Determined to conquer
When Nyota Ya Meru, an elderly all-woman theatre group from Meru county, was formed, only one thing was on the members’ minds — to use artistic performances to raise awareness on the challenges women face. Eight years later, that dream is now a reality, writes Imou Eparis
Performances by the all-woman theatre group — Nyota Ya Meru (Star of Meru) — often shocks people. Their jumping, rolling on the ground, laughing and immense energy makes the crowds do a double take, but these women are used to the faces of surprise among their audiences.
Recently, the theatre troupe members interacted with a professional stage for the first time to perform their play, Can You See Us?
The play, an Easter special, was a series of short performances staged at the Kenya National Theatre (KNT) in Nairobi. The skits were based on different themes sorrounding the obstacles and challenges women have faced for decades, from gender inequality to physical abuse.
“One of the very first activities we did was to explore what the community would look like without women in it. This started a conversation on all the things that women do for their families, for their communities and for each other,” Proffesor Karin Waidley told Spice.
The show was performed in Kimeru, and portrayed the story of a woman through a woman’s perspective.
“You asked us to take care of our children and give them everything we have. But then you take our honour away in an abusive situation,” said the group members during an interview. “Another thing we explored was how we are asked to raise the girl child, but then society pushes her down. For instance, a girl’s desire to go to school may be frowned upon,”
Prof Waidley, a theatre arts practitioner from the US, held a series of workshops and training sessions with the Nyota Ya Meru group weeks before they performed to prepare them for their KNT debut. In her own words, her work here was done way before she arrived as she found nothing majorly new to teach the thespians who would easily pass for professionally trained performers. If anything, she is making plans to use them as an acting masterclass template for her students in the US.
During the performance, the audience was intrigued and excited by the one-of-a-kind performance that left them begging for more.
“I didn’t understand some of their jokes because I don’t understand the language. However, I understood the theatrical bit. Theatre is a global language. I got their overall message,” a member of the audience told Spice.
On the other hand, audience members who understood Kimeru couldn’t hold their laughter.
“That was what they wanted to say. Can you really see us? With our full humanity intact, the good, the bad and the things that happen behind closed doors,” said Prof Waidley.
“For the performance was about being able to show we support and uplift each other; like resurrect each other so to speak by inspiring each other,” said Esther Wanjiku, one of the show’s facilitators.
Nyota Ya Meru is made up of Evangeline Ruuri, 67, Mary Kanyuru, 65, Joyce Kinanu, 58, Kathure Mworia, 53, Grace Kathure, 53, Fridah Kanyiri, 49, and the youngest among them Caroline Kawira, 27. They came together in 2014 to use art as a way of coping with their individual struggles. They began acting in church and when they noted the impact of their work, they decided to share their art beyond the church walls.
They refused to be defined by their history of pain and prejudice, taking up the stage despite their circumstances to shine a light on critical community issues.
In doing so, they became drivers of change in ethics, ending gender-based violence and highliting mental health challenges among many other themes. This inspired their name and objective, shining bright enough from their village in Meru and now beyond and on to the world.
The troupe started performing at weddings and other social events from which they later started earning a modest income. They went on to register the group at the county level and their energetic performances and consistency over the years have earned them a considerable local following.
Despite their families approval and the growing fan base, the group has faced some backlash too, especially from their community.
“Our families are okay with our acting. In fact it’s a plus for our grandchildren, though we often don’t get anything to give them. Our grandchildren are just really excited that we are in the theatre,” said Ruuri.
Kanyuru added; “We have faced a lot of challenges, with some people saying we are doing nothing, that we are women who just waste time and don’t know what we are doing. They say we have no work at our homes.”
The group impressed the facilitators of the Kenya International Theatre Festival (KITFest) during the Meru edition of KITFest County Training and Workshops in 2020. The troupe was honoured and celebrated in the 2021 KITFest, during which Mworia was the face of the festival.
“These women touched our lives by the sheer dedication, strength and artistry that defines their character; something of wonder from mothers and grandmothers. Their age and gender have not deterred them from taking up the role of community educators through theatre, with a buzzing local fan base attributed to their high quality and energetic performances, and consistency over the years,” says KITFest festival director and Kenya Theatre Awards chairman Fedari Oyagi.
Wanjiku added that Nyota Ya Meru will be back in November for this year’s KITFest.
“This is one of the reasons we are here, so we can push for financial support to get them back here and continue to share their beautiful works,” she said.