The declining art of African storytelling has received a boost in recent years through a modern storytelling platform called Engage Kenya.
Engage Kenya is a live performance of non-fictional story-telling events to “inform, inspire and influence.”
It was started in April 2015 by Donald Bosire and Agatha Juma. Twice a month on a Saturday evening in Nairobi, ordinary people get on stage to talk about their lives.
“They have stories worth telling and worth hearing,” says Agatha, a former marketer with a background in tourism and public-private dialogue.
When I went to an Engage event I listened to people talk about dysfunctional childhoods, struggles with substance abuse, love stories, rising from failure and more. But even the most difficult stories were told in a light-hearted and entertaining way.
There was a theme for the evening but the story-tellers were from different social and professional backgrounds which kept the narratives fresh and unexpected.
In between speaker sessions were musical performances mostly by independent upcoming musicians, who played classical, Afro-fusion and country music.
To date over 170 people have spoken at Engage to packed auditoriums of guests.
In April this year Engage held its first session in Kampala.
Donald and Agatha met more than 10 years ago at Toastmasters, a public speaking and communication franchise with hundreds of clubs around the world including several in East Africa.
Listening to various speakers they recognised there was an absence of public platform for people to talk about their life experiences. Toastmasters also gave them public speaking skills that underpin the vision Engage Kenya and coaching the speakers.
Says Juma: “Without the sharpening from TM, I doubt we would have had the confidence and desire to have people tell their stories.”
She adds that they seek out people who want to talk “not for themselves and their catharsis or self-aggrandisement, but for the benefit of others.” But most of times potential speakers approach them or are referred by others.
Some famous Engage guests have been Anyang Nyong’o, Governor of Kisumu County, award winning poet and playwright Sitawa Namwalie and jazz artist June Gachui.
Agatha acknowledges it can be challenging managing the multiple aspects of speakers, artists, suppliers, venue preparation and ticket sales. Yet the quality of speakers and stories has attracted interest from people wanting to get public speaking instruction. This prompted Agatha and Donald to start the Engage Masterclass programme, a communication coaching programme held every month.
Engage Kenya’s winning formula has also brought international attention. In September 2019 Agatha and Donald were invited to Cornell University, a top American institution, to run Storytelling for Science session.
This is a one-week storytelling master class for one of Cornell’s fellowship programmes. It was held for an international audience of guests from Europe, Asia, Africa and the America.
“They were impressed that an African company was able to deliver a workshop of equal, if not higher value, than the European or American firms they had previously used,” said Bosire, a certified coach and change management professional.
While in the US, they also hosted two Engage sessions in Dallas and Atlanta. Kenyan speakers in the diaspora took the stage to tell their stories to a largely East African audience.
Although the quality of technical support and sound engineering here is of good quality, Donald says travelling to the US showed them how much more is possible in the field of public storytelling.
Says Bosire, “There are stories around the world waiting to be given a voice and platform.”