When you talk about art, sometimes you have to talk about sea turtle nesting habits.
That was a lesson you might have drawn from a conversation with a group of Kenyan artists, organizers and thinkers in town for the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which runs through Sunday and showcases the cultures of Kenya and China. Clustered around a table at their Arlington hotel, the African visitors explained to a reporter why the themes of wildlife and conservation have cropped up as leitmotifs on the Kenyan side of the festival, which is produced by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
“The whole African world of imagination in terms of oral heritage is something that is based within the environment,” said Aghan Odero Agan, the executive director of the Kenya Cultural Centre in Nairobi. A storyteller by background, he said that “stories that are well known within the African context” often deal with “finding a way in which the world of the animals mirrors the world of human beings and interactions.”
“For us, culture, heritage and wildlife are really inseparable,” agreed Tom Lalampaa, the chief programs officer of Kenya’s Northern Rangelands Trust.
Lalampaa is one of a number of conservation experts who have traveled to the festival. Another is Atwaa Salim Mohamed, a project coordinator with the Lamu Marine Conservation Trust, or LAMCOT, which works to preserve endangered sea turtles in Kenya’s Lamu Archipelago. “Atwaa is, in my mind, a community organizer, like Barack Obama,” said Preston T. Scott, curator for the 2014 festival’s Kenya program.
The mention of the former professional identity of the president — whose father was from Kenya — sparked a murmur of enthusiasm around the table. Scott went on to explain that Mohamed has succeeded in changing popular attitudes about sea turtles in Lamu.
“The community used to slaughter turtles and sell the meat and the eggs,” said Mohamed, a quiet man who grows voluble and animated when he talks about Lamu’s shelled inhabitants. He said LAMCOT has been able to change behavior, not only through education programs but also by developing financial incentives and alternate livelihoods that encourage people to care for turtles rather than kill them.
“We convert the poachers into protectors, and we involve them in the program fully,” said Mohamed.
Another part of LAMCOT’s efforts involves encouraging people to preserve and clean up the beaches where turtles nest — which brings us back to art.
Discarded flip-flops are a major pollutant on Kenyan beaches. “Because of the way the strong currents on the Indian Ocean flow, Kenya becomes the depository” for jettisoned flip-flops from other countries, said Scott.
“There are so many flip-flops,” Mohamed agreed ruefully.
The Kenyan craft company Ocean Sole has been addressing the problem. The group, which sent representatives to the festival, turns discarded flip-flops into sculptures, key rings, Christmas tree ornaments and other decorative pieces. Check out the colorful eight-foot-high giraffe sculptures on view at the festival.
The movement to involve communities in wildlife conservancy in Kenya has resulted in the development of artistic and other “spin-off enterprises,” which have allowed local people to support their families while protecting wildlife and “continuing to practice their culture and way of life,” said Munira K. Bashir, the Kenya program director for the Nature Conservancy.
“Biodiversity and conservation and culture: They’re interlinked,” Scott said. “Many times people simply talk about it. But this” — the festival — “was a chance to actually demonstrate it.”
Of course, the festival is also a chance to demonstrate that people from diverse backgrounds can be interlinked, at least to the extent of being able to appreciate one another’s art and heritage. Some of the Kenyan musicians who have traveled to Washington would seem particularly experienced in fostering appreciation of diversity, thanks to a project they worked on a few years ago.
Steve Kivutia, a soft-spoken music producer with the Nairobi-based nonprofit Ketebul Music, has been a key coordinator for the festival’s Kenyan music and dance programming. During the interview in Arlington, he recalled a creative collaboration that responded to the violence that racked Kenya in 2008. Tensions between ethnic groups fueled the violence, which followed an election.
With an eye to promoting understanding between culturally distinct communities, Kivutia and his colleagues mounted a musical concert series that toured Kenya and featured artists from a variety of backgrounds. The tour was part of a multi-year initiative spearheaded by Alliance Française Nairobi.
“A lot of differences arise from people not knowing about some individuals, and maybe getting information from stereotypes, as opposed to actually knowing what that community is about,” Kivutia said. He said music can present a fuller portrait of a community and can do so in an appealing way: “We like to think we [sparked] some dialogue among the communities, doing the concerts.”
Folklife Festival participants Makadem (a multi-instrumentalist and singer) and Gargar (a singing group) were among those involved in the 2008 tour, Kivutia said.
(Kenyan musicians at the Folklife Festival made news on June 28 when they canceled performances, alleging that they were not being paid according to agreements with the country’s Ministry of Sports, Culture and the Arts. The strike began around midday and lasted for the rest of the day, but the musicians returned to the stage June 29 so as not to disrupt the festival.)
Incidentally, a CD/DVD compilation issued on the heels of the 2008 tour bears a title so catchy, it might inspire envy in artists and arts organizers everywhere. The title: “Weapon of Mass Reconciliation.”
Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Through July 6 on the National Mall. Visit www.festival.si.edu.
Wren is a freelance writer.