Kamau wa Ndung’u and Nick Reding’s DREAMS OF ELBIDI (NDOTO ZA ELBIDI) is a unique fusion of community theatre and traditional cinema. It offers not only a dramatisation of Kenyan ghetto life, but a way to entertain its African audience while educating them about HIV and AIDS. Ignorance on these issues is leading to serious social breakdown, from fractured families to acts of violence against children.
In 2001 Nick Reding was best known as Amanda Burton’s partner in “Silent Witness”. He took six months out of acting to build an African public hospital, and through his clinic worked to raise awareness and understanding of HIV and AIDS in Kenya. As a performer he saw theatre as an ideal way of conveying this information into the public domain in an accessible and appealing way. Through his work with Nairobi arts troupes, Reding met Kamau wa Ndung’u and formed a professional relationship.
Based on their touring stage play, DREAMS OF ELIBIDI follows the story of a man who moved to Nairobi from the Western Province, and made a life for himself in the Mathare slums. The story takes place when his four daughters are coming of age and dealing with moral, religious and sexual conflicts all too common to Kenyan youth. Stage play scenes, including shots of the live ghetto audience, are intercut with more conventionally cinematic interpretations of the story. The contrasting style in the stage play sections is comparable to the use of “chibi” in Japanese anime – a stylised, comical interlude used to convey issues and emotions using a quick and effective shorthand. On stage, narrow minded villagers jeer and curse the HIV afflicted protagonists, showing exaggerated ignorance and hypocrisy and inviting gleeful ridicule from the live audience.
The story is set in Nairobi but the play has also travelled to Mombasa and Maasai Kenya, to places where the villagers don’t venture inland. Two thousand people attended an open air screening in a slum in Mojembo, which was followed by a lively Q&A session. One of the leading TV channels in Tanzania and Uganda will be screening the film three times, and reaching out to an even wider audience.
The film is aimed specifically at a Kenyan audience, although the Arts Picturehouse screening on 9th November attracted people from a wide range of backgrounds, and created a warm and animated atmosphere. The Picturehouse audience was eager to pose questions to our special guest Kamau wa Ndung’u.
What is your working relationship with Nick Reding, your co-director?
Ndung’u described the instinctive working relationship he has with Reding – saying that they often come up with the same ideas independently. “It’s a beautiful collaboration because we have different backgrounds,” said Ndung’u, “it’s about listening to each other’s ideas and coming together”.
Will the film be disseminated to schools?
Ndung’u explained that there has been great demand for a DVD from hospitals, youth groups and partner organisations. The stage play has been running for five years but the company simply doesn’t have the funding for DVDs.
Was it difficult to dispel the misconceptions about HIV and AIDS?
“When we devised this play, we wanted to see what people are saying, and how do we reach them,” said Ndung’u. “The best way is to make people laugh. People are being told, ‘don’t have sex, you’re going to die’. How do you stop having sex? It’s fun! HIV is a big subject in Kenya but we made it small.” By ‘small’, Ndung’u meant that the issue is more easily understood if it’s portrayed as an issue that affects normal family life, rather than as a general and confusing danger. “Parents don’t talk about sex – it’s a taboo in the house,” said Ndung’u. “People are so busy making ends meet that they don’t have time for the children. In our play the parents were saying, ‘Guys, we have to talk about sex. It’s no big deal.’”
The film has a happy ending. Is this realistic?
The reason for the light hearted ending, said Ndung’u, is that “if you have HIV, life continues. There are so many things ahead. That’s the spirit.”
Do you think that the increasing wealth gap in Kenya has led to a more westernised, educated youth?
“It depends where you hang out,” said Ndung’u. “I think it’s all mixed. There are people who know about HIV, but there is recent research showing people are more afraid of getting pregnant than they are of HIV. More people are asking for the morning after pill than they are asking for condoms.”
Why did you keep the play segments in the film?
“I think the magic of this film is the play. That’s where the energy is. We tried to put it in film but it was losing all its magic, all the comedy. We wanted to show the magic of theatre.” When looking for sponsorship and distribution, Ndung’u strove to articulate exactly what it is that his work offers to an audience. “Solidarity, compassion and hope” is one simple definition that he often gives. But he feels that the use of a live audience as a “third character” presents a picture that speaks a thousand words about the effect his story can have on under-privileged African society. Many people mistake the live audience for paid extras and assume that the film must have had a healthy budget to work with – but all the crowds shown on screen are genuine, unpaid slum-dwellers enjoying the show.
How do you follow up on the messages you send out with the play?
“At first we felt we were opening doors for people but not letting them in,” says Ndung’u. Now the group offers workshops and condom demonstrations. They offer advice on HIV testing, and remind people that life doesn’t end with HIV. Ndung’u told us that team members often return to the area a few days after a performance and ask people in the street if they saw the film. Even those who missed the play have usually heard about it, and will know the story by heart – and be eager to discuss the issues raised. Stories spread quickly in these communities.
Would you be interested in collaborating with other organisations?
“We would be very interested in sharing this model with other people,” says Ndung’u. In reaction to conflicts such as the Kenya-Somalia border clash in 2010, they are now touring a peace play in Kenya: “Let’s forget about the politicians, and let’s make sure these monsters don’t make us fight again,” he urges.
Might you have considered an alternative, more realistic ending that wasn’t so happy?
“We wanted to create a Cinderella sort of play,” says Ndung’u. When considering different approaches to the end of his film he asked himself, “are you opening doors or closing doors?”. He felt that the best way to give his audience a “vocabulary to talk” about these issues was to leave them feeling empowered and optimistic.
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