To some her poetry is so inspiring she is invited to grace prestigious events. But others find her work too simplistic for a mature audience. Love her or hate her, Caroline Wanjiru Nderitu-Benjamin continues to soar to great heights, writes WANGECI KANYEKI
What is poetry to you?
Poetry is the reason I was put on earth. Whatever I do, I must do poetry otherwise I would be disturbed.
When did you begin reciting? Caroline Wanjiru Nderitu-Benjamin
Caroline Wanjiru Nderitu-Benjamin
Since I was four-years-old I would recite poems in Sunday school and kindergarten. I kept asking teachers and guests at home if I could perform for them. My mother tells me that I was also keen to teach other children to recite. If they did not comply I would beat them for not taking recital more seriously.
I had been nicknamed Ciiru Kahurani (one beating others). So in essence I have been on stage for almost 31 years.
Is it true that your poetry is too simplistic?
My poems are specifically written for performance. In written poetry, one can afford complex words, imagery and rhythm because the reader has opportunity to re-read the poem and ponder. However in performance poetry the audience does not have that advantage. Words must be simple so the audience can grasp them.
I also add music and play writing skills to make my presentation palatable.
How did you develop the art of writing your own poems?
When I was at Ngandu Girls. I remember one time I wanted to go for Drama Festivals but was dropped from the group performance for three consecutive years yet I had memorised my lines.
I realised that the only way to be guaranteed a spot was to do a solo. My first poem was titled The Spice and was about celebrating Africa.
I got so excited that I appointed some of my friends to dramatise it. This made us get disqualified because it was meant to be a solo performance.
Which major events have you performed at?
I have performed at several corporate events including for Telkom and Orange, United Nations, Fire and Coya Awards among others. My greatest highlight was reciting at the Obama inauguration festivities at Washington DC, and promulgation of the Kenyan Constitution at Uhuru Park.
The biggest impact trips have been India and Iran because they are so different and had a rich cultural and religious heritage.
In Bandar Abbas, Iran I was nominated for the 14th International Storytelling Festival by the Iranian ambassador to Kenya after he watched me perform at the National Museum in Nairobi.
Poetry has enabled me to travel to 15 countries, on all-expenses-paid trips which has exposed me to rich cultural, religious and economic diversities. I have also interacted with world leaders.
What are the major challenges you encounter?
Debt collection from my clients. My poetry is about positive energy so I find it difficult for me to change my role from a diplomatic ambassador to harassing clients for my pay. I employed a project manager to sort that out.
What has been your worst stage experience?
When I performed during my first year at Kenyatta University. A university audience can be both rewarding and punishing. Students are intellectuals and want an out-of-class entertainment experience. So I was performing during culture week and they clapped and clapped to spite me.
The next time I went on stage I created poetry with words that inspired them.
The students finally appreciated the poem and I was included in the Kenyatta University country tour together with Comedy group Redykulass.
How much do you charge for your performances?
From Sh50,000 to Sh250,000 depending on the amount of work and time that goes into a project.
Some projects require that I travel and research for over two or three months.
I sometimes have to use additional personnel such as acrobats, artistic director and lighting experts for proper effects.
Do you always recite your poems in English?
I am mainly an English and Kikuyu reciter. However, when I travel, I inject the respective language into the poem.
I have recited poems in Spanish, Polish, German, Persian and French. I utilise the native phrases and expression, then use a translator to explain the English parts to the audience.
How did you meet your husband?
I met Roddy Benjamin in September 2005 at a fundraising in Naivasha that I had been invited to by the former MP Naivasha, Jane Kihara.
A wonderful friendship sprouted and we had a customary union ceremony in May 2008. In December 2010 we had a formal wedding.
He is a horticulturalist in Oserian. He is also an excellent scriptwriter. He is my co-director at Caroline Communications Ltd.
What do you do when not on stage?
I am a professional trainer and coach in public speaking, presentation and poetry. I have also authored three books on environment, spirituality and children.
You also do accent reduction. What is it about?
I train my clients on how to reduce heavy mother tongue accents in their spoken English.
Having been born and bred in Nyeri, I had a deep Kikuyu accent, with very strong ‘th’ and ‘ch’. I would also use Kikuyu vowels rather than English vowels and would pronounce church as ‘chach’ without pronouncing the ‘r’.
With time I have been able to reverse that by practising proper pronunciation.
What would you advice upcoming poets?
Never give up on your spontaneous art for art’s sake. Find your style and sharpen it. Listen to critics but do not take them too seriously. Do not copy another person’s style.
Any tips for someone who has public speaking phobia?
Nervousness is internal. Only 10 per cent is visible.
No one needs to know that you are nervous.
Always envision yourself succeeding and your audience applauding.