Above: Elephant matriarch and her family in Amboseli National Park.

Published: The East African Nation media Oct 8, 2021

In a fascinating interactive play directed by 25-year-old Jazz Moll, founder of Youth Theatre Kenya, my attention like every other member of the audience, is on high alert. Presented in front of us in ‘court’ (the stage at Alliance Francaise in Nairobi) is Athena in chains, the matriarch of her elephant family in the Tsavo enclave. She is accused of murdering a little boy who was playing in field that his mother was working on.

On Trial. Athena the elephant matriarch in ‘court’. Picture Courtesy of Youth Theatre Kenya

The trial begins with the prosecutor. Seated on his side are the boy’s parents and a witness.

The prosecutor paints Athena as a mindless murderer, calling upon the three present, sympathizing with them, doing his best to sway the jury in their favour.

Athena’s defence lawyer does an even more admirable job of showing Athena as a parent who acted in self-defence. On the fateful day, her calf strayed to the edge of the farmer’s field and stopped. The matriarch appeared right behind him. In the few minutes that followed, the boy’s father, who was sharpening his bow and arrow, stood and ran towards the elephants with his arm raised to spear Athena. At this point Athena panics. She picks up the human child and tramples him.

Athena stands accused of murder.

In an emotionally-charged defence scene played by Michael Moses Njihia as the defence lawyer, his job is to defend an animal in court, challenging because in real life this does not happen. She is the voiceless.

On the other hand, the prosecuter Annan Aketch Koffi takes a strong stand point. The elephant is represented as nothing lesser than a human being as it is portrayed as an animal of high intelligence, one that is capable of making choices, of being tender and caring. The prosecutor believes Athena knew what she was doing when she killed the human calf.

In this theatrical production, the aim is to provoke the jury that is the audience, to question. At recession, the audience is invited to cast its vote online.

The Jury’s Verdict

On Trial. Athena the elephant matriarch with the prosecutor Annan Aketch Koffi in ‘court’. Picture Courtesy of Youth Theatre Kenya

The finale is the verdict – guilty, innocent or will she be charged with manslaughter?

It is a pre-meditated verdict, nothing to do with the present jury in-house.

Athena will die a slow painful death by poisoned arrow. Why not an instant death by bullet we wonder?

If she is charged with manslaughter, she will be removed from her herd and taken away to live a life in exile.

If she is innocent, she will be reunited with her family.

Or if found guilty it is death by a poisoned arrow, slow and painful.

The verdict is read to an emotionally charged audience.

 “We have to view our relationship with the natural world,” states Moll. “We think it will all be okay. But it’s not. 2050 is the tipping point for humanity if we don’t get real about climate change and global warming.” Scientists warn of 2050 as a tipping point if we don’t stabalize the climate. But the defence was strong, we counter. Yes but this is Kenya. The judge could have been bought.

Moll with Lizzie Jago (playwright of On Trial and Artistic Director of YTK), Ben James and Mimi Mutahi founded Youth Theatre Kenya in 2015 to create a platform for young Kenyan actors. A platform to act such issues as the human-wildlife dilemma that even heads of states are acknowledging as a serious threat to our wildlife and natural resources during the recent online webinar on African elephants, as they are pushed into smaller and smaller spaces.

Athena, the space she came from, Tsavo East National Park is edged on by Taru Desert, a waterless territory. The Tsavo enclave was set aside as a protected area for wildlife in the 1940s, deemed useless for human habitation. It was a scrubland where the tough acacia, commiphora and the world’s largest succulent, the baobab survived. It is here that elephants migrated over vast areas in century-old routes to fresh pasture and water, allowing for the land behind to regenerate. The hunter-gatherers lived off them and the land in balance.

Today, this space is increasingly being settled on with plantations such as avocado farms for export to the rich nations.  The human population in Kenya in 1940s was six million. Today, it’s close to sixty million.

Wildlife poaching is still an issue but looming larger is the human-wildlife conflict over space.

Tsavo is no longer that one big open space. It has a raised railway blocking the elephants to cross except if they tunnel themselves through the openings left open, ostensibly for them.

 “These are real scenes that are played out every day,” says Moll.

This interactive play with the audience as the jury and one that is pre-meditated is an excellent production show casing the talent of young Kenyan actors challenged to portray today’s unfolding crisis in the African landscape.  It forces the audience to ponder, to seek solutions instead of merely being bystanders.