Kenyans Celebrate Heroes Day by Dramatizing the Life and Times of Wangari Maathai

Nation online 19th October 2012

Wangari Maathai’s memories will always inspire Kenyans to strive for that which is good for the Kenyan communities. Her legacy and that of many unsung women who have contributed to the building of peace and harmony in Kenya and to the development of Kenya cannot be over emphasized. Long live our heroines!

Mumbi Kaigwa is commemorating the life and passing on of Kenya’s most celebrated woman, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Prof Wangari Maathai.

She has assembled an outstanding cast of Kenyan actors and secured performing rights to a Pulitzer Prize-winning script about a brilliant woman whose life and death parallels Wangari’s in surprisingly similar ways.

Ms Kaigwa is also giving a chunk of the funds she hopes to raise from staging that play to the Nairobi Hospice, which is celebrating 20 years of assisting terminally ill patients.

Under her new theatre company, the Arts Canvas, Kaigwa and her troupe will stage Margaret Edson’s Wit from Tuesday to Sunday at Braeburn Theatre.

It is directed by Nyambura Wariungi, who worked in both film and theatre in Canada for more than a decade before returning home this year to make a movie and direct the Wit.

Wit features an amazing cast as well. It not only includes Kaigwa, who is celebrating 40 years of performing on stage, television and film this year, it also embraces a whole new crop of local film, theatre and TV talent, such as Dan Aceda, Samson Psenjen, Njoki Ngumi, Mugambi Nthiga, Fridah Muhindi, Sahil Gada, Wangui Thang’a and Musa Mwaruma.

Because Wit traces the life and death of Dr Vivian Bearing in dramatic detail, one might expect the play to be painfully depressing.

On the contrary, Wit is filled with ironic humour, sarcasm and self-awareness on Bearing’s part. Stunning is also an apt term for Kaigwa’s performance as the dying don who dramatically appraises the process of her passing almost to the very end.

Being a scholar and researcher with a literary flair (like Wangari), Bearing chooses to document the gruelling eight-month process of experimental treatment that she endures at the hands of medical researchers, students and specialists who claim to hold the cure to her ovarian cancer, but in the end she (and we) find out, they don’t.

Like Bearing, Wangari was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She also endured months of experimental treatment that eventually failed. Nonetheless, for both women, death is not the end of the story by any means. See the play to find out what I mean.

Self-discovery

One of the beautiful bits about Wit is the way John Donne’s poetry is interwoven into the script. Also inspirational is Bearing’s deep affection for language, one of the elements of the university professor’s life.

But what I found most striking about the show was the process of psychological self-discovery that seemed to parallel Bearing’s physical treatment for cancer. For while the chemotherapy wasn’t successful, the soulful insights that she gained in the process were transformative.

Bearing, like Wangari, had been uncompromising in her professional life. However, this is the point at which the two women’s lives differ. For Bearing had got so caught up in her own genius and in the genius of the 17th century poet John Donne, that she had forgotten about compassion and human kindness.

Her students had suffered as a consequence. It is only when she is awakened to her own need for comfort and kindness that she reflects on her cold-hearted treatment of everyone around her. The realisation, however painful the process, is liberating for her.

Wit is a must-see, especially as it touches on a topic that affected one who was and remains very dear to many Kenyans, the Nobel laureate, Prof Wangari Maathai.

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