Laura Wanjiru Ekumbo grew up in the city of Langata, a suburb in Nairobi county, Kenya. Her father got a teaching job at Brookhouse International School where her and her family lived for 11 years. There, her time was spent performing on stage in school plays, playing the piano, playing sports and singing. It wasn’t until her grade 11 English class that she discovered she had a knack for wordplay too.
“Our teacher invited some people into class — spoken word poets…they sounded really cool. I liked how they played with the words,” she says. “We had been studying poetry and this wasn’t the dull rhyming of words just for the sake of rhyming — it was different and liberating.”
Ekumbo, 19, says her first audience member was her sister. Once she realized how much she enjoyed performing, she spent the next several evenings indulging in YouTube videos of spoken word poets.
“I found it interesting. Until that day I had never experienced something like that before. They (the poets) challenged us to do the same. So, I just wrote a bunch of words down and it was pretty good.”
When Ekumbo graduated from Brookhouse she took a year off and worked at the theatre company in the city and participated in the Kenya poetry slam twice.
“The second time I was the runner up right after the King of slam poetry. I was second by one point. He was really great about it; most people still call me a queen in respect to the slam hierarchy.”
Her best friend and poet coached and encouraged her after her first try.
“The second time I did it I was runner up I had a lot of support. I was more mature in my writing, better structure and better word play.”
Kenya is still primarily a conservative country and when Ekumbo told her parents she wanted to explore
poetry and acting more seriously as a career possibility they were confused.
“My dad, he is more traditional than my mom, even with theatre performances and me coming home at ten at night from rehearsals he didn’t understand what I was doing. For him money is why you do something.”
“It’s (poetry) growing now in Kenya, there’s a bunch of pioneer poets, setting groundwork,” she says.
Ekumbo received a scholarship to attend St. Thomas University this year. She liked the idea of a small city and doing a liberal arts degree in Kenya was out of the question.
The day after she landed in September, she won the welcome week talent competition for her poetry. She didn’t even know it was a competition.
“Then Andrew Titus introduced himself to me. He told me about poetry at St. Thomas and he was the person who showed me what poetry in Fredericton was really like.”
Since she’s been in Fredericton she’s taken part in one Theatre St. Thomas production and a St. Thomas Musical Theatre production, local plays and poetry readings. She says she’s learned so much from being so far from home.
“It would be so horrible to force myself to do something I don’t want to do. I’m passionate about being onstage and writing about performing.”
Ekumbo says she will most likely return home after this year. She will stay involved in poetry and theatre, working with youth initiatives that run slam poetry in Nairobi empowering young people through performance art.
“Being in Canada, as much as I love this place and all the people in it, coming here has also made me really patriotic about my country and gave me a new found appreciation for Kenya, and part of me going back is also because I want to contribute to my home country.”