9.1 East African Poetry & Drama: What is the role played by universities across East Africa in advancing the practice of Drama and poetry in East Africa?

Chapter 9

The Travelling Theatre in East Africa

9.1 Identify the role played by universities across East Africa in advancing the practice of Drama and poetry in East Africa.

9.1.1 List some of the activities that members of the travelling theatres engaged in.


The crucial problem that has faced East African literary artists is attempting to create drama and poetry that has a relationship between performers and the audience.  Most theatre companies are in urban areas where a minority of the citizenry resides.  The majority in the native villages get little if not none of these theatrical experiences.

In order to break out of this narrow way of operation, several university-based drama outfits resorted to a pattern of activities which have lead to the rise of the traveling theatre.  In East Africa, The Makerere Free Travelling Theatre and the University of Nairobi Free Travelling theatre are examples of this pattern.


Makerere Free Travelling Theatre

This was an outfit of lecturers and students of the University who decided to come together and take theatre to the people by touring around Uganda performing plays for the people in the language of the people. It made its first tour in 1965.  It was largely influenced by the popular Uganda theatre of Wycliffe Kanyingi.  Initiated by David Cook, Margaret Macpherson and Betty Baker, the project was financed by the University itself, Ministry of Planning and Community Development and British Council, Esso Petroleum Company all of Uganda.

Its aim was to provide a popular drama amongst the general public of Uganda.  Rehearsals lasted fir a minimum period of five weeks.  Performances were entirely by students at Makerere University and the relatively long preparation and rehearsal period was partly geared towards welding the individual performers into a cohesive team motivated to travel.

Because the Makerere Free Travelling Theatre toured a very wide area, the plays chosen were very varied in language, cultural background and complexity; the idea was to have a wide repertoire which could fit almost any performance situation.

The plays on the first tour in 1965 included six in African Language and seven in English.  Those in African languages were mostly in Luganda, Runyoro or Rutoro the three mostly spoken languages in Uganda.

The variety of plays on the tour was partly determined by the variety of performance areas.  Some African language plays (such as those in Luganda or Runyoro) were restricted to particular linguistic groups that spoke or understood those languages.


Generally the plays had to be flexible enough to adapt to a great variety of venues as well as the different audiences e.g. the Bantu speakers and the nilotic speaker. This adaptability made the theatre able to communicate with a variety of popular audiences.  Something peculiar realized in successive years was that the elite people of Kampala, the capital city, were not attracted to this form of theatre.  No wonder when the troupe staged its shows to raise funds in Kampala Theatre, the attendance was extremely small.  But when they toured other areas the responses by the peasant audience was quite impressive as cook says.

‘I was struck by how much, relatively, less wealthy of our audience gave hundreds of people to whom ten cents was a lot of money preferred it eagerly; and how relatively little the professional, substantial spectators (including Europeans) contributed Cook, David, 1965; Report of the MTT, 1965; research paper University of Makerere, Kampala.’


The publicity campaign was a direct one that relied on members of the troupe cruising through town with loud-speakers announcing the shows just before they took place, a technique backed up by processions of performers dressed in a variety of costumes.  This system worked so well bearing in mind that British Council had provided a fleet of landrovers vehicle, Esso Oil Company fuelled them.  Cook estimates that the total 1965 audience attendance was at least 17,000.  Often the audience was so big it strained the resources of the hall.


This kind of audience forced the actors to reject the bourgeois technique of keeping distance between actors and audience and adopt the more participatory active audience, a technique that borrows heavily from the indigenous African Theatre.  Sometimes the audience reaction was so noisy that one would have thought it was ‘a kind of mime before a football final match’ end the audience blew whistles in celebration.


This adaptability of participatory enthusiasm and intensity of popular audiences points to its main strength.  This troupe genuinely sought to break out of the bourgeois theatre (especially the proscenium arch stage).  In so doing, the Travelling Theatre made important organizational and aesthetic transformations designed to improve the relationship between performers and popular audiences.


University of Nairobi Free Travelling Theatre

This was another theatre outfit of lecturers and students. It was associated with fairly established authors such as John Ruganda, Kenneth Watene and Francis Imbuga. Early 1970’s theatre lecturers at the University of Nairobi tried establishing a traveling theatre movement but the organization and requirement was overwhelming for them.  It took the skills of the experienced John Ruganda who had participated in it at the University of Makerere (Uganda) to help them kick start it. In 1974, Ruganda with the help of some lecturers from the University took a handful of well-rehearsed student actors on the road to act wherever they were welcomed – in school, market places, social hall e.t.c.  All the performances were free and whoever wanted to watch was invited.

In the mid-1970’s, however, under the direction of Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Kimani Gecau, it embarked on a more radical policy of touring the country performing politically committed plays such as the Swahili version of Ngugi and Mugo’s The Trial of Dedan Kimathi.

Funds for touring around the country were raised from advertisements placed in the programmes as well as from the University administration.  This venture was very useful for it trained many theatre practitioners who eventually went out to try it and the first beneficiary were schools.  Many graduates were involved in the School Drama Festival as playwrights, directors, choreographers and adjudicators.

The University of Nairobi Free Travelling Theatre was however not as strong as that of Makerere University in terms of organization, structures, versatility and content.


The Kenyatta University Travelling Theatre

This is a Drama outfit that was formed to take care of the dramatic talent flowing in the undergraduate students at the Kenyatta University after the establishment of the culture week festival.  Many performers in the festival felt the need to have an organized club that could provide drama beyond the culture week festivities.

Under the guidance and leadership of Maurice Amateshe, now a lecturer in the Music Department of the same University and with a little help from the then Vice Chancellor, Prof. George Eshiwani, the students managed to come together and organize a series of play productions in and out of the University.  The most memorable play was The Successor which was performed in Kenyatta University, Kenya Science Teachers College, The British Council auditorium and other places around the country.

The first members of this theatre club eventually became very powerful and able theatre practitioners with its leader, Amateshe, being retained by the University in its Performing and Creative Arts Centre where he served until his appointment in the Music Department.  Janet Kanini was taken as an actress at the phoenix players professional centre and later on moved to journalism with a local television (NTV).  John Kiarie popularly known as KJ teamed up with other comedians to form the Redykyulass Company and is currently trying his hand on Kenyan politics. Caroline Nderitu grew to become, perhaps, the best known poet in Kenya who writes and recites poems on an international scale.

The members also direct the dramatic forms and choreographe dances that accompany them.  In the later years, Kinyanjui Kambani, one of its successive leaders wrote a play The Carcasses which was very successful.  It has since been adapted into film.

KUTT as it is known is a purely non-profit making club which seeks to exploit and harness the talent of creativity among its members.  It stages plays and encourages its members to write scripts of plays, narratives and poems.

Of late the group has sought to partner with corporate institutions while KUTT offers entertainment, the institutions offer financial support.  Perhaps KUTT is better known for its performances of schools set books.  Every year since its establishment, the troupe goes to different parts of the country performing the plays and adaptation of novels and short stories to secondary school students at a fee.  At times, members of the troupe who are students in the Literature Department engage the secondary school students in literary discussions of the literature set books.

9.1.2 Enumerate the major stages of development of the Kenya Schools and Colleges Drama Festival.

Kenya Schools and Colleges Drama Festivals

Therefore this was a period of experimentation and it was proved that the use of traditional Dramatic forms added freshness to the Western Dramatic forms.  The most memorable play presented at the festival was Makwekwe written and produced by Charles Wandiri in 1981 the play was in Osotsi’s words, an example of superb craftsmanship at all levels of play production.

Osotsi et al pg 214

Schools Drama Festival had been previously under the leadership of expatriate staff at the Ministry of Education but in 1979, the First Kenyan African Drama and Literature inspector,  Mr. Wasambo Were was appointed. Under his stewardship,  the festival took a drastic departure from the past.  Instead of being staged only at the Kenya National Theatre year in year out, Wasambo directed that it be taken to different parts of the country each year.  He also directed that the colleges’ festival which had been running as a separate festival take place together with the secondary schools one.

In 1981, he engineered the entry of the primary school category into the festival.  Hence the Drama Festival took the shape it has now under the stewardship of Were.  The other major change at the festival came in 2003 when Alembi Ezekiel engineered the overhaul of the primary school plays to fit the needs of child-centered approach.  His argument was that primary school plays were plays acted for children and by children and hence they should subscribe to principles of children’s literature (Osiako et al (2003).


The schools Drama festival started in 1949 as European Drama Festival but when other races were incorporated, it later changed its name to Schools Drama Festival.  This festival was organized on a competitive basis and this called for innovations.  This festival grew especially in the seventies moving away from Shakespeare and his approved colleagues through one Petit bourgeois’s living room versus the African hut to a more genuine attempt at representing the setting as was seen from the subject matter that now seemed to reach the majority of the people.

Of particular interest is that each time a playwright wanted to add freshness to a staler stage, the traditional songs, dances and practices rituals were invoked.  The climax came in 1971 when a play in Maasai language Olkirikiri was crowned the winner of the year’s festival.

Today, the Festival prides itself as one of the largest entertainment shop in the whole East African region. Every year, Kenyans are treated to nine days of plays, Dramatized dances, Dramatized verses and Dramatized Narratives from the eight provinces of the country. The Dramatic techniques and the content in the items presented are emphasized by a panel of the adjudicators selected by the Ministry of Education –Kenya to judge and rank the teams. Although Ministry officials would like us to believe that the Festival is a co-curricular activity that allows students to exercise their creativity, one realizes that the cut throat competition for prizes dangled during the Festival, invites participation of other theatre practitioners who are neither teachers nor students. This in turn stifles the participation of students in terms of scripting, choreographing, directing and even stage-managing. Students become machines to be fed with information, which they regurgitate on stage. Being, an educational co-curricular activity, one would expect that teachers would encourage the participating students to come up with scripts that they will Dramatize.


It is worth noting that many of the theatre and Drama practitioners today are both products and disciples of this Festival. This perhaps is one of the major reasons which you as a student of Drama and Poetry in East Africa, needs to appreciate this Festival. It has made a big impact on the practice of Drama and Poetry in Kenya that studying it becomes a necessity rather than a luxury to you.




  1. Describe the contribution made by Wasambo Were in the growth of the Drama Festival in Kenya
  2. In your opinion, what is the common feature in the three Travelling theatres we have discussed above?



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