22 November 2012

Kenya: Legendary Playwright Looms in the Future

Photo: The New Times
The late Prof Francis Imbuga.

In the land of the distant past, it is reported that a poet seeking to pick the brain of his interlocutors on the nature of human existence is said to have asked, "What are men?" And he watched them grapple with the question, before he made to answer, "They are guests of the grave and travellers that pass."

Such is the fate awaiting all men. But history is replete with examples of men who sought to defy this notion. There lived such a man in Kenya. His name was Francis Imbuga, the dramatist extra-ordinaire who straddled the expanse of our landscape like a colossus.

No, Prof Imbuga was no ordinary man. Long after he is presumed gone, his figure will continue looming into the future, for Imbuga was a great heir of memory.

Professor left in full flight last Sunday aged 65. He was a professor of literature specialising in Drama, Creative Writing, and Drama in Education. He was the chairman of Literature department and Dean of Faculty of Arts at Kenyatta University.

Imbuga is no doubt Kenya's foremost and greatest playwright. But because he was a self-effacing person with a distinctive humility, his invaluable contribution to scholarship, education, growth and development of Kenyan literature may not be accorded full recognition.

Unlike writers who wrote one or two books and started thinking they were great, Imbuga believed that to be great, one does not need to impose himself.

In his immortal speech, literary scholar Prof Arthur Luvai said that, "Imbuga was a great gift from God thrust in our midst." Prof Luvai remembers their first encounter at Alliance High school in 1964 where they shared a dormitory: "I was one class ahead in form two."

Even in those formative years Imbuga exhibited great talent. Regarding his salient legacy, Prof Luvai says "Imbuga had an exemplary literary mind that one needs to look at the corpus of his literary texts, and not a single work." Imbuga was the humourist who wrote the newspaper column Mashurubus World, long before Wahome Mutahi perfected that genre.

Thus Betrayal in the City (1976), that freshly subversive and most famous play, was just the first in the Kafira Trilogy, as Distinguished Professor of Literature Egara Kabaji of Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, notes.

The other plays in the trilogy are, Man of Kafira (1984), and The Green Temple of Kafira (to be published posthumously.) Prof Kabaji says he met Imbuga for the first time as an undergraduate student.

On one occasion, he took a story to Prof Imbuga, who looked at it and told the young scholar, "You have great potential." That statement inspired Kabaji, for he decided to ride on its wings, so that today Prof Kabaji is a household name regarded by many in literary circles, especially among the timid minds, as a dangerous polemicist.

Today Prof Kabaji occupies the privileged position of reading all of Imbuga's books in manuscript form. Imbuga was a prolific writer. His oeuvre in the East African Educational Publishers Drama Library are: Aminata, The Burning of Rags, The Successor, Game of Silence,

The Return of Mgofu, Miracle of Remera, Shreds of Tears (novel), How I Became a Millionaire (children), Nyam Nyams (children), Kisses of Fate (play), and The Fourth Trial (play), the last two plays were published while Prof Imbuga was an undergraduate student.

One of Imbuga's famous quotes is: "When the madness of an entire nation disturbs a solitary mind, it is not enough to say the man is mad." He was an actor, producer and television scriptwriter for KBC.

Literary scholar Dr Waveney Olembo says Prof Imbuga was a good teacher and guide to the young. Dr Olembo observes that Imbuga was topical, and that his texts grapple with various cultural and socio-political issues in an African context.

But how did Imbuga escape the dragon of state persecution when Betrayal in the City was as militant, a protest note and call to rebellion against the government of President Kenyatta, notorious for assassinations and nepotism as depicted in the play? "Because few people understood his message," says Prof Oluoch Obura, a fellow dramatist and lecturer at Kenyatta University.

Imbuga's message, though political, was always fashioned in gentle garbs. Obura says Imbuga was a committed dramatist who "never preached dogma like some of his colleagues." He says that Imbuga talked politics in a different way: "Prof Francis Imbuga was not interested in making noise. In fact, he was not in the business of saying that one single idea would change Kenya."

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