In Africa, theatre defined as a performance of music and skits has been in existence for centuries. But when narrowed down to specifics like theatre for children, it is considered new ground, which has however been adopted by a few countries with a strong history in theatre.
This year, the Kina Festival, a biennial event held in Kigali, was dedicated to children’s theatre.
The festival which took place at Kimihurura in Kigali from October 31 to November 8, drew a moderate audience of children aged between five and 10 years, and a few parents.
The message was clear, that East African and other African countries need to invest more in theatre, especially theatre for children.
The Kina Festival
The festival was initiated by Ishyo Arts Centre in 2009 to encourage parents to take their children attend theatre productions. In the beginning, the festival activities included a moving library, which involved tours through various schools and communities, where readings were held. It later ventured into live presentations too at the Espace Madiba, a sizable children’s library located in Kigali.
Among the festival’s featured performances was Abore, a Cameroonian play by Etoundi Zeyang and Fourmane Nkoma Charles, which, going by the reaction of the audience, caught the children’s attention.
The play is based on a story of two friends living together in harmony despite grappling with negative emotions such as greed. With the performers dressed as clowns, this play, through non-verbal communication, relates well with children as the performers use common sounds to express their emotions in a humorous way.
A 20-minute play by La Barracca, a group from Italy, was a hit with children below the age of four as it too employed non-verbal conversation, and offered captivating visual acts. On a totally dark stage, two actors used rhythm and dance and played with different light colours and patterns using different lamps and objects like glasses and bottles to showcase their acting.
We Call it Love, a play written by Felwine Sarr, a Senegalese author, is about the 100 days of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, and the process of unity and reconciliation. It tells the story of a woman who decides to meet her son’s killer. The play comes to a climax when the two meet.
Also featured were dance tales by Democratic Republic of Congo’s Busara Dance Company and Rwanda’s Sick City Entertainment.
Hosting artistes from Rwanda, Burundi, DR Congo, Cameroon, Germany and Italy, the festival encompassed stage performances and conferences and workshops held over a week.
The Kina Festival is yet to pull in large audiences though things are looking up, according to Carole Karemera, Ishyo Art Centre’s artistic director and one of the festival organisers.
The case for children’s theatre
In a series of conferences held on the sidelines of the Kina Festival, experts in children’s theatre noted that despite the genre’s presence in Africa, even where children were involved, most presentations were not in line with the development of the young minds towards theatre, since most performances depicted or addressed adults and not children.
“It’s a global issue that children don’t possess or enjoy the same rights as adults,” said Robert Frabetti, an administrator for La Baracca Testoni Ragazzi from Italy. He further noted that a child is an adult’s reflection, who needs nurturing towards creativity. Frabetti is an actor, writer and director based in Bologna, Italy.
Etoundi Zeyang, who is Theatre du Chocolat’s director and general manager of the African Theatre Festival for Children and Young People, said in Africa, ministries of culture are allocated the lowest budgets, which has long hindered theatre development on the continent.
“Governments need to increase the number of opportunities in theatre for children,” said Frabetti.
Over 25 countries in Africa are currently members of the International Association for Theatre for Children and Young People.
Cameroon, according to Zeyang, has a lot to offer to other African countries. “In our system, theatre is at the centre of education, especially in infant classes,” urged Zeyang.
But this hasn’t been a smooth journey, according to him, as the country too, allocates only a small budget to the Ministry of Culture; still a lot of sensitisation had to be done by artistes for society to get on board as far as support for theatre for children is concerned.
Zeyang further said that children worldwide are affected, especially when tragedies like wars, famine and economic crisis strikes, “Theatre also develops a child’s critical thinking” Zeyang explained.
“How we tell stories matters. All stories can be told to a child, and not only those with happy endings,” said Frabetti. “We would like to work with teachers and policy makers in ministries of education, sports and culture on how we can enhance children’s creativity at an early stage,” said Karemera.