Interview with Sophie Dowllar, SWAN Day Kenya

By Deborah Steinberg

Sophie Dowllar is the programming manager of the 5 Centuries Human Rights Theatre Group in Kenya, which uses theatre to engage communities in addressing and solving their problems. She has organized two SWAN Day celebrations in Nairobi, Kenya, and is currently preparing for SWAN Day 2010.

Dowllar talks to the SWAN Day team about how women artists in Kenya are working for equality and social change, the challenges they face organizing SWAN Day, and the importance of building community among women artists.

SWAN: Can you tell our readers a little about your theatre company, 5C’s?

Dowllar: 5Cs is an acronym of our first play, 5 Centuries, which revolved around the 5 Centuries of Slavery, Colonialism, Neocolonialism and Postcolonialism in Africa. This play was written by our then Director Mr. Kanga’ra wa Njambi, and it proved popular, educative and entertaining.

5Cs was started in December 1995 as a response to the constitutional debate that was being discussed in the country with very little success. 5Cs was formed to help the public understand the whole issue of constitutionalism with much ease. So through this interactive and entertaining medium – theatre – 5Cs used different genres varying from songs, dances, poetry, puppetry, mimes, theatre, and spoken word to drumming.

The idea came as a result of fatigued audiences. There was so much information that was to be passed to the audience, and the usual pen and flip charts way of doing things tended to be boring and tedious. So the 5Cs idea, which passed the message easily, was adopted. We all know the role theatre plays – it is a language that can be easily understood by a vast majority of people including semi-literate audiences and audiences needing translation.

Theatre also cuts across all ages. It’s one language that can easily pass messages across without anyone feeling offended. In Africa, there are many barriers in terms of culture and taboos; many a times, people find it so difficult to explain things the way they are, but for us artists, it’s been easy. When we get to such situations, that’s when we use puppetry, so no one feels offended, and we pass our messages across without fear.

5Cs way of performances were inspired by the 1970’s Kamirithu performances (Ngungi wa Thiong’o) and the University of Nairobi traveling theatre of the 1980’s. In the 90’s, 5Cs was the most popular community theatre group that was doing theatre for social transformation.

When we started, 5Cs had 22 members, and three officials (because we had a stable income and members were assured of some salaries by the end of the month) but after the funding was cut and our mother organization (4Cs) could not fundraise for its theatre wing anymore, many members left for greener pastures, and only 8 members have remained to date. From the year 2000 to date, 5Cs has not had a stable funding, but our members believe in what we do, thus the continued togetherness. The group now stands at 8: 7 women and a man (drummist, but we all play at least two different musical instruments).

Our Mission is to seek a free, fair and just society through connecting grass root artists with the aim of reaching individuals, groups and organizations who are working towards eliminating all causes at the root of poverty and suffering of the people. We therefore continue building and reinforcing a vast process of popular education so that people can analyze for themselves the causes of their oppression and discrimination, and seek possible alternatives.

SWAN: In your opinion, what are the most important issues that need to be addressed for Kenyan women in the arts? What could the rest of the world do to help Kenyan women in the arts move forward?

Dowllar: Artists in general in this country have to put up with a lot of challenges, from corrupted producers to audiences that need free performances all the time to love your music to piracy of your pieces once out in the market, but Kenyan women in the arts face numerous challenges. Inequality and discrimination are the hardest hitting.

Iif Kenyan women in the arts find a way of saving themselves from very bureaucratic and senselessly strict producers, and the unappreciative public that pirates work from them, then the women would be getting somewhere. But again, as long as there is no strong women artists movement where women artists can speak for themselves, then no one out there will do it for us.

We have so many issues that we need to address as women in the arts, because we feel the pinch more, and know how it feels. So for me, a very strong and powerful women artists movement would be the most appropriate in addressing the issues affecting women artists in Kenya.

As Kenyan women in the arts, we do appreciate the steps taken by WomenArts. Just having the free website with so much information is a great beginning towards building and strengthening women in the arts – not only in Kenya, but the world over. We know there are a lot of women artists out there with different experiences and ideas that we can share.

If in the rest of the world, women artists can start being generous and share new ideas and what has worked for them, then Kenyan women can benefit from this. If there are helpful sites with information on how to get scholarships for artists, financial support for artists, please, keep them flowing. Usually Kenyan women struggle for artistic recognitions like kisima awards, groovy awards, kora awards, and many a times, there are sites where people vote in their best . . . when the rest of the world votes for Kenyan women, it gives a lot of individual or group support.

SWAN: Can you tell us about both SWAN Day celebrations you’ve organized? What was the public reaction? How has SWAN Day affected the women who participated? Can you share any individual stories from women who participated – new connections that were made, opportunities that opened up, learning experiences that were had? Are you starting to plan for SWAN Day 2010?

Dowllar: I was very excited by the SWAN Day idea immediately when I saw the post on the WomenArts site. I just wanted to be part of this beautiful celebration. So the first SWAN Day was such an experience for me, and I am so happy I managed to organize it, even though it was very difficult to mobilize people following the post election violence and the prolonged unrest that rocked our country. That was the first public gathering I organized after the violence, though it was still illegal to hold any public activity; not even family meetings were allowed. But I was happy when we did have a successful event.

Following the success of the first SWAN Day, I vowed to myself that I wanted to organize the second one, and was so eager to make it even better than the first one. That is how I started organizing for the second one earlier enough, and I started by creating a SWAN Day group on Facebook; that attracted many people, and gave me very high hopes of holding a successful second SWAN Day. This again turned out to be more successful. So for me, I believe SWAN Day is a good thing, a beautiful idea, and that’s why it keeps growing, and people keep asking for more. I am definitely psyched for the third SWAN Day.

The public reaction has been positive. People want more than once a year SWAN Days. Artists appreciate having a holiday for women artists, and a few men have come to our event to appreciate and congratulate us as women artists for being part of the international celebrations.

The women who have so far participated in both the SWAN Days feel so empowered. Every time women artists gather to talk about their issues, people leave the venue with many new ideas, open and interactive dialogues that build and have dominated both the SWAN Days, and so I clearly say that all these, wrapped up with the WomenArts site that is very informative has affected positively the women who have attended the SWAN Day, we have built, and continue building a stronger women artists movement in the country that will be addressing women artists’ issues all year round.

SWAN Day has been a very balanced and neutral space for all the women in the arts. Many grassroots and upcoming young artists have made follow- up calls and meetings to appreciate how they met their local celebrities that they only watch on national television stations. Others have been bold enough to candidly ask direct questions to the artists (local celebs as we call them). So, the idea of SWAN day for many helps break the class barrier that there has been between artists. SWAN Day also cuts across all generations openly. All women in the arts meet and mingle freely with one another. It’s been a building space according to so many participants of the second SWAN day.

An opportunity opened up unexpectedly in the preparations of the second SWAN Day. A local organization, Center for Multi-Party Democracy (CMD), agreed to support us in terms of paying for the hall at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, following the strength they saw in the women artists, and the importance of the day. Usually, CMD only funds political parties, but SWAN Day, which is non- political, and a day for celebration for women artists, got support from CMD Kenya. It gives us more morale to build on the day with more vigor and psych, since now it is very evident that SWAN Day is indeed an important day.

If mobilized properly, SWAN Day can rock the world. I am glad we are getting there. We started planning and mobilizing for SWAN Day 2010 immediately after doing all the reports for SWAN Day ’09.

SWAN: Can you talk a bit about how SWAN Day is helping to build a sense of community for women artists in Kenya?

Dowllar: SWAN Day is indeed helping to build a sense of community for women artists in Kenya. Since the first SWAN Day happened, women artists have been urging us to meet more often. Many a times, we meet under the banner/umbrella of SWAN Day as women in the arts, and it feels nice to hear women in the arts talk openly about the challenges they face while doing arts from different genres. The challenges are numerous, but they vary. Such issues can only be addressed if different artists feel part and parcel of one movement, where no one feels superior like “I am the director here…. So listen!!” – Kind of talks… SWAN Day has laid a level playing field and all the artists, painters, writers, poets, singers, acrobats, dancers, sculptors, culinary artists, fashion and dress artists, all feel equal while addressing issues as women artists.

SWAN: Those of us who are based in the U.S. take certain things for granted when organizing for SWAN Day, most notably the internet. We understand that your group does not have reliable or consistent access to the internet. Can you talk a bit about the challenges this poses? What other challenges do you face organizing SWAN Day in Kenya that groups in the U.S. or Europe might not face? Do women artists in Kenya experience censorship?

Dowllar: In this time and age where technology is the ultimate solution to almost all the problems, here in Kenya we still face a lot of challenges. Computers are still not very easily accessible. For instance, even in Nairobi, the capital city, there are still very many village areas where there are no cyber cafes, etc. So people have to commute all the way to the city centre to browse or do any other internet related work.

Commuting from point A to point B calls for money, cyber cafes also charge according to the time spent, and many a times the connections are very slow. So one ends up paying heavily sometimes for time spent trying to connect, and when you give up, you still have to pay for the time you were at the computer. So it’s a bit difficult mobilizing people through the internet, though we know that it’s one of the fastest and easiest ways of connecting to so many people (if everyone had access).

Downloading or attaching stuff with a slow connection is very frustrating, especially if one is optimistic that they would hold on till they attach or upload. So if it doesn’t, the last thing you want to think about thereafter is trying again. So if one was to mobilize women artists through the internet alone, you may end up with a handful with two or three people after several months of checking and following up who have visited the site.

Cell phones, too, are quite expensive. For very few minutes one pays so much, and sometimes, one is trying to look for as many artists as one can get. So when you call one artist, and ask them to give you the contacts of another artist or artists they have contacts of, many times the response would be, ”Call me after certain minutes I check.” So communication generally is a challenge.

Meeting places while organizing for SWAN Day is another challenge we face. Sometimes the organizing committee would like to meet two or three times a day, and as women artists, we do not have our own offices. We have to rely on goodwill organizations for support in terms of a base, but when they are busy, or have their own meetings, even if you had mobilized yourselves and used your fares to get to the venue, and they had allowed you before, priority will be their organizational meetings. So space is another serious challenge we face.

If we have to meet in hotels or cafeterias, then we are forced to spend some money to buy drinks or food and buy time till we finish our meetings, and many times if we are a large group, the management insists on us paying for a meeting table. In parks, it’s not easy to meet. The City council askaris are watchdogs who harass gatherings of five and above in public parks.

I cannot say that it is easily noticeable that women artists face censorship in the present Kenya. But, not so long ago, In March 2000, 11 5Cs members were arrested, taken to police cells, and later in the same day, taken to court, and remanded in prison cells for organizing a week long cultural activity for a minority group of people in the country called the Ogiek Community. We were denied access to our lawyers, any human rights organizations, our supporters or family members. Only because of the intervention of Amnesty International – UK, were we released. But after a lot of international pressure as prisoners of conscience, now, we are able to organize and mingle.

SWAN: What message would you like to give to young women who are going into the arts?

Dowllar: Out there, when you make your choice, and tell people that you are going into the arts, many will look at you like you are not on your senses. Many others will discourage you. I want to tell the young women that we are soon breaking the barriers that have kept us down trodden for so long. When I started doing theatre in 1995, there was nothing like SWAN Day that gives solidarity to women in the arts. Now, we are moving to a world where women in the arts are appreciated more, and the society is quickly accepting that art is work just like any other work, it can pay your utility bills, and can clothe you just like any other profession. The society is also accepting and appreciating that art done by women is as good as and many times even better than art done by men. So it’s for you really to follow your heart and listen to your inner voice.

SWAN: Finally, can you tell us about a woman or women who have inspired you to do the wonderful work you’re doing?

Dowllar: Many women have inspired me to do the work I am doing. But I want to pick a few who have changed my life, and my way of thinking in the fields of arts. Helen Lindsay, an actress based in London, who has done theatre since she was a child to date in her very mature years of living, helped keep the 5Cs group together by linking us up to the IPAT committee. She also linked me up with my now very good and inspiring friend in Scotland, Anuschka Miller, who continues to appreciate me for who I am and what I do, and supports me always in my endeavors.

Martha Richards, for taking all this arts that I have ever known to another level. She has enabled me to be part and fit in the greater heights than I ever imagined I could reach. I get a lot of inspiration from her supportive gestures, and the whole idea of supporting as many women artists regardless of their backgrounds.

Oprah Winfrey has always been an inspiration to me, especially because she has invested so much in education for girls in Africa. I felt so validated in my own work as an educator when I read about her commitment to the same goals.

Locally, I admire Jemimmah Thiong’o, a local gospel artist who has a big heart and is doing wonderful work out there.

And all the women in 5Cs group… Diane, Lydia, Anne, Pauline, Esther and Shaleen. I love them so much… They go through so much to continue doing theatre work that changes and inspires the communities we live in… I know how much sacrifice all this means, and how much we go through together… I simply adore you. You are a wonderful team to work with.


SWAN: Thank you, Sophie!