Babushe: The man pushing Kenya towards arts city revolution

By Stevens Muendo | 3 months ago
Barbushe Maina, a film maker from Nakuru County speaking to The Standard on July 7, 2021. (Daniel Chege/Standard)

Film actor and trainer comes here to reflect on his quest to learn culture and build on his ideas.

To many, this is a tourism destination where people arrive in droves for adventure and history. For Babushe, being here is a lifestyle. He calls it home.

His escapades lead us to the iconic Sleeping Warrior safari destination on the Soysambu Conservancy, then to the Lake Elementaita Hot Spring.

It is a three-hour adventure that fuses culture and history, exposing the wealth that is Nakuru County.

For years, this has been the 66-year-old’s routine, one that has had him conceptualising Nakuru as Kenya’s Arts City.

Everything he says speaks of a man with a deep conviction about his Arts City dream. 

His grey hair speaking of wisdom, the burly built man has found a formula to rewrite history. This is his retirement joy. 

Controversial to those who do not understand his acts but a hero to his believers who have followed through his struggles in championing the place of culture, arts, and the creatives behind the works for over three decades, Babushe is a man who has seen it all.

Story-telling sessions

And even as he remains optimistic in his new quest to see Kenya become the creatives hub of Africa, he recalls the price he has had to pay having been arrested and threatened as he rubbed the government the wrong way by using art to expose corruption and other vices.

“My passion for the arts, especially making stage plays and other forms of literature started when I was at Menengai Secondary School, where our plays qualified but never won during the secondary school drama festivals finals.

Most of those plays used to be disqualified as the production exposed the government and the ruling class and their corrupt ways, something the government of the day could never have voiced,” says Babushe.

He adds: “I used to like some theatre plays that were aired on KBC as they used to inspire me. After high school, I moved to Nairobi and became active at the Kenya National Theatre (KNT) and Goethe Institute, where serious artistes and literature lovers used to meet for stage works and story-telling sessions.”

Babushe recalls how artistes started the drumming and dancing culture that later gave birth to Drum Café. He would scout for traditional dancers and get Kenya represented in international festivals such as the Festival Mundial.

“However, my main interest was in theatre where we would have prominent people in the audience for Shakespeare and mystical Western plays that we staged,” he says.

Political leaders also came to watch our plays.

“Local plays including The Marriage of Sigona, which was sponsored by Matiba and the 1998 big theatre play Professa Nyoori, the latter by Wahome Mutahi, caused tension as they were highly political,” says Babushe as he singles out Sweetest Taboo as one of his best plays on humour.     

It was at KNT, the melting pot of Kenya’s theatre, where hard-hitting plays with political innuendos and shakeups were staged to audiences that were sometimes forced to flee for fear of being arrested by the police. They feared they would be victimised as proponents of an uprising or political revolution.

Besides entertainment, back then, theatre was the uncensored voice that championed good governance and fought for freedom during an era when individuals could not risk speaking directly on such sensitive issues.

This was the time Sarakasi Group was founded, and with support from NGOs, other private groups started touring the country to sensitise people on development matters using plays.

Provoked and exposed through English and vernacular theatre plays, the government hit back and hard.

“It was during the mid-1990s when Kenya had just become a multi-party state that a plot was hatched to dispose of KNT. This was the biggest fight Kenyan artistes had ever fought against the government, as we staged a protest on the streets of Nairobi and held a vigil at the Norfolk Hotel,” says Babushe.

“We were joined by students from the University of Nairobi and politicians allied to us and together we staged a sit down at Norfolk, where we ate and threatened to paralyse operations should the planned KNT takeover happen.”

No amount of intimidation, teargas or arrests, would deter this solidarity and after about a week, things cooled down and the story died,” he says.

Away from theatre-politics, Babushe was facing opposition from his own family. He laughs as he recalls how family members would warn him not to mention that he was into drama when they had prominent guests.

Having been branded a rebel and an outcast, it was hopeless, he says, trying to prove to them how the bigger picture looked when it came to theatre and all he was advocating.

His own family, he jokes, still does not care much about what he loves most.

That did not matter though as his peers especially around Uhuru Estate, Nairobi, saw him as a hero and a mentor they could depend on to keep their artistic dreams alive.

As he branched out to TV commercials, Babushe started mentoring TV stars like the late Charles Bukeko aka Papa Shirandula.

Then the world came calling, and invitations to speak and act as a Kenyan representative in international festivals and cultural conferences became the norm.

Rebel and outcast

And with all the exposure and experience, Babushe has met some of the world’s greats and says he would rather have the world come to Kenya to enjoy the great creative stories and cultural heritage.

This, he says, is the reason he has retreated to Nakuru where he is working with community-based organisations and the county government to create a pilot hub that positions Kenya as an art country.

“Alongside other creative entrepreneurs in Nakuru and across the continent, we are at a juncture where we begin to understand the benefits of the creative industry and its contribution to the economy of any country,” says Babushe.

“We know that the modern-day economy is not dependent on agriculture only, and that developing countries are moving towards sustainable development and knowledge-based economies that speak of industrialisation in a more inclusive way.”

Babushe also introduces us to the Urukan Arts and Culture hub project.

He says that ideas, concepts and intellectual property are never diminished or exhausted and that creativity is sustainable and should be encouraged and protected under favourable intellectual property policies. 

“Cultural villages and producers of indigenous products will offer a market for the cultural tourist. As a result of recent developments on the continent pushing for cultural tourism, it is envisaged that development of the sector can also contribute to the promotion of Nakuru as a unique tourist destination,” he says.

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