Back in the 90s and all through to the very beginning of the 2000s, our local TV space was dominated by one station. That station was KBC. At that time, having a TV set was a delightful privilege, and so was having a mobile phone. Remember Nokia 3310? It was a status symbol then and a preserve of those who had made it in life. Speaking of making it in life, if you thought that having a TV set was the only mark of culture and opulence, just imagine the kind of fame that was bestowed unto you if you appeared on air. In fact, just having your name mentioned on the news was the epitome of success and would earn you talking points in any conversation in which you had any stakes. There was nothing else you needed to do in life, you’d made it, earned your stripes and those stripes came with bragging rights.
I remember some of the most prominent figures who appeared on screen regularly, starting from then President Moi whom I often saw wielding his famous rungu which was synonymous with the power of the presidency for as long as I was a kid. Then there were the celebrities of that time, the actors of famed comedy shows like Vitimbi and Vioja Mahakamani. Remember the late Mzee Ojwang with his wife-in-act Mama Kayai, the likes of Mwala, Kanini and Mogaka, and the rest of the crew which graced our screens and filled our living rooms with incessant laughter and comedy.
As a young kid, everyone who appeared on TV at that time seemed to be larger than life, it was hard to imagine that these celebrities walked on the same soil as we did and faced the same challenges as ourselves. Suffice it to say, it made little sense to me how someone whose entire life revolved around laughter, passion and creative energy would be struggling with any hardship, be it mental, financial or otherwise. While we often needed the healthy dose of humor they passionately delivered to us without fail in both the good and the bad times, we probably never stopped to think that they too needed humor in their lives as much as we did, only that at least we could demand it of them, and they didn’t have that same privilege. We both faced the same challenges in our lives (the adults did), but at least we could count on them to lift our spirits and put a smile on our faces most evenings as we sat bonding with our families watching KBC. They had no option but to just present to us their act and leave the stage as gracefully as they came, and woe unto them if they didn’t derive any joy from acting, for that’s as much as they were paid for it.
Fast forward to this day, many of these actors are long forgotten, fallen from the limelight into the backstage we fondly refer to as ‘throwback‘. That is the blow we have dealt every generation of creatives over time; comedians, lyricists, actors, musicians and even writers from whom we’ve constantly demanded more and more from until they had nothing left to give. Just the same way we throw away a bone from which we have chewed all the sumptuous meat, we have thrown our creatives to the dogs to be devoured mercilessly, and then we have unashamedly looked up on the stage once more, eagerly waiting for the next bunch to zealously work their way up there and continue entertaining us. How many of us can confidently tell us here in this space where their favorite actor, musician or sports personality from the late 90s or the early 2000s is at this very moment? Perhaps some of them are languishing in abject poverty, because the time and effort that they would have used in amassing wealth was devoted to perfecting their craft so that they could give us better than the best each time they were on stage. Some of them fell from grace and into the unrelenting grip of drug addiction and are currently holed up in some dingy bar, high as a kite on cheap liquor, drunkenly stuttering to anyone who would care to listen how back in the day they were the darling of the masses. Others, on realizing how much it took to be a creative; the sleepless nights working on the next show, the repeated lines that never rhymed with the beat, the dry jokes that never made it to the comedy stage, and the bland paragraphs that never made it to a writer’s column, wisely decided to take an indefinite break from their craft and deal with other seemingly more pressing issues like staying out of financial debt and feeding their families. The rest, who have somehow managed to stay afloat despite the tremendous pressure that comes with the calling owe it to God for their fortune.
Many of you who have tried your hand at any art or craft may understand the extent to which creatives go in an attempt to woo the muse and extract a steady stream of creative juices to stay relevant in an industry where there is always someone with better jokes, cheesier lines, a much sexier voice than your favorite singer, and better stories than you could possibly tell even in your wildest imaginative state.
Nonetheless, when the people who have devoted their lives to entertain, inform and keep us alive eventually end up lying helplessly like spent like cartridges of a revolution, someone needs to lift them up the same way they lifted our spirits when we were low and warm their hearts the same way they warmed ours with their craft. When the curtains close in on them and they leave the stage, who will remember them?
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