(This article appeared in the East African September 6-12 2010)
Religious rites and rituals like baptisms, marriages and funerals and other social ceremonies like university graduations are dramatic events aimed at expressing and reinforcing the collective values of a community or society. Ceremonies in African culture or any other culture for that matter are characterised by coded and symbolic gestures, actions and proclamations.
Performance and dramatic expression is intrinsic to human behaviour and in fact, Western theatre, which is now becoming the dominant form of dramatic expression in East Africa is an offspring of religious rituals and ceremonies.
It seems that as a nation, we have become so accustomed to the corporate ‘promotion’ functions that are an ad hoc melange of loud music, corporate colours, an array of balloons and a maladroit master of ceremonies that we seem to have forgotten that state functions, perhaps more than any other ceremony, are sombre and very spectacular events aimed at expressing respect for, and admiration of, state affairs and instilling patriotism and loyalty to the citizens of a country.
Like in any other performance, the essential elements that bring about this dramatic impact are the performers, costume, text, set, music, sound and other special effects. On the promulgation ceremony of 27th August the officiators of the ceremony – the performers, as it were, in these case, the president, prime minister and top government officials, embodied the dignity and national values of the country. The choice and presence (or absence) of other dignitaries was also of great political significance.
The costumes distinguished and highlighted the importance of these people and the offices they hold, which is why the Attorney General and the Chief Justice for example were in the full regalia of their offices.
For the rest of the participants, including the spectators, the occasion called for formal and ceremonial dress. While trousers and short skirts or dresses for women are acceptable on formal corporate or private functions, on such important state functions, they tend to tone down or undermine the gravity of the occasion. Thus, the girls in trousers and T-shirts who walked up and down and criss-crossed the dais while handing out doves and balloons to heads of states, was a poor show.
The text is the other crucial factor in such a ceremony. This is very solemn and parts of it have to be recited word for word. “I do solemnly swear that…” “By the power invested in me, I declare…” and so forth. All speech must be articulate, devoid of such grammatical errors as saying “can be able” and should avoid familiar and everyday parlance altogether in order to steer clear of embarrassing situations like the faux pas made by the master of ceremonies when he said, “The president and his entourage will leave the stand and this will be followed by the orderly departure of the other heads of state.” -as if they had intended to leave in a disorderly manner!
The other important consideration is the set, which is determined by questions like, where shall the signing of the constitution take place? Shall there be a red carpet leading to the table where the signing will take place? Where will the doves be and how will the heads of state release these doves? What shall we do to avoid a situation where girls are walking in front of, and coming very close to jumping over the feet of, distinguished guests, in the name of handing out some doves?
The band, the parade and the other performers were the ‘extras’ and they brought a festive air to the occasion. Despite the bad press that the performing artists received, I am of the opinion that they were well chosen, in that they reflected the popular arts in Kenya at the dawn of this second republic. If Jua Cali deserved to be there, then so did Carol Nderitu.
If the performers were under-rehearsed, it was hard to tell because the technical malfunctions would have marred even the best-rehearsed performance. It isn’t that Eric Wainaina and the other musicians did not sing well- the sound engineers- if there were any- did not make the sound good.
There should have been impeccable co-ordination between all the organisers involved and a technical rehearsal where the performers, the technical team and the television crew work together to make sure everything was streamlined.
In a state function, the person responsible for making sure that everything runs well, the director, so to speak, is the master of ceremonies. This is a term that is now often misconstrued, especially since it’s abbreviation to M.C. in the hip hop culture. The master of ceremonies is however, a person who holds a senior office, usually someone regal and polished. In Britain for example, the office has traditionally been held by a retired military officer. Whatever the case, the role of the master of ceremonies over and above everything else, is to see to it that protocol is followed to the letter, for it is specifically the observation of protocol that gives such an occasion its due pomp.
Thus, having the heads of state release the doves was a charming gesture although it should have been done with a lot more decorum. However, asking them to throw balloons (which need to be filled with helium if they are to float in the air) was simply out of order. It was as good as asking the heads of state to toss some confetti. Balloons should simply spring out of nowhere, in their thousands, as if by magic.
This was a once-in-a-country’s-history occasion, which ought to have been organised by an experienced perfectionist. If there isn’t such a person in the country, it would have been worth importing someone, for an occasion of such magnitude should allow no room for blunders or incompetence.
© Anne Manyara 2010