Interview with Florence Kirubi
Florence Kirubi is a teacher, educationalist, drama writer and director based in Nairobi, Kenya. She was trained in Teaching, Communication, Leadership and Counseling. She has worked extensively with people in numerous community-based activities in rural and urban Kenya. She has also worked in several other places outside Kenya, including other African countries, Europe, Jamaica and Japan.
How did you get involved in doing theatre and community work?
I was trained as a teacher and became a classroom teacher for 16 years. During the time I also involved myself with drama, even though it was very negligible as I taught in the rural areas and had no exposure. I was then lucky as I was able to transfer to Nairobi where it was possible to do a bit of drama. I am a dramatist and an educationalist. In Kenya I have been involved in a lot of education and development work using interactive and participatory drama techniques. I write and direct the dramas. Outside Kenya, we have majored in teaching English through drama in schools in countries where English is spoken as a second language. I have done very little classic theatre.
What are the projects that you think were most valuable, successful? Can you describe a couple of them – what where they about and how did they develop?
First would be Yaliyopita si Ndwele, tugange yajayo (AIDS Project). This was received with a lot of enthusiasm in all the places we took it. This is because our dramas are very community oriented. And people see themselves in the dramas and really identify themselves. We usually will sit together in a group and discuss the drama we want to perform. We then co-script a play. We prepare introductory questions, the short drama and follow-up work.
Tindikiti (Girls’ Education) was also quite educative. Our country is at a time that many people and women organizations are trying to see the education of girls given space. We are also being careful that the boy child is not neglected and is also empowered.
How important is the social/political component of your work, especially in the context of the poor economical situation in Kenya?
My work is critical and important. How else does an impoverished community change the thinking of lowest cadre of its people but by reaching them with what they can identify with and try to change their lot that way?
What kind of stories/plays do you build together with the community? Are they classic or contemporary plays? Do you try to make your political message visible through the plays?
Most border on Contemporary. Kenya is a very interesting country. There is a huge gap between the rich and the poor. So there is a place for classic work and also community development work. We also use the churches a lot as they are very receptive. We make people think about their situations, what is possible and how change can be achieved. Our message is usually discreet, but visible.
How important is the role of music and movement in your work? Are your shows text-based or rather musical/visual/sensorial?
They can be both, depending on audiences. Africans for starters are very visual and music and movement are important. Using drama, mime, song and dance creates a realistic environment where appreciation of all aspects of the Arts by as wide an audience as possible is encouraged. The style is humorous. The cast and props are minimal.
How is the interaction with the community members that you work with, especially with the kids? What do they earn/learn, or how does their situation improve from your collaboration?
If you mean earn, then we have a cast who earn a small stipend depending on whether the project has been supported or not. If you mean learn, we create instances in which creativity is enhanced. We especially look to make kids confident in presentations.
Do you also work with theatre as therapy?
I have trained in Counseling Psychology but in Kenya therapy is still largely looked at as for psychotic people. So I’m not involved in theatre as therapy. And it is a new concept in Kenya but I know it is going to happen.
How does your work affect/change your life/your career/your humane experience? And how do you make a living? Do you live exclusively from your theatre work? What is the situation of the cultural/theatrical worker in Kenya?
It is difficult in this country to get paid as a theatre worker. I am a career teacher, a playwright and an Artistic Director and Counsellor. I usually get small speaking training or counselling jobs with schools, churches and other organisations. I use all the skills I have in this. Drama makes information palatable even for groups that cannot read or write and in that way I feel privileged and work easier with them. I have a very good standing in the society and feel fulfilled. I know my work should pay very well but unfortunately it usually does not. Although appreciated a lot, that is not what people will pay for because they don’t have that sort of money. Earn…. If the work is funded, I get paid depending on work and project funder. If I work say, with organizations, they will also pay some little money. Churches will hardly give anything towards work done. They call it ministry.
In the context of Kenyan and African theatre in general, how important is the community involved theatre? Is it given much importance, is it considered art at all? In Romania we have sometimes big sterile discussions about whether this kind of work is art or just social work…
It is the same here. Theatre in general is usually not considered art at all. I understand how important this work is but I also know that it is not valued as art. Kenyan and African theatre in general is not considered very important. It is when it is mixed with other skills that it bores good fruit.
From your experience in theatre with children from impoverished/oppressed groups, do you believe that theatre can enable these people improve their situation? Or will their situation ever change?
This is a difficult question. I would like to believe that, but I see day-in day-out value systems changing. Young people are, more and more, wanting to get rich quickly. If theater can show them how to get money soonest, then it would make sense, but I see monetary value taking precedence over other values and it is saddening.
In a context where the children, the artists, and the whole social and economical system is in poor conditions, do you think that art can change something without the help of the politics and social system?
No. It will take a really long time.
How important is the work of the international foundations or NGOs in Kenya? Do they work for the people, or rather do wrong?
They have been funding and supported NGO work in Kenya and in some sectors have done tremendously well. But now as we speak there is donor fatigue as a lot of NGOs did not use donor money appropriately. That is the good answer and the easy one, but personally I also think communities would do better growing themselves and empowering each other.
What are your hopes for the future of the marginalized and impoverished children in Kenya? Do you think the economical situation will improve?
Ok. Right now although the world might not agree, we have a good government. There is a lot of hope in me and in the common man for tomorrow. Yes, I believe the situation will improve but I also know that, that will take a long time because like I said before, value systems have changed and there is a lot of greed.
What are your artistic plans for the future?
My own artistic plans would involve making very short community message films. This ensures that more people get reached and work can be easily documented.
Thank you very much.
Interview conducted by David Schwartz