chief” of the Lua community, and like a chief, he immediately started putting challenging questions to us about America. What was going on racially there? Why were we in Vietnam? Why waste money on getting to the moon when so much needed doing here on earth? We did the best we could to answer, but were relieved when the chief sat back, smiled, and asked us another sort of question: After this long interrogation, would we like to dance? We started as a threesome, then Seth joined, then everyone, it seemed, was dancing, not in couples but in a loose and friendly group. “Malaika” was the great hit that summer, and when it played on the jukebox, everyone sang along. It was a splendid night, one of the times when I felt, for a moment, almost like I belonged in and to Kenya, and at the same time to the loose web of a larger world that included other places and fellow travelers. Later we went on to one of the Nairobi’s “day and night “clubs, where I danced with several of Seth’s lovely friends. I was badly hung over the next day when a very formal Brit, ex-colonial and ex-army, picked me up in his Land Rover at the Norfolk for the long drive down to the Outward Bound School on the slopes of Kilimanjaro.
My last visit to Seth in Nairobi didn’t go as well. I was on edge, rattled by the prospect of leaving and by events at our school—a food shortage, a student protest, the cornering and stoning of the headmaster in our new USAID-built cafeteria, the putting down of the protests by Kenyan troops, and the closing of the school, a precious month or so of preparation lost for the students who were preparing to take their national exams.
The American cafeteria had played a central role in sparking the rebellion. Intended to improve student diet but designed to run on expensive propane rather than on locally made charcoal, it had sapped the school budget to the point where the students were subsisting on a meager diet of undercooked posho (a maize flour paste) and beans. But the budget had also been sapped by the depredations of the school bursar, who was siphoning off funds to build his own commercial empire. One of the bursar’s more egregious depredations had driven the American agriculture instructor posted to our school to something like madness. The instructor had cleared several acres of school-owned land and, with the help of our students, raised a crop of maize for consumption by the students. But the bursar refused the offer of the free maize, insisting instead on making a contract with a local distributor who was known to give him kickbacks. On the night of the riots I was standing talking with several fellow instructors and the bursar when the head boy, an elegant A level student bound for university, came over. “Why are the students rioting,” the bursar asked, with a note of mockery in his voice. “Because they hate you,” the head boy replied. “You are taking their school fees and starving them.” Then he turned and walked back up the hill toward the badly damaged cafeteria. Shortly afterward, the troops arrived.
There was an official inquiry in the wake of the uprising. When the colonel in charge asked what had provoked the protest, no one in our small staff room rose to speak. And why should they? The colonel’s power was great but distant, the bursar’s more modest but very close, and to declare his cupidity would have been to indict the headmaster himself, putting precious jobs in jeopardy. Jobs that could not be replaced, whose loss would throw the dismissed back into the increasingly desperate subsistence economy of rural Kenya or the vast misery of the urban slums.
But I could speak; I was only months from termination and already reenrolled in Stanford’s Ph.D. program, which came with a full fellowship. Nothing I said here could reach me there. “Why not say something,” I thought, “why not put your privileged status to good use?” The head boy had had the courage, why not speak for him and the rest of the nearly-starved students, who were now paying heavily for their rebellion? So I did, and after another long silence, during which the colonel’s scribe took a few notes, the colonel turned his attention to other matters.
A couple of months later, with the school reopened, I went to the headmaster’s office to ask for uniforms for the basketball team I coached. To get to the headmaster, one had to pass through the bursar. And my request was in fact one that the bursar would usually handle. It was, I thought, payback time. But since the event, the bursar, who must have known of my betrayal within an hour, had been elaborately polite and even jolly. “Can I get some money for team uniforms,” I asked him. “I don’t think so,” he sighed, after a long pause. “You’ll have to talk with the headmaster. “Can I speak with him now?” I asked. “No,” he replied, a huge smile on his face. And then, after a long pause, “not now.” The headmaster’s door was open and he seemed to be in. “Where is the headmaster?” I asked. The bursar said nothing, but slowly reached down and put his right hand deep into his pocket. My students never got their uniforms.
As I was saying, events such as these darkened my mood during my final months in Kenya. Part of my disappointment was personal: I was painfully aware that the students I had helped prepare for academic success had, in the wake of the protests and school closing, done less well than expected on the national exams. Many would have nowhere to go, no prospects for work except on their father’s tiny farms. And part was political: I had seen too many examples of shortsightedness, incompetence, and corruption among foreign aid agencies and Kenyan bureaucrats alike to imagine that the country’s future would be a tale of unbroken progress. Fanon’s dark warnings of postcolonial decline, in The Wretched of the Earth, made more sense than the facile promises of development and national glory.
When I was ushered into Seth’s Nairobi office to say farewell I could see that he too was in a particularly dark mood. “Things are still not going well at the theater,” I thought. “My friend,” Seth greeted me in the booming theatrical voice he only used when he wanted to impress or overwhelm an interlocutor, “I see that you are ready now to depart from AFRICA and return to your homeland!” I was immediately uneasy. “Do you have your ticket?” he inquired, in a solicitous tone dripping with sarcasm. I didn’t get the joke, and I couldn’t find a way into the dramatic scene he was building. “And do you have your CONTRACT?”
“What contract?” I blurted out, “What contract are you talking about?”
With this he brought his chair forward, leaned across the table, and responded in a conspiratorial whisper that gradually became a furious bellow, “You know, the contract for the book you’ve been writing all along, the book in which you wash all of our dirty linen in public, the dirty linen of our small and insignificant country, for your American audience!” For a second I though he must be kidding, but he was not. And then my own anger, almost as volcanic as his, boiled out and I felt that weird lightness of mind and body that signals some sort of absolute release from every possible constraint. “That’s right,” I replied, leaping to my feet, “and what’s even better is that I’ve also got a contract with a South African press.”
We both sat down and glared at each other across the table. “After a few moments,” I thought, “either all this will pass like the nightmare it is or we’ll be at each other’s throats.” But we just sat there, appalled and mute, breathing hard. Eventually, Seth got up, came around his desk, and walked past me out of the room without saying a word. I figured he’d gone to speak with his secretary or with the actors rehearsing on the big stage, and that he’d cool down and come back. So I waited fifteen minutes for him to return. Then I let myself out. I can’t remember what I did next, but I know I did not go across the street to the Norfolk Hotel. Neither of us reached out to the other in the weeks before I left for home.
Ten years later—1980 or 81–I was out of grad school, trying to make tenure at Rutgers University, and living in a shabby ground floor apartment on the upper West Side of Manhattan, an apartment that I’d taken with a girlfriend who eventually moved out. I was still obsessed with Kenya, with my time there, the friendships I’d made, the political struggles that had overtaken the country while I was there, the adventures I’d had in Kisii and Nairobi and “on safari” in the Masai Mara, the Serengeti, and the Northern Frontier District. I’d written my dissertation on the colonial fiction of Kipling and Conrad, and I was part of a cohort of younger scholars who were raising the issue of American imperialism in the classroom. One night over beers I said something to a friend about having been “back from Kenya for a decade.” She’d heard too many Kenya stories to want to hear any more. “You’re not back yet,” she interjected dryly.
Then on a night in December, just before Christmas, Seth appeared at my door, a bottle of scotch in hand, a broad grin on his face. He was thicker than he’d been back in the day, but so was I, and the excitement of seeing each other again was tremendous. We spent some time in the apartment, then hit the bars along Columbus Avenue, sharing a torrent of stories and the deep pleasure of each other’s company. It was a little like those Government Road afternoons all over again, but with a sadness underlying the excitement. Neither of us, it appeared, had found a way to the kind of rich relatedness and world-changing work we had imagined for ourselves. I was sweating tenure at a big state university, Seth was going off to a temporary appointment at the CBC in Toronto. We didn’t talk much about our personal lives, both of which were in shambles. And of course it was clear that history was no longer on our side, if it had ever been. We talked about politics, but mostly about college days and the precious days of the touring company, the excitement, the sense of a new community that included all the young players from Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, and South Africa and even I imagined then, to the States. Nothing was said of our explosion. But as we were parting on the snowy street outside my apartment, Seth pulled himself up and morphed, for a moment, into a sort of mzee, a wise old man. “You know, John,” he said, “my generation and I are a part of a great experiment, an historical experiment, in fact.” I knew exactly what he meant. “And that experiment,” he said very slowly, “is not going well. It is not going well at all.”
That was the last time I saw Seth. I learned later that when the theater had been taken from him in the early seventies, he’d gone on acting and directing plays, most famously in collaboration with Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Their production, in 1976, of Ngugi’s “The Trial of Deden Kimathi” retold the story of the war against British colonialism but also hinted, as Ngugi put it, that “history could repeat itself” if Kenya’s postcolonial elites betrayed their people. To stage it, Ngugi and Seth had briefly and legally reoccupied the National Theater, once again in those days under European direction and dedicated to European productions. The play had been a great success, filling the theater with African audiences, but it had gotten Ngugi and Seth in trouble with the Kenyan police. Ngugi, after further efforts to create a people’s theater beyond the cosmopolitan Nairobi, had been imprisoned and sent into exile. Seth had stayed on acting in films, directing plays, and working in the Ministry of Social Services to support Kenyan artists.
And then suddenly, in the early nineties, he was dead, well before his time. The news reached me only after some months. His death had been violent, the product of a rage and despair I saw growing in him as he played his role in the “great experiment” of decolonization. Remembering the shock of the news and writing these words, I find myself back in the National Theater, hearing Seth invite me to help build a theater of the people and hearing him, two years later, dare me to betray him and his country with some contemptuous tale. But I also see us standing on that snowy New York street, the two of us loving and fearing one another, part of a great experiment that has not gone well, but that keeps throwing us all together, more and more of us, to dance a dance of hope in this shrine of tears.
John McClure is Professor Emeritus of English at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. His most recent book is Partial Faiths: Post-Secular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison (2007).