In her debut historical novel, Black Mamba Boy, Somali novelist, Nadifa Mohamed follows the story of Jama which begins in the Yemeni port city of Aden. Jama loses his mother at a young age of ten and sets out to find his father on an almost blind journey. He sets out based not on facts about the whereabouts of his father but on rumours. His father, he’s heard, is in Juba, Sudan, but when he sets out, he does not even know what road leads to where. He can’t tell in what general direction Juba is and what road to take. He comes to Somalia, then occupied by the fascist Italians. But Jama does not settle. He is on a mission to find his old man and in so doing goes into Djibouti, Eritrea, Sudan, and Egypt. The novel, I’ve later found out, is a homage to the writer’s father who spent his young life crisscrossing the continent in almost similar conditions to Jama’s. It is a story about seeking. How a young people set out to find their destiny, and in so doing, their future history.
In Ngatia Bryan’s theater piece, Losing Grip, he begins the performance with live instrumental music. Doing the music are hip-hop artist and poet, Flow Flani Wakaba, vocalist and guitarist Ciano Maimba, and vocalist Achieng Otieno formerly of Royalty by Black. Flow Flani makes quite an impact on the music as he accompanies Ciano and Achieng. His beatboxing is solid, giving one the effect of instruments, drums particularly, around. They are performing Pharrell Williams’s Happy. The music then fades as the stage lights fade out too, the focus being drawn away from the music trio on stage to the centre stage. Ngartia is seated, in a red cap and a crumpled T-shirt. This is the introduction before the introduction. Ngartia is the persona here. He introduces himself as Kamaa’s friend. Kamaa is the main character. This intro by Ngartia prepares us to understand that this story is not told from Kamaa’s end. Rather, it is Ngartia telling it. A kind of homage before we are thrusted into the main character’s story. Then the lights fade out again, and in the darkness, one hears Laura Ekumbo doing the intro. She welcomes the audience, then breaks into a conversation with Ngatia. Then at last, Laura asks,
“Is there anything to say before we start?”
To which Ngatia answers,
“Errrrrmmm, yeah. This show is dedicated to Wairimu Ndung’u, Benson Koome, and Karen Nkatha.” Then the lights fade out and Flow Flani comes on with the beat boxing as Ciano and Achieng join him with the vocals. And they are magical with their voices in that darkness.
The story then becomes the normal story of a young man in Nairobi. Kamaa (Ngatia) is in a bar drinking. He’s newly arrived to the city. He’s a shy guy. Then in comes Jasmine (Laura), dressed to kill and evidently out to make out tonight. She is a young woman in college and college life has not been smooth. She’s done with her exams for the semester and this is her way of letting go. They are a match, Kamaa and Jasmine. It then becomes the cliché story of a one night stand, but presented in such a powerful and touching way you don’t even remember that it was supposed to be cliché. The chemistry is evident, even in its superficial and lustful manner. The intentions are shared. There are to be no strings attached after this. This is a one off. There are no contacts exchanged after the (obviously) unshown one night stand. Everyone goes their way after the night. Life goes on.
The transitions from one scene to the next are with music with the lights on the musicians. The next scene is Jasmine in an abortion clinic. She’s undecided whether to keep the baby or to do away with it. She’s battling with her conscience. Her conscience (Ngatia) lays out the facts about the abortion. It torments her on how she got this pregnancy from the one night stand. The conscience goes into the details of the sex, the desires and the clinging on to one another. It almost becomes didactic, but Ngatia manages to pull out of the rant just before it does leaving the audience with clarity here; regret. But it (the conscience) does not make a decision for Jasmine. It leaves her on her own, on the clinic bench. Just a few steps and she is in the abortion room.
Details of Kamaa’s intentions in the city are then brought out. He is a musician. A rapper who’s come to Nairobi because it could work here as opposed to picking tea in Murang’a. And he’s learned that he has a kid with Jasmine. He has decided to man up, to provide for this kid. His forays aren’t turning out well. His music career has so far been lackluster. No hit. No money to justify the long hours spent working. But he decides to give it just one more shot. One more shot and put everything behind that. He produces a song and pours in everything. The beat is just right and the lyrics have worked out. The producer has assured him that this should be the big break. But then, when the song comes out, the lyrics are not his and the voice is somebody else’s. Not even credits are given to him. The producer has swindled him. There was no discussion about copyright. Word of honour is a strange thing in the city. But a man shall provide, somehow. So when his boys call on him to do a hit, just one hit instead of small fish ngeta that is most likely to get one in trouble, he decides that he shall do this single one and get out. Just one heist and that is it. For the sake of his child.
The last scene of Losing Grip is a radio recording. It takes place with the stage lights switched off. A policeman speaks Kiswahili in the (usual) policemen Kalenjin accent. He says,
“Tuliweza kupiga wanne risasi na wagafariki papo hapo. Mwingine alitoroka na majeraha ya risasi.”
We don’t know if Kama is among the four gunned down or if he escaped. But we hope he got away. He was just doing it for his kid. And it was just a one-time heist. No return business to it.
This is not Ngartia’s first theater piece. At least not the first he is being involved in. About a month before the showing of Losing Grip, he had show-cased We Shall Not Forget, a poetic historical narrative of Kenyan post-election atmospheres and the usual violence and hatred that comes after every five years. It was staged at the Kenya National Theater and he was accompanied by other young talented Kenyan poets. This was an urgent theater piece that should have gotten much more attention than it did. And yet Losing Grip differs significantly from this earlier project. It comes with an equally urgent appeal, a desperation that hits the young in the city and how their lives quickly get intertwined and sometimes go downhill. It is more intimate, more narcissistic, telling a story that is significantly parallel to that of the writer’s life; a young man from rural Kenya trying to find his way around the concrete jungle. At one point, having read some biographical writings on Ngatia Bryan, one may even be convinced that this is a partly biographical work. And it probably is.
But in the end, I am reminded of the similarity between Ngatia Bryan’s Kamaa and Nadifa Mohamed’s Jama. Both leave to find a better place. Their experiences turn out to be quite a story. One of endurance for Jama and one of hanging on for Kama. In the end, we are left with a hope though. Perhaps Kamaa was the one who lived. And in that living, being a rapper and therefore a poet, perhaps there is hope and future for young artists, especially poets. Why? Because Losing Grip is such a powerful declaration by this young artist: That we are here and we are creating and our works are not just standing alone in the dark. They are rooted in reality.