OFF-DUTY: Thespian saving Lake Victoria

Saturday July 13 2019

David Ojondo pulling hyacinth out of Trivandrum’s Lake Vellayani

David Ojondo pulling hyacinth out of Trivandrum’s Lake Vellayani with NAAM Festival International volunteers ahead of the global solidarity campaign #MyLakeMyFuture in South India. PHOTO | COURTESY | FRANCIS GIKUFU 

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David Ojondo is well known in the music and festival arenas as a production manager.

He helps artists and organisations set up events like launching their albums and showcasing their work. He works backstage, pulling the strings.

Ojondo ( nickname Ojay) has worked with popular Kenyan artists like Eric Wainaina and Juliani.

Earlier this year, he was involved in the production of the KAN Festival in Arusha, and the People Dialogue Festival held in Nairobi in March.

Ojondo’s upcountry home is by the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya. He says it no longer resembles the lake of his youth, as it now looks more like a football field due to the hyacinth covering the surface as far as the eye can see. So he decided to something about the environment, and share his experience.



Why do people call you Ojay?

Many people could never pronounce my second name properly, so they nicknamed me Ojay.

I am a descendant of the people of Alego Usonga in Siaya County who live on the shores of Lake Victoria. However, I was born and raised in Nairobi.

Did you always want to be an environmental activist?

No. I wanted to be a thespian, much to the disapproval of my parents. While I have always been artistic, my parents never viewed it as a viable career choice. So when they passed away, I decided to pursue something that they would have been proud of me for; and that is how I ended up in journalism.

What happened to your journalism career?

Well, brown envelopes. When I was new to the scene, we were being paid low salaries. So sometimes a politician sent money to kill a story and I accepted it, even though I did not really want to.

The money was tempting and I was either too ambitious or too impatient, but it burned my conscience until I chose to quit.

What did you do then?

I took four months off and went back to my first love — theatre. I began from the bottom, doing basic production design tasks in costume design, stage management, set design and acting occasionally.

I went for a tour with Eric Wainaina and Mumbi Kaigwa to the Netherlands and Italy for the World Musical Theatre Festival in 2006, with a Swahili play called Kigizi Ndoto.

So how did an ex-journalist and thespian end up being an environmental activist?

When I came back from the Netherlands and Italy tour, I wanted to get into production management full time.

I worked with GoDown and Sarakasi for the Sawa Sawa Festival, and also with Hugh Masekela, Black Uhuru, Burning Spear and Baba Maal.

The experience opened opportunities to work with Africa Unsigned, where I was charged with scouting unsigned talent from the continent.

I was based in South Africa and Senegal. In the course of my work, I was sent on assignment to Mali to cover the Water Festival along Niger River.

The Water festival is organised by the Bambara people. The stage for performances is set on a floating podium on the river. It is a cultural festival that raises money for the protection of the Niger river.

In 2009, when visiting my hometown, I found that Lake Victoria was filled with hyacinth and was shrinking.

Is that how the Naam Festival began?

Yes. I wanted to emulate the concept of the Water Festival in Mali to help conserve and protect Lake Victoria.

In 2010, in conjunction with Juliani, we held a show on the banks of Lake Victoria (Kisumu Beach Resort) to raise awareness about the need to protect the lake. Some 300 people attended. This is where my production management skills came in handy.

Naam in Kiswahili means yes. And it is also a play on the Luo word Nam that means Lake.

In 2016, I met and sold the idea of the Naam Festival to Dr Willy Mutunga the then chief justice of Kenya.

Together, we engaged in a collaborative effort with the judiciaries of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, to hold a photo exhibition of Lake Victoria.

Photographers Amunga Eshuchi (Kenya) and Esther Mbabazi (Uganda) went around the lake, collecting stories — the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The exhibition was launched by Willy Mutunga, Othman Chande (CJ, Tanzania) and Bart Magunda Katureebe (CJ, Uganda) under the slogan Justice for Lake Victoria.

How did Naam Festival go global?

Using my work with Naam Festival, I applied for a one-year training course in Kanthari Institute For Social Change in India.

Next to my college was Lake Vellayani, faacing the same problems as Lake Victoria. So we started an online campaign to clean up the lake, called #SaveLakeVellayani.

Soon after, a colleague from South America got in touch about Lake Titicaca, located between Bolivia and Peru. They needed help on how to raise awareness about the need to conserve that lake.

Naam Festival got involved, and so we started a global campaign called #My Lake, My Future.

Why your work important?

Lake Victoria unifies East Africa, so saving it will require action from of all three nations that share it. It is also the source of the Nile river. It is paramount that the integrity of that lake is maintained, for the good of the continent.

How do you raise funds for your environmental work?

I use a blend of different strategies; crowdfunding for donations from well-wishers using platforms like M-Changa, partnerships with like-minded organisations such as Osienala and the judiciaries of East Africa.

We also seek help from institutions that may be interested in our work. Currently, we are pursuing the US Embassy for financial assistance.

However, most of the running and operational costs are from my own pocket; money earned from my production management gigs.

Do you think your parents are proud of you now?

Definitely. They are smiling down on me from the sky, proud of the man I am continuing to become every day.