By Stanley Gazemba
Most of the members of this group are disabled. But when they take to the stage they are agile and sure-footed, their movements fluid and practiced, their act propelled by raw energy. I last watched them rehearse at the Kenya Conservatoire of Music a few years ago and was impressed, even though I was a little uneasy because I and two other people formed the audience in the empty practice hall. At the time I felt like the dole-eyed adjudicator with my notebook; nonetheless they practically ignored my presence. This time I had the luxury of watching them incognito in the packed auditorium of the Alliance Francaisé as they performed Elephant Stories. They haven’t lost their touch a bit. If anything, they have got better.
In Elephant Stories we initially see the elephants happily going about their business, pulling down branches and stripping them of tender leaves and saplings. The music is gay, and the sense of community apparent in the herd of eight.
Then night falls and the frogs start croaking in the swamp- a brilliant rendition by singer Asali, tilting the beads in her kayamba gently to the accompaniment of soft flute music from lead percussionist Bruno Mbaruku. There is pin-drop silence in the auditorium, and you can almost feel the air bubbles burst on the surface of the algae-covered ponds of the marsh.
The elephants sprawl on the ground and go to sleep, save for the bull elephant (for that is what dancer Sylvester Barasa with his muscular forearms and wide chest truly is) and one or two other gendarmes. Even in the tranquility of the night the night-watch jumbos continue feeding- usually elephants spend 80 percent of their time eating.
This idyll is only momentary. Suddenly the poachers (enacted by group choreographer Joseph Kanyenje) are on the scene, seeking to gun down the bulls for their precious ivory. It isn’t something the lead bull takes lying down. The aggression between Barasa and Kanyenje is palpable, sweat-slicked muscles rippling and the adrenalin pumping as they eyeball in the death-dance.
But in the end the poacher, with the elephant gun, has the upper hand. A somber mood engulfs the stage as the jumbos succumb one by one. Despite their massive size and sheer presence, we are reminded that they have an emotional side. I don’t know if there was a poacher in the audience. If yes, then the show must have given them something to think about. The jumbos the poachers hunt down and kill are not as detached and inanimate as we seem to think. They actually value family, and they mourn their dead with actual tears. They are someone’s brother, father and so on.
But Elephant Stories isn’t all gloom. The giant beasts also have time for a romp in the jungle and rollicking in the mud. The seduction of the bull elephant (Sylvester Barasa) by Lydia Iregi proves irresistible. Despite his earlier macho suspicions the seduction proves powerful and overwhelms him, his hard lined face dissolving into mesmerized confusion. We are reminded that despite their size, the male species will always be vulnerable to the wiles of a determined female. In the end the bull elephant tucks tail and toes the line, reduced to a mere drooling puppy. The catch-me-if-you-can play between the diminutive Ruth Mueni and Lydia Iregi lifts our moods and the theatre erupts in soft laughter.
But the gallivanting is short lived. Soon the beasts, the voracious feeders that they are, have to find something to eat. It is a sad reawakening because as the days pass they realize the food gets scarcer and scarcer, fresh foliage and nuts harder to find. Perhaps the people to blame for all this are real estate developers encroaching on their natural habitat, the commercial farmers damming and diverting rivers upstream and fencing off their natural migration corridors. It is saddening to see the giant beasts wracked by pangs of hunger as they roll about on the stage. Not even their giant flapping ears will ease the discomfort of a drying jungle.
In the end even the poacher doesn’t escape the inevitable outcome of his actions. We are all guilty -- from the corrupt game ranger who turns his eye to the rich who wear ivory jewellery. We have all conspired to suck the lifeblood from the elephants and rob them of their natural weapons, their precious tusks, symbolized here by snatching of the walking stick from the lone disabled dancer still standing. How will they defend themselves? How will they dig up the ground for edible roots?
The choreography by Kanyenje and Miriam Rother was flawless. Prof Suki Mwendwa, who describes herself as ‘an African with an Indian style’, and who made a guest appearance added an exotic touch to the show with her Oriental costume and dace routine that was a page straight out of India’s Moghul era. However, all would never have been possible without the input of the three musicians, Asali the vocalist, Mbaruku on percussions and Joseph Nyamungu Odhiambo on the nyatiti. Mbaruku, specifically, had a deft touch on the drums, his fingertips alternately caressing and animated, fleeting over the taut ‘gator skin like a spider’s feet. He had excellent timing.
The standing ovation the audience gave the troupe as the curtains came down was well-deserved. This is a show that all conservationists, lovers of nature and even those ignorant of it need to see. But most importantly potential poachers. It might give them something to ponder over.