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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Shujaa Stories ballet troupe tells tales of our legends

Legendary stories found fresh expression recently with the Shujaa Stories ballet. Choreographed by the Dance Centre Kenya, some of the hardest working agile children between the ages of five and 15 danced their way through 12 epic tales of Kenyan superheroes. Five generations on, what is the relevance of these remarkable Kenyans for us?

Like other countries, Kenya faces the global poly-crisis of catastrophic climate change, cost of living, democratic recession and social polarisation. We grapple daily with the deadly venom of inequalities, impunity and discrimination. Hope appears to be depreciating faster than the Kenyan shilling and reflecting on the future for most is a luxury. The only task right now seems to be reducing the cost of living, avoiding excessive taxation, de-escalating social intolerance and channelling restlessness away from violence.

Over-preoccupied, it is easy to forget that many generations have directly faced and overcome these challenges. In so doing, many leaders emerged who distinguished themselves and those who followed them. The Shujaa Stories Ballet traces a century of leaders who contributed to gender equality, creative free expression, human rights and the democratic and sustainable environment we enjoy today.

Visionary prophets like Syonguu wa Kathukya from Kajiado and Ireri wa Irugi of Embu warned their communities that colonialism was preparing to devastate Africa. Their stories instruct us, it is not knowledge where power lies, but imagination. Not what has happened, but what could happen next.

Wangu wa Makeri of Murang’a remains an icon to most Kenyan feminists. While she collaborated with the colonialists, she disrupted the idea that only men could lead. From Anyango Nyalolwe of Kisumu county we learn the power of leaving abusive and violent relationships. Muyaka Bin Haji of Mombasa gave us those beautiful Mashairi poems while the Makonde of Tanzania and Mozambique created a tradition of sculptures that celebrate humanity’s diversity and the resilience of women.

From Laibon Lenana of Kajiado, Untulo of Marsabit, Sultan Yusuf of Mombasa, Queen Amanirenas of Nubia and, a personal favourite, Mekatilili wa Menza of Kilifi, we learn leadership integrity, strategic and tactical agility. Mekatilili was probably the most resilient of all. Repeatedly arrested and exiled, she walked over 700 kilometres (without a smartphone) to continue the fight against the British.

Timely after the Climate Africa Summit in September, the Shujaa Stories Ballet included the true story of beekeeper and protector of forests Gasara Winn from Garissa county. He boldly drew the line against environmental degradation in ways that current environmentalists could emulate today.

In choreographing and instructing the alpha generation in the beauty and discipline of ballet, the Dance Centre Kenya has also brought our ancestors to life with diverse life lessons for us all. Let’s encourage them and others to interpret the other 50 Shujaa stories created by Tatu Creatives for all our stages, cinemas and digital gadgets.

This nation was built by leaders from all our counties. From them, we can learn integrity, relatedness and service to all people and our planet.

The writer was one of the Shujaa Stories Ballet narrators in 2023. This opinion was published first on 24 October 2023 in The Star.


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