Kenya has been celebrating the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death at a reception on Thursday night (21 April) organised by the British Council and the UK High Commission as part of the Shakespeare Lives initiative.
“The event is an invitation to the world to join in the festivities by participating in a unique online collaboration and experiencing the work of Shakespeare directly on stage, through film, exhibitions and in schools.” – British Council director in Kenya Tony Reilly
Held at the High Commissioner’s residence in Muthaiga, Nic Hailey had the audience in stitches as he tried his best to translate Shakespeare’s best quotes into Swahili.
Octopizoo, Muthoni and Sauti Sol were been among the Kenyan artists joining with the UK’s Hip-hop Shakespeare Company and Akala to lend the Bard’s work a contemporary feel and make it relevant to a modern audience.
UK High Commissioner to Kenya, Nic Hailey welcomed guests to the reception with a speech which you can read in full below:
Jinsi gani mbaa mwezi inavyolala unono, juu ya maua haya! Basi na tuketi hapa, na sauti za muziki zitwingie sikioni: Shwari tamu na usiku Vyalaiki nyimbo tamu. Tazama namna mbingu Ilivyopambwa kwa njumu za vipete vya dhahabu.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to this celebration of Shakespeare. Ben Jonson said that Shakespeare was “not of an age, but for all time”. Four hundred years after his death, our theme tonight is “Shakespeare Lives”. Please join me in thanking all our wonderful artists who will prove that point so well over the course of this evening.
Let me also thank:
The British Council and the British High Commission teams for organising tonight’s event;
Our sponsors Barclays Bank, also celebrating this year an important anniversary as they mark 100 years in Kenya;
Shakespeare of course never set foot in Africa. For him and his contemporaries, Africa was a place at the far end of imagination, a space of wonder, mystery and magical beauty.
But Shakespeare’s plays came to Africa even during his lifetime. In 1607, in a bid to stave off idleness, the crew of ‘The Dragon’, a spice vessel, performed Hamlet and Richard II while anchored off Sierra Leone. When Shakespeare came to Africa more fully in the nineteenth century, with colonisation, it was part of what missionaries and colonists called the “civilising mission” – and a misguided attempt to inculcate the idea of the so-called ‘superiority’ of English culture.
But Shakespeare transcended that, and showed he didn’t belong to one nation but to everyone. Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, this country’s founding father, counted his volumes of Shakespeare among his favourite books and often recited from them. Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, father of Tanzanian independence, translated the plays – I quoted from his translation of The Merchant of Venice a couple of minutes ago.
Shakespeare has come to represent not Britain or Britishness but a universal expression of the big human themes and questions, which belongs to each one of us across the boundaries of class, country, gender, race, or religion.
Romeo and Juliet speaks not to the experience of Renaissance Italy or Elizabethan England, but directly to us today – on the stupidity of tribalism; on the power, and sometimes also the suicidal stupidity, of teenage love. This country’s independence, quite understandably, saw a rejection of the so-called Western ‘civilising mission’ and put Kenyan culture, quite rightly, at its heart. But Kenya, like its African neighbours, has re-appropriated Shakespeare in its own way and made him its own. His works were simply too good, too powerful and too universal to belong to any one group or agenda.
Just as Shakespeare in English was being purged from the Kenyan curriculum, Shakespeare in Swahili was being embraced as part of Kenya’s Swahili literature syllabus for upper secondary schools. In 2012, the Theatre Company of Kenya took Wanawake wa Heri wa Winsa – the Merry Wives of Windsor – to England to perform it, in Kiswahili, at the Globe to Globe Shakespeare festival.
Today, Kenyan talents such as Octopizzo, Sauti Sol, Akala and others are showing us how his works continue to resonate and inspire artists around the world. Four hundred years after his death, Shakespeare Lives.
Shakespeare was the crowning glory of England’s first Elizabethan age.
But tonight we also celebrate the great figure of the United Kingdom’s second Elizabethan age, as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth turns 90 today. We will have another chance to mark that, here in this garden, when we celebrate Her Majesty’s official birthday in a couple of months’ time. But Her personal milestone is today – and we celebrate her life, her service, and her strong connection to Kenya, the country where a Princess became a Queen and which I know retains such a special place in Her heart.
So let me invite you all to join me in a double toast:
To the immortal Bard;
And to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second.
There was a lot of fun to be had in the photo booth, with lots of guests taking advantage of this increasingly popular party feature.
The Shakespeare Lives programme, is a global celebration of the Bard’s work and his influence on culture, education and society on the 400th anniversary of his death.
Just like with his birthday, the exact date of Shakespeare’s death is a mystery, but it is widely believed that he died on April 23rd, 1616. Though no official record exists, his funeral took place two days later.