In December 2017, Mumbi Kaigwa was recognised for her contribution to performing arts by the Ministry of Culture and Social Affairs of Tunisia at the 19th Carthage Theatrical Days.
An actress, singer, director playwright and producer, this award is just one of many for Kaigwa, earned over a 40-year career in performing arts in Kenya and around the world.
In 2016, Egypt’s Ministry of Culture and Social Affairs honoured her with a lifetime achievement award at the 23rd International Festival of Contemporary and Experimental Theatre in Cairo, for creating theatrical campaigns around social themes.
In 2013, South Africa’s CEO Magazine presented her with a Lifetime Achievement for being Africa’s “most influential woman in the arts and culture.” It was therefore befitting that in the same year, she was elected president of Women Playwrights International.
Although Kaigwa got her first taste of performing at an early age — in 1972 when she was just 10 years old, and a student at Hospital Hill School in Nairobi, she played a young girl in a televised screening of Wole Soyinka’s play, The Strong Breed — she has not always been in the arts and culture space.
She enjoyed verse-speaking but pursued business studies and has a Masters of science degree in Management from the United States International University, in Nairobi. She left a career with the United Nations in 1999 to pursue acting fulltime.
She had roles in the long-running Australian TV series Neighbours, acted in the Hollywood production The Constant Gardener that was shot in Kenya, and in The First Grader, based on the life of an elderly Kenyan man’s quest for education.
Kaigwa has performed in Zanzibar, Tanzania, and directed a play in Uganda. Her productions highlight issues around social justice. In 2003 she introduced to Kenya and the region The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, a highly acclaimed play addressing violence against women.
As a cultural entrepreneur, she runs The Arts Canvas, a company which produces plays, documentaries and conducts workshops. Her latest project is The Mumbi Kaigwa Arts Institute where she teaches young people the art of theatre acting and documentary film making.
Last December the Tunisian government honoured your contribution to performing arts at the 19th Carthage Theatrical Days. What does the award mean to you?
It’s a great honour to be recognised for my lifetime’s work, particularly by the government of another country.
You have a number of awards from around the world and only one from Kenya. Is this indicative of the value Kenyans place on the arts?
Theatre has taken a smaller role in the lives of Kenyans. This is the same globally as social media and its short attention span culture has taken over. I think we still consider culture and the arts as secondary issues when in fact they are fundamental to society.
Art allows society to step back and become accountable. It gives meaning to our lives. Artists are society’s truth-tellers, allowing society to reflect on itself, make amends, laugh and to consider alternatives.
Are there different skills you need for stage vis-a-vis film acting?
While both are about acting, a theatre performer is used to moving in a linear fashion from beginning to end. A film actor has to be able to work out a sequence and to contain a mood within a scene even though they may not yet have worked on the previous scene. You may have to remember that the previous scene is where the action begins.
Where do you get ideas for your performances and characters?
My work is mainly documentary theatre and comes from the real lives of actual people.
Your work often addresses social matters, why is this?
When I decided to work in performing arts full time and professionally, I wanted to promote a strong connection between artists and society. I wanted to undertake initiatives that reflect contemporary issues. I’ve always been interested in culture, social justice and humanity, and I see my work through these prisms.
I see the role of my art within Kenya’s context and often examine how each production connects with the past in a way that helps to reconstruct the future. I am drawn by theatre that speaks about who we are and the innumerable choices that exist.
Where did you train in acting, dance and script writing?
I don’t have any formal training but I’ve been privileged from primary school, to work with some great directors from all over the world in film and on stage.
Kenya is a long way from Africa’s leading theatre cultures, that is South Africa and Nigeria. Is this because of lack of formal training, government support or just financial constraints?
Certainly, government support would help, and including theatre arts in the school curriculum would create a sense for parents and society of its importance in our lives. It’s sad that many people still think of theatre and the arts in general as mere ‘play’ and not something to be taken seriously.
In other countries you read of theatre artists being revolutionaries and heroes of society. In Africa, often there are bigger concerns such as health, education and the environment, which perhaps take attention away from the arts.
Why did you decide to leave a career with the UN to pursue arts full time?
My roles and responsibilities at the UN were governed by whoever happened to be my boss. With supervisors changing every three years, it created a situation where I never felt the impact of my work. I decided to leave because I wanted to do work that mattered. Becoming a full time artist happened quite by accident. Up until when I was jobless, I didn’t realise that art could be a career. I was like most of my peers and thought it was something one did as a hobby.
Who are your favourite actors and why?
They tend to be those who take their roles seriously and use their star status to speak truth to power, and to make a positive mark on society. They are too many to name but they come from all around the world. Having said that, I also love artists who don’t take themselves or their stardom too seriously.
What would you say to young actors who dream of making it big and becoming famous?
Don’t worry about becoming famous because that stuff doesn’t last. Just do things that matter.
How would you like to see Kenya’s performing arts industry progress?
I would love to see all arts back in the school curriculum. It is through art that we learn to respect ourselves and others, learn how to share, and create peace on earth.