Remembering Bantu Mwaura – by Shailja Patel

The man with the Mau Mau spirit
Remembering Bantu Mwaura

Shailja Patel

Pambazuka News

Poet and performer Shailja Patel celebrates the life of Bantu Mwaura (1969-2009) – Kenyan artist, activist and academic – through a series of reminiscences about what he meant to different people. Mwaura, husband of Susan and father of Makeba and Me Katilili, died on 26 April. ‘He was expression without hindrance; the way Africa used to be. He left behind power and energy; people speaking. In his dreadlocks and movements and smile and dress, Bantu carried an entire people.’]

‘It’s what we do at a very determined individual level that changes what happens in whatever field we work in.’
Bantu Mwaura, interviewed by Doreen Struahs and David Paul Mavia, 2006

‘Nothing was usual about him. He stirred people to thought. You could not ignore his presence and sense of things. A level of responsibility of the highest order. A passionate desire to think clearly and to be useful to all. A certain level of service; when I saw him I felt things were being taken care of, in freedom and resistance so powerfully merged. You would be tempted to ask him, which goddess asked you to do things this way? We should follow her ways.’
Philo Ikonya, president, PEN (Kenya chapter)

‘See, Bantu was not just all argument; he was a complex human being with an even more complex personality that perhaps society saw too harshly, or chose to not to see at all, because what he said disturbed us.’
Mbugua wa-Mungai, Ohio State University, Centre For Folklore Studies

The first time I met Bantu Mwaura, a few years ago, he showed me, unprompted, his cellphone display: A photo of his wife, Susan, and two children. When he told me his daughters’ names: Makeba (after Miriam Makeba) and Me Katilili (Kenyan woman who led her Giriama people in armed struggle against the British in 1913), I teased him: ‘No pressure there, huh? No burdens of history on two gorgeous children?’
He laughed, his face alight with love and pride in his family.

The burdens of history caught up with Bantu Mwaura four days ago. We still do not have a definitive, trustworthy account of how he met his death. Kenyan press reports that his body was found on Monday morning, on a path of the Nairobi housing estate where he lived. An autopsy was carried out on Tuesday, where a pathologist from the Independent Medico-Legal Unit (a Kenyan human rights organisation) was present alongside the government pathologist. The certified cause of death was ‘chemical poisoning’. I am told that ‘investigations continue’ into how the poison was administered – and by whom.

Bantu’s voice unspools in my head as I write this. With all his fierce righteousness, honest rage, passionate scholarship, loathing of hypocrisy, love of true art, uncompromising rigour of standards, commitment to making good work, activist power, courage of spirit, and largeness of heart.

‘He was expression without hindrance; the way Africa used to be. He left behind power and energy; people speaking. In his dreadlocks and movements and smile and dress, Bantu carried an entire people. He was not a thespian. He was theatre. Philo Ikonya, president of PEN (Kenya chapter)


Bantu held a PhD in Performance Studies from the New York University, a masters in Theatre Studies from Leeds University (UK), and another masters in African-American and African Studies from Ohio State University (USA). His research focused on the interface of performance theory with theatre practice in Africa; on how culture impacts and is impacted upon by real politics; and on the politics of performance space.

‘There is a stark difference between the way theatre is approached in Africa and the way it is approached in the West. So in Africa… theatre has never been, never used to be, that thing that you go to put up in some very specific well-established building somewhere and then everybody comes. We did our theatre, we engaged in performance, in everything that we did.’
Bantu Mwaura, interviewed by Doreen Struahs and David Paul Mavia, 2006

Bantu’s essay on the aid industry in Africa, Dancing to the Donor’s Tune, in Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits (ed. Rasna Warah, 2008), generated a one-hour programme on the BBC Swahili service, where he shared a panel with Professor Issa Shivji and Onyango Oloo.

His pedagogy was firmly grounded in radical politics and liberation struggles, the writings of Franz Fanon and Paulo Freire. He cared deeply about empowering students through awakening their faculties for critical thinking, for pride in their own history and cultural heritage. Stunned and grief-stricken responses flowed in from his students in as the news of his death spread through the Kenyan blogosphere.

And yet, most Kenyans who saw Bantu on stage, or went to the plays he directed, had no idea of his impressive CV as a scholar.


‘And every time I go and see a play at the French Cultural Centre, it is Heartstrings (Kenyan theatre troupe) doing these British comedies and bedroom farces. And it really annoys you. But you look at the audience and many a time they have full houses, and people are enjoying themselves. But they are enjoying themselves not because that’s what they want, but because that’s what they have. There is no alternative. If you gave them an alternative like Wahome Mutahi did, they’d pack those pubs, and I know people who went to see those Wahome plays every time they were performed – twice, thrice, four, five, ten times.’
Bantu Mwaura, interviewed by Doreen Struahs and David Paul Mavia, 2006

‘His vibrancy was best expressed in shows he did. I recall most vividly one he performed with Oby Obyerodhiambo. They both played market women. There was Bantu “in drag”, dressed to the teeth in kangas and scarves, with his dreads and his beard, flouting our imagination, making us giggle all the more at the absurdity of their roles. But the two guys played their parts to the max, and they won our applause. It was clear that both men loved to act, loved the stage, and loved sharing the spirit of the theatre with their audience.’
Margaretta wa Gacheru, scholar and theatre critic

‘I immediately saw what would draw Bantu and Wahome Mutahi together: Deep concern with questions of social justice, and exposing the structures and logic that undergird inequities. The passion of Bantu combined with Mutahi’s humorous critique of power enable one to see many of the things that could be remedied about Kenya (and perhaps other lands as well) but which we choose not to! The commitment to the popular arts also showed us something else: That the search for knowledge of society might also be pursued in, and through, non- canonical spaces and creative practices.’
Mbugua wa-Mungai, Ohio State University, Centre For Folklore Studies


‘We love the mystery and mischievousness in the poetry of Bantu Mwaura. But the mystery surrounding the circumstances of his death creates suspicion of another sort of mischief. We do not know the answers to this, but we do know that yet another strident voice is taken, a colourful figure gone from the cultural landscape of Africa.

Unafraid to speak out, Bantu’s blend of humorous word-play and blunt directness in particular targeted injustice, political corruption, and the corporate hegemony of the West. We came to know and value him during the Poetry Africa programme at the World Social Forum in Nairobi in January 2007, and again at the Poetry Africa festival in Durban in 2008. May the flame of his work continue to light creative voices.’
Peter Rorvik, director, Centre for Creative Arts, University of KwaZulu-Natal

‘I had the privilege to edit his poems (published in Echoes Across the Valley edited by Livai and Makokha, 2000). He wrote with verve and imagination, brought a freshness of perspective and a freedom of language use that was both daring and original.’
Kwamchetsi Makokha


‘In our national politics, once something is seen as “left” nobody wants to deal with it. Even the most radical people, when they talk about it, they are, like: “Yeah, these lefties, you know.” …And many a times that ideological left that we don’t want to deal with is actually where most of our solutions lie… the mainstream has been able to make the left sound as if it is abominable… So if you really want… to make people not think about it, just call it leftist. Then everybody will want to have arms-length.’ Bantu Mwaura, interviewed by Doreen Struahs and David Paul Mavia, 2006

‘Bantu was a shining light insisting that the truth be told, and justice be done. If someone wanted to dampen the spirit of fellow Kenyans who believe in democracy, liberty, and the right to speak out, they might have targeted a man like Bantu. But whatever the circumstances of his passing, Bantu’s spirit is too strong to be shut down, made invisible, or killed.’
Margaretta wa Gacheru, Evanston, IL. USA

‘He came to me as symbol of resistance at the Kencom Bus stage 2004, where Bunge La Mwananchi had open democratic debates. At that time we were still enjoying fresh breath from the Narc (National Rainbow Coalition) regime. I asked Bantu to bring his organic street theatre in the parliament of the people. But he had another project in Langata women’s prison. A comrade in struggle, who keeps watch when the lights grow dim, who lights a candle to inspire more resistance, before the bleak end. Bantu Mwaura, you remain a symbol of resistance. Mau Mau. Aluta Continua.’
Gacheke Gachihi, Bunge La Mwananchi (Kenya People’s Parliament)


‘It’s a journal on culture, arts and performance and the idea is to think outside the boxes.’
Bantu Mwaura, interviewed by Doreen Struahs and David Paul Mavia, 2006

Two weeks ago, at the annual conference of the African Literature Association in Vermont, an eminent scholar and an eminent artist argued with outward goodwill but steely determination over which of them would take home my last remaining copy of the latest Jahazi, the journal founded by Bantu. The artist won. The scholar conceded gracefully. He could hardly do otherwise, since the artist was world-renowned Kenyan ceramicist, Magdalene Odundo, whose stunning pieces featured on the cover and in the pages of this issue of Jahazi. I dashed off an email to Bantu that evening, hoping the story would delight him as much as it did me.

‘In many meetings over the last four years… we reflected on the renewed enthusiasm in the arts and culture, the art festivals in the region, and the expanding performance spaces in Kenya. We talked about the democratic project, creativity and freedom of expression. The literary spirit was becoming vibrant again!

‘But we also noticed that except for the occasional newspaper reviews, there was no space for debates, documentation and archiving of the emerging art scene. There was no serious engagement between academicians and practitioners in the arts. We needed a theorising and a practice of the arts. We had to do something and yes! It would be Jahazi, the vessel. If you needed to know about the Kenyan artistic scene Jahazi would have it! We joked about the title: Jah has it? Jaha? zi! Jahazi!’
Kimani Njogu, director, Twaweza Productions, publisher of Jahazi


‘Bantu Mwaura was an artist to the core. He spoke his truth as he saw it, fearlessly and passionately, never afraid to offend when it was necessary, never shy to wade into intellectual conflicts if he thought they helped to deepen understanding. He was a generous friend, imbued with a giving spirit in his learning and worldly possessions, of which I was a great beneficiary. His death is our collective loss, but I feel the sting in a singular way.’
Kwamchetsi Makokha, Kenyans For Peace, Truth and Justice

‘I don’t understand how an intellectual like Bantu Mwaura could disappear mysteriously only to be found dead after a few days near his home. I did not know him personally, but had earlier read about him and what he represented, which was the current crop of performance artists who are fearless and continue the legacy of the likes of Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who were locked out and driven into exile for their steadfast criticism of former President Moi’s ills.’
Jared Odero, Sweden

‘It is so sad that people who want to protect the future of this country just die like this. It makes one to wonder where this country is heading to. R.I.P Bantu… The man with true Mau Mau spirit.
Chrispus Fwamba, Kenyan activist

‘Fearless intellectual who consistently sided with people denied dignity, human rights and place in our story. One of his favourite points: “Culture is ultimately political. In the minds of oppressed people, it has the capacity to awaken or dull their consciousness. We must choose which to promote”. Asked what the epitaph for Bantu’s grave should read, I would say, “Here stands Bantu Mwaura, cultural activist, pan Africanist, who lived life in struggle”’.
Irungu Houghton, Pan-Africa Director, Oxfam

‘I did not know Bantu personally but when I heard of his sad demise, in unclear circumstances, my heart melted away because I knew we have lost a precious jewel, yet again. For how long is this country going to bleed itself to death? May his soul rest in peace.’
Hamilton Ole Parseina, FONACON

‘Bantu was instrumental in bringing the David Koff trilogy for me and Mohinder Dhillon when he was in the US a year or two ago.[1] That series formed the basis of our eight- week long publicity project with the Citizen Group (to support the legal case for reparations for Mau Mau veterans). And Bantu gave us an hour of his time in a fantastic debate with George Morara on honouring our heroes and heroines. We shall certainly savour that recording. And now he is gone. Thank you, Bantu. It was an honour to work with you.’
Zahid Rajan, Solidarity Network Kenya

‘Kenya has lost a wonderful dramatist and human rights activist. He has gone the way of our sages but his life will inspire many of us to stand for what is right.’
Oriare Mbeke, RECESSPA & University of Nairobi

‘From the academy where our connection begun with a search for knowledge in canonical literary forms, to the bar where Bantu and I (and many other Kenyans) debate(d) emergent forms of knowledge and popular forms of knowing, one can only hope that even if our collective conscience appears numb, we remember Bantu’s passion for what he believed in. It was not for nothing that as undergraduates we compared him to the incorruptible teacher in Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful ones are not yet Born.’
Mbugua wa-Mungai, Ohio State University

‘I stare at the light of a foreign earth. Everywhere I go I plead with the land, the country, receive Kenyans well, we are of peace, do not let them see us as of war, our mother country hurts. Where will the people go? The confluence of the Nilotes and the Bantu? Will the Hamitics show the way? I did not see tribe in Bantu. I saw people. Hungry and betrayed.

‘He has walked where there is no path. We have to beat that path out with every step we take. And we must. With Bantu haunting us, we must keep moving.’
Philo Ikonya, president of PEN (Kenya chapter)

‘And so our hearts dip into the logic of silence, and meander into those quiet places where our friend has gone. Nothing to say, nothing to add. To you Bantu, an offering of all things left unsaid. To you Bantu, love. And thank you.’
Yvonne Adhiambo Awuor, Caine Prize winner

*Shailja Patel is a Kenyan poet, theatre artist and activist and the 2009 guest writer at the Nordic Africa Institute.
* Please send comments to or comment online at

[1] The Black Man’s Land Trilogy, award-winning documentary series by David Koff on Kenya’s liberation struggle]

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