How Kenya’s Lagnet Theatre Company is taking on Aids, pollution and injustice
With an emphasis on outreach and education, Lagnet Theatre has been staging works to inform and unite its Kenyan community for almost 20 years, focusing on issues such as teenage pregnancy and HIV. But with no state funding, it relies on goodwill for support. Director Desai Ogada tells Eleanor Turney why he dreams of a permanent venue
Lagnet Theatre Company was launched in Kenya in 1999. “We wanted to be first to use theatre to tackle the problems that had been defining our community,” explains Desai Ogada, its founder and current artistic director. “During the 1990s, there was a lot of stigmatisation to do with HIV and Aids. We wanted to use theatre as a means of conveying the message that discrimination is not acceptable.”
Almost 20 years on, the company continues to make theatre about issues that directly affect Kenyan people. Charlie Ely, an English theatre director and artistic director of London Grey and Green Theatre Company, spent some time volunteering with Lagnet. She says its work is hugely effective.
“It’s not preaching to the converted. It’s not aimed at middle-class people, trying to get them to engage with the disadvantaged or disenfranchised. It is aimed at the people living with those issues, and so they take it seriously, it is real to them,” she says.
“The fertility rate is 4.6 children per woman in Kenya, 4.8 in Kisumu County (where Lagnet is based). In Kenya, the rate of contraceptive use is 40%; in Kisumu County, it is only 30%,” Ely explains. “When our play told the story of a 17-year-old who fell pregnant and was forced to leave school, everyone in the audience knew this story.
“When it introduced a drought that meant crops failing and the girl worrying more about the health of her child, everyone could relate. When characters talked about ways of planting different crops to make their farms more drought-resistant, everyone wanted to listen.”
When we teach in schools, we find children relating to our story more than to what is taught in class
Lagnet’s roots in issue-based theatre and education remain strong. “Before we received any funding, we would go into schools and make plays about health, mostly, and Aids specifically,” Ogada says. “We saw a lot of adolescent boys and girls being equipped with the life skills they could use to avoid contracting STIs.
“When we teach in schools, we find children relating to our story more than to what is taught in class. They see a picture on the stage, and they can relate to it more. We try to enact real things.”
Ogada continues: “The biggest challenge is the recognition of theatre as one of the basic tools that we can use to foster the development that is really lagging behind here. The support from the government is really wanting.
“Our funding comes from well-wishers and from the members [of the company] themselves and, sometimes, if luck is by our side, the place where we present work. That’s really challenging, but theatre is enjoyable so you accept those challenges.”
Enjoyment is all well and good, but funding is obviously important, too. “Unfortunately, the government doesn’t seem to be investing in the arts, tickets are still a luxury for most people and companies generally survive on very little,” says Ely. She also saw some theatre in Nairobi, where “the audience was almost entirely expats” as the tickets were unaffordable for most Kenyans.
Currently, Lagnet is working on a production about indoor pollution from coal-powered stoves. Alongside full-length plays, Lagnet also performs short scenes in open spaces and markets, Ogada tells me. “We do about three full plays a year, and then many skits – short shows in the marketplace.
“At the moment, we are trying to raise awareness of indoor pollution. We are doing a lot of community outreach. We are trying to tackle a lot of community issues. We’ve moved away from HIV stigma and on to rights and justice, and sexual reproductive health rights. We’re using theatre to advocate and lobby for these things.”
Ogada continues: “Lagnet was hired by a commission who were educating the community on issues around governance and rights. We visited the communities to raise awareness about the benefits of having a new, well-written constitution for Kenya. People are preaching peace, but peace without justice is nothing. It is a short-lived thing.
“We are also using theatre to advocate for some policies within the government, like adolescent reproductive health rights – making sure they have access to condoms, policies that are directly affecting our people. We are using theatre to influence small community discussions. We visit, we do a scene, we show how policies could affect their lives.”
Lagnet not only works through theatre, but also provides practical help: the company is working with Kisumu Medical and Education Trust and other partners on providing “comprehensive sexuality education for adolescent youths who are in and out of school”. To date, it has reached more than 150,000 people through outreach events and more than 250,000 people through educational radio dramas. The company has also distributed 12,000 condoms.
5 things you need to know about theatre in Kenya
1. Lagnet’s rehearsal process is frequently disrupted because actors cannot afford the 99 shillings (approximately 70p) return fare for a motorbike taxi.
2. Kenya National Theatre in Nairobi is part of the Kenya Cultural Centre, a semi-autonomous government agency under the Ministry of State for National Heritage and Culture. It stages musicals and plays, as well as beauty pageants.
3. Kenya’s top actors can expect to earn approximately 5,000 shillings per play – about £35.
4. Many opportunities for theatremakers, directors and actors to volunteer in Kenya exist, especially around education, social change and development.
5. Kenya celebrated 50 years of independence in 2013. The Ministry of Sports, Culture and the Arts contributed to a budget of 500 million shillings (£3.5 million) for the celebrations, which included refurbishing the National Theatre.
It has also partnered with the University of Alberta in Canada on a research project called Old Stories in New Ways.
Ogada explains: “We have an old legend that we have rebuilt in a new way, to make it resonate with the young of today. In Kenya, we have a lot of tribalism, and we are using the [folklore] story of warrior Lwanda Magere to bridge gaps. We are trying to unite people.
“We are using this big, old story in new ways to inform the community that as long as we hate one another, we will go back to where we used to be. We are not Luos, Kalenjins and Kikuyus [three major Kenyan tribes] any more, we are all people. That’s what we’re trying to achieve through this theatre piece.”
I ask Ely what stayed with her from her time in Kenya. “The biggest culture shock was that time does not rule work and activity in small-town Kenya,” she says. “Time-keeping takes a backseat to many other priorities, such as family farm work, other work to generate income, looking after relatives or taking over work for relatives if they are unwell.
“The local buses wait until they are full to leave rather than sticking to a schedule. So it is very easy to get frustrated if rehearsal is meant to start at 9am and by 11am you have only half of your actors, but there are so many legitimate reasons that people are delayed.”
The company recognises the importance of building Kenya’s creative economy, and it trains and supports its members to develop skills and find further work. “We have nurtured lots of talented youths,” says Ogada, “who have been taken on by the media industry. They don’t have a background in mass communication or as a journalist, they are coming from theatre. Lagnet alone has supplied five radio presenters recently, without them having any previous training.”
Is Ogada interested in also making the same leap from theatre to radio or television? “I’m very interested,” he says, “but my dream job is here. The venues we use are really overcharging us. I dream of a new, community-run theatre, a good space that can professionalise what we perceive theatre to be.
“In Kenya, we have a national theatre, started by the British during colonial times, and we have international theatre. Apart from that, we don’t really have any theatre spaces. My dream for Lagnet has always been to have a theatre space, to make work in a professional manner, so people feel that it is worth paying for. That could be really special.”
Profile: Lagnet Theatre
Artistic director: Desai Ogada
Location: Kisumu, Kenya
Number of productions (2017): Three full shows, approx. 300 ‘skits’
Audience figures (2017): Approx. 60,000
Number of staff: 20, including 15 artists
Turnover (2017): Approx. £7,000
Funders: Approx. £1,200 from well-wishers, Approx. £5,200 from University of Alberta, Approx. £550 from Kisumu Medical and Education Trust, a project on reproductive and sexual health.
Key contacts: Desai Ogada, email@example.com