IDENTITY

Waithira: A family documentary and account of our national heritage

Kenyan filmmaker’s search for her family roots from the colonial era.

In Summary

• The film is an exploration of Eva’s intimate family history.

• It demonstrates how our national memory is a bricolage of very personal family narratives that weave into each other to create the larger picture of history/heritage.

Waithira the moderator and Eva the filmmaker with panelists Elizabeth Waithanji and Dr JKS Makokha.
Waithira the moderator and Eva the filmmaker with panelists Elizabeth Waithanji and Dr JKS Makokha.
Image: JKS MAKOKHA

The world is changing fast. Days move faster, years too. Children appear to follow suit. As their parents of today who were themselves the children of yesterday and potential forbearers of our children’s future, this passage of time with alacrity inspires and awes in equal measure. Ours is a generation for whom being present in the world of now meaningfully is a matter of certain indescribable urgency.

We insert our presences/identities in the spaces and places we occupy through various performances of everyday quests of self-definition. This could be the opening of a personalised email or social media account. It could be the constant tweets we air and share to speak for and of ourselves. It could be the posting of selfies in real time. Or, it could also be the CVs we write or the government exercises, like Census and Huduma Namba, we participate in as part of our civic duties of identification.

Yet, even in this fast-moving world in which we dwell presently, the past still lingers on like the atmosphere it is. Our identities, whether familial or personal, continue to remain moored to experiences of those from whose stories our histories arise.

 

It is in this context that a Kenyan filmmaker’s search for her family roots from the colonial era, and how they shape the present identities of her extended family scattered across three continents, captivated an audience on Tuesday this week at the Alliance Française in Nairobi.

Eva Njoki Munyiri is a Kenyan filmmaker who lives in Mexico. She was in town this week for the screening of her family documentary film titled: Waithira. The event was organised as part of the monthly cinematic activities of Docubox, East Africa’s Documentary Film Fund, based in Nairobi.

The documentary gets the title, Waithira, from a matriarch of the extended family – Eva’s paternal grandmother. She was born in 1910 and her life is a testament of the vicious vicissitudes of settler colonialism in Kenya. The climax of it all, of course, is the inhuman treatment she experiences in the 1950s during the State of Emergency and Mau Mau Uprising.

The film is an exploration of Eva’s intimate family history and demonstrates how our national memory is a bricolage of very personal family narratives that weave into each other to create the larger picture of history/heritage.

The documentary gets the title, Waithira, from a matriarch of the extended family – Eva’s paternal grandmother. She was born in 1910 and her life is a testament of the vicious vicissitudes of settler colonialism in Kenya. The climax of it all, of course, is the inhuman treatment she experiences in the 1950s during the State of Emergency and Mau Mau Uprising.

The brave Waithira adopts various coping strategies in the wake of the volatile times, including embracing formal education albeit for a brief period. The seed of open-mindedness she plants with her life acts become the genesis of the struggles of other latter-day Waithiras – her grandchildren named after her, who mainly live in the post-Independence era.

Eva’s documentary weaves a large narrative from the personal lived experiences of three of these Waithira cousins. One, the eldest, who lives in Nairobi and had close encounters with the matriarch, acts as the main source of the extended family’s memories.

It is this multiple, ambivalent and nomadic extended family experiences, all sprouting from the colonial lives of the matriarch and her immediate relatives, that animate this film.

She is aided in this role by an octogenarian uncle who survived the State of Emergency. Through vignettes and traumatic rumination, he offers the audience of this interesting film his rich recollection of the dark days of the Emergency in the 1950s.

Interestingly, this spectral decade before Independence continues to attract academic attention even from scholars from the West such as David Anderson in his book, Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (2011) and Caroline Elkin in her own, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire (2014).

Eva Munyiri shuns government archives used by the two scholars above. For her stories, the filmmaker also relies on memories of her cousin, another Waithira. This one lives in Dresden in eastern Germany and is an academic who is married to a local and has family there.

The third Waithira is Eva’s elder sister who lives in Wales and is married to a Jewish man. The main narrator, Eva herself, lives in Mexico but grew up in South Africa since the age of 14 and has lived in India, Japan, and France as well. Her offspring are Mexican.

It is this multiple, ambivalent and nomadic extended family experiences, all sprouting from the colonial lives of the matriarch and her immediate relatives, that animate this film. From Kenya, we are led through a matrix of cosmopolitan experiences and selves spread across several generations and several lands.

Eva Munyiri has done in the documentary film Waithira (2017) what her peers in literature such as Ugandan novelist Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi in her acclaimed novel Kintu (2014) and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor in her new epic The Dragon Fly Sea (2019) did. Or vice versa.

The three East African artists remind us that texts and their contexts are as inseparable as the past and its presents. And the work of artists is to envoice those who lack the privilege to articulate their own stories, memories and histories, which paradoxically are our own too. This appeared to be the consensus that the panel and audience landed on at the talk that followed this great picture’s screening.

Dr Makokha teaches Literature and Theatre at Kenyatta University