Imagined drama of rush for Turkana’s oil wealth touches off soul searching

Scenes from the play ‘Shackles of Doom’ by Butere Girls that was suspended by the
Ministry of Education for being ‘offensive’.[PICTURE: GEORGE ORIDO/STANDARD]

By George Orido

 A play, Shackles of Doom, by Butere Girls was defying all odds by emerging tops at the zonal, district, county, and regional stages until last weekend when a decision by the Ministry of Education officials reversed the roller coaster.

Communication had reached the school that the play had been censored and banned from proceeding to the national stage slated for April 15 in Mombasa. The message of doom was shocking to the playwright and director, the ever colourful but controversial Cleophas Malalah.

And the shock must have been hard because by all means that play has its form and content so high the regional giants Kakamega High School could only manage a second position with an equally powerful production, The Tempest by seasoned producer Oliver Minishi.

The move ban on Shackles of Doom dampened the spirits of Butere Girls students who haven’t seen the coveted national stage for years.

On Wednesday, the girls mourned the whole day with heavy dark clouds hanging low. It was a day of doom. It was sad after a well-received performance.

 The students gave it their all as they paced through the acts that left no doubt whatsoever that this year Buture had a pedigree of actresses who were business-like and would leave no room for mistakes.  They let their vocals, eyes, and beings transform to a phenomenal instrument of communication and dialogue.

By the time of the curtain call in, they breathed a sigh of relief that everything had turned according to plan and occasionally better than expected.

Shackles of Doom depicts a film shot in the land of the Kanas. These are people with rich cultural heritage spanning years into pre-history who refer to themselves as the True Kanas. For lack of technological knowhow they are oblivious of the riches beneath their land in form of large oil deposits.

Underlying message

But this treasure in top secret only known to a neighbouring community who brings in a top delegation as they offer a beautiful bride – Wamaitha to be married off to Lopush who is a Kana in exchange of land where they settle. The deal is done.

Wamaitha’s community comes in not only to settle but also to construct the Mafuta Oil Refinery Company. The Kana, whose livelihood has been defined by nomadism and sporadic fishing are hopeful the new investment would create jobs for the community.

 “This oil company will generate jobs and heal the wound of oppression,” declares Lopush who has become a darling of both communities.

   The manager of the drilling firm holding aloft an emblazoned with National Cohesion and Integration emblem proclaims,” People let this shield be a symbol of commitment to facilitate and promote equality of opportunities, good relations and a peaceful co-existence. Let us create a new bond of national cohesion.”

A thunderous applause amid ecstatic ululations greets this announcement. Alas! The joy is short-lived as the human resource manager announces the new list of employees. All positions except that of watchmen and manual jobs are taken by the visiting community who bought the land and has constructed the oilrig.

Kana’s hope for a better future is diminished in a minute.   Their cries for consideration fall in deaf ears and they are warned of procrastination “I have received a quotation to supply 600 barrels of oil latest tomorrow morning. Let’s get to work!” orders the manager. Determined to move on, the Kanas proceed to take up their appointments.

Later on in the play, profits accruing from the oil trade are siphoned out of the Kana and no further investment in social, economic or environmental well being is considered nor undertaken. The life standards of the ‘True Kanas’ fall below the pre-factory of affairs in Kenya today. They reflect in pain as they rue the day they exchanged their land for the bride Wamaitha.

Sensitive subject?

Shackles of Doom is a critical and measured reflection of state affairs today and would resonate with anyone who appreciates the main challenges facing Kenyans.

Tribalism and land are core themes addressed in the play. Only recently during the campaigns the issue of land was hot and ‘emotive’.

The author and director of  Shackles of Doom  says his inspiration was after reading a report on State and Public Service jobs by the Dr Mzalendo Kibunjia led National Cohesion and Integration Commission.

They reported a major anomaly where State jobs were heavily skewed in favour of certain ethnic communities.

Shackles of Doom questions the legal and equity issues around these appointments and acknowledges this trend is a threat to national cohesion. But explaining the ban, Mr Khaemba Sirengo, Executive Secretary of the Kenya National Schools and Colleges Drama Festival, says the decision was partly because the play did not meet national cohesion and integration standards.

Watching the play one appreciates the delicate nature of issues therein. The choices made by the author to be explicit about those perceived to be the beneficiaries or otherwise of an inherently flawed land policy in Kenya has been the debate among critics.   While some felt comfortable, others were uncomfortable with the play especially with the name of the characters that suggest the communities they come from.

“Is it taboo to enact something that mirrors reality?” wonders Malalah, who has just captured the County Representative of Mahiakalo Ward in Kakamega County.  The good news is Malalah is ready to adjust the script agreeable to all and avoid the doom of not presenting at the nationals.

In the Kanu regime, banning plays was common but this trend disappeared for the better part of President Kibaki’s years only to reappear on his last days in power.