NuVo Arts Festival: An Interview with Ogutu Muraya

By Sophie Alal

NuVo is the short form for New Voices. The first annual NuVo Arts Festival, realised under the auspices of The American Embassy, hosted an arts festival themed “HIV/AIDS No Statistics Allowed”. The events approached HIV/AIDS awareness through performance art, visual art and fashion. Various locations around Kampala staged events from 1st through 7th July.

At 7:00PM the ground breaking events took place at AKA Gallery on Hannington Road. Music, storytelling and poetry became the mirror for experiencing the nature of lived experiences regarding HIV/AIDS.

Culture and the arts present a continuous opportunity for effective HIV/AIDS education. In this case, story telling was an ingenious tool which reaffirmed the significance of the arts in promoting social change. During a mini break, Sophie Alal spoke with Storyteller Ogutu Muraya.

Ogutu Muraya.. Photo courtesy of Callum Cheatle.

Ogutu Muraya.. Photo courtesy of Callum Cheatle.

Sophie Alal: When did you first become interested in story telling?
Ogutu Muraya: I became interested in strorytelling back in 2007. I was doing story telling as part of a competition. I saw a storytelling competition being advertised when I was in campus. Tell at story for 7 minutes, win 2000 shillings. I was like, yeah why not?

I came second in the finals of the Storymoja Master Storyteller and soon got so engrossed in the concept of telling stories. It is one of the oldest art forms that we have. Every one has a story to tell. Everyone has a story to share.
I embraced the idea of turning it into an art form that is engaging, not just the usual format with the grandmother sitting by the fireside telling stories. At the same time, a young man can take it up as an art form and do it seriously as a profession.

SA: Are there any storytellers in your family?
OM: Non that I know of. (Laughter) But you never know, when I dig into my geneology I might discover great great great someone was a storyteller.

SA: What does it take for someone to become a storyteller?
OM: The first thing is to read a lot because you might read ten, a hundred or more stories before you find one good story that touches you enough to make you want to tell it. This is especially true for folk tales.

I tell true stories as well. These are personal stories. Stories about people, and that takes passion and love for what you are doing. You’ve got to have love for what you do, love for getting on stage and speaking, and also love for improving yourself.

Gifted artists sometimes get comfortable without working, but you have to rehearse. You have to work at it. You have to look for opportunities to perform. Don’t wait for somebody to stretch out a hand and say, Oh come and perform with us. It is your job to take that step.

SA: What makes a great story?
OM: For me it has to be the human touch. It has to be a story that engages. A good story can make you laugh. A better story can make you laugh as well as cry. It can make you angry, frustrated and take you through different emotions.

SA: Why do you think storytelling is important?
OM: Often our stories as Africans are told by others, not ourselves. It is the western media that has perpetuated this story of Africa as place of doom, despair and disaster. It’s now our turn to tell our stories, regardless of whether I do it through poetry, whether you do it through music, or a play on TV. By standing up and telling a story, it means that we are taking ownership of our stories and taking them to the world.

SA: Your story started on a warm note with the travails of a sex worker, then degenerated into scenes of violence on the street. The street children came across as extremely rough and ready. Aren’t you concerned that you may be perpetuating those same unpleasant images that you spoke about?
OM: You know all you have to do is look at the end. The hope is there. All they do is have pizza. Their situation hasn’t changed. They are still street children. They’ll have to struggle the next day and they are still there on the streets.

I tell stories as they are. It is up to other people who come into contact with the stories to infer what they want. You can never force a message on people. You can never say,“I want you to think this way. I want you to think that way.” It is up to the audience to take what they want from a story. And people often take very different things.
The beauty about performance and being on stage is that every member of the audience will come out with something different.

SA: You used a very interesting device. Much in that same way as a writer would use Chekhov’s gun to tighten their prose. If there is a gun in an opening, then the gun must go off or someone must die. So when I first heard about the slice of pizza, I knew that that there was a whole pizza somewhere and that was very nicely brought round at the end. Which story tellers have had an immense influence on your style?

OM: There are two favourite storytellers, one is Daniel Morden from the UK and a Caribbean British storyteller called Jan Blake. Meeting them was the first time that I had experienced professional storytelling. All they do for a living is tell stories, write stories and read stories. They really inspired me to get into story telling more strictly, to script more rigorously and work seriously at finding what the audience will respond to.

I use flashbacks to draw people in, such that there is a story within a story. All these techniques are drawn from research. You have to constantly read other people and watch what other people are performing. It’s just like being a doctor. You have to keep reading, researching and getting familiar with new practices that build onto your knowledge.

SA: As a Luo speaker who is also fluent in English, I could understand a few words of the song that accompanied your story. How does your culture blend into your story telling?
OM: I like to adapt stories into my context, whether they are modern, historical or futuristic. I exist within the world and I draw my stories from that world. Hence I reference to that world as well.

SA: Your partner Checkmate Mido accompanied your story with his nyatiti and flute. How did you two meet and start collaborating?
OM: We started off in the Theatre Company of Kenya. That is where we met. I have worked with him for a while now, as well as trained him in terms of writing because I do playwriting too.

We’ve worked on several pieces together. Just before we came to Kampala we had a performance of Maasai stories in a camp up in the Ngong Hills. It was at a camp called Ololosokwan.

We appreciate each other’s talents. Mido is a great mucisian and poet. He adds that flavour into my stories. We want to keep these energies going because theatre is a collaborative art. The more you work together with others the better.

SA: Culture is usually seen as a benign force for fostering understanding. Whereas the ideal has always been to identify with a community, form relationships from within the same group, notably the tribe, clan or nation, art usually offers a unique opportunity to rise above all that. Having collaborated with people from different backgrounds, travelled to Ngong Hills to perform Maasai stories and now you are in Kampala, what is the unifying idea that has brought you this far?

OM: It is art and stories. We have a common goal of sharing human stories. Basically we have the same experiences as human beings. In the words of Shakespeare’s Shylock, “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?… That’s from The Merchant of Venice. And it’s that same idea that we are all one. It’s that common goal that I can be in Kenya among the Maasai one day, and the next day I can be in Kampala telling a story. We should keep that interconnection because it is what makes us grow as East African artists. It’s also what enables our global recognition.