The Star (Nairobi)

Kenya: Celebrating Francis Imbuga, the Quintessential Playwright, Author

Photo: The New Times
The late Prof Francis Imbuga.

As a lecturer:

I remember coming to your office at KU to show you a script that I had written for you to peruse. Having gone through it, you calmly told me; "Ingolo, do not be so angry when you write, whatever the subject is, because even in a funeral, people also laugh". You asked me to tone down and approach my writing with humility. I'll never forget that! To date, I have tried to fashion all my scripts and concepts around that dictum. That script, 'Parcels', opened the inaugural KU Cultural Festival in 1978.

"Headmaster!", that is how we called you way back in the 1980s. How that started, I just don't know, but with hindsight, I can relate to your relentless involvement in the creative enrichment of those that you interacted with; that was definitely legendary.

Whether it was in class as you took us through the paces of creative arts, or at the Kenya National Theatre, which you christened, the Shrine, and then immortalised it in your novel "Shrine of Tears", your energy to gather and disburse knowledge was unparalleled.

It is at the "shrine" that you would sit and engage us in serious discussions on arts and theatre, as we imbibed or "swallowed" as you would call it.

Many a times we would just sit there, drinking plain water; "swallow" or no "swallow", your presence and that of the other icons of the creative arts then; Ngugi wa Thiongo, John Ruganda, David Rubadiri, David Mulwa, Prof Austin Lwanga Bukenya, Robert Serumaga, Okot p' Bitek, was all that mattered.

I also remember the TV series, " men of Office", which you wrote for the then VOK, now KBC. That was immediately after I had joined the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting; a rookie film director.

You told me that now that I had ventured into film production, I should join and contribute all that I had learnt at the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication.

Of course I joined, and with the permission of my director of department, I was availed a film camera, lights and sound equipment. I would then direct all the exterior actions in the series, which we would then marry with the studio drama recording that was directed by Emmoytte Opotti.

The result: a drama series that ran 26 episodes, complete with the visual experience of outdoor cinematography. And the cast was my all too familiar former teachers at Kenyatta University like David Mulwa, Ambassador Prof Ciarunji Chesaina and Prof Austin Bukenya. Apart from directing the exterior scenes I also acted, and your son Paul, acted as my son in that series.

At the end of the evening at the "shrine", your red car, a Datsun 120Y KPZ 039 that was christened "Paulina" by Emoytte Opotti, would then take you from the "shrine" via Kijabe Street onto Thika Road towards Kenyatta University.

You always said that after "swallowing", your car only knew that route out of Kenya National Theatre, hence you would never risk taking any another route! It was a long way, but you would find time on Saturdays to join us at the "shrine".

Football:

In the 1980s an ardent football fan you were, and AFC Leopards damu, to the hilt. One day AFC was playing Gor at Nyayo stadium, but we all didn't have enough money for the tickets and for the celebrations thereafter.

The solution was a brain wave, I must admit. You told us "don't worry guys we are going to see the game and we will celebrate". You packed us in your "Paulina"; made your way through town, but to our shock, you drive towards Thika Road.

Well, we kept quite, because at that time being given a lift was such an honour that we dared not complain. You drove into Safari Park Hotel and with us in dutiful tow, into a large hall full of people who were facing some screens.

You settled on some machine as you instructed us to sit at a table and order a "Swallow". Within two minutes, we heard some continuous cranking sounds of coins from the machine you were playing on. The next thing, you were back at the table telling us that it was time to leave (the swallow hadn't even arrived yet).

You had won with the first try and therefore we had to leave Safari Park Hotel otherwise the machine will have "eaten back" the winnings if you played any more.

You of course warned us that we should never go there in future, because even for you, you had just thought about that move from the blues! We proceeded to Nyayo Stadium, AFC won and it was celebration.

When going for an AFC match you would instruct your wife, now Prof Mabel Imbuga, whom you fondly referred to as sister, "listen to the radio and if AFC wins, slaughter two chickens.

Eat one chicken with the children to celebrate, but for the second chicken, keep it for my visitors and me. But don't hold us responsible if we come home late, after all AFC will have won." Mabel, your sister would burst into laughter wishing us good luck in the game.

Humour:

Another thing I remember is how you would turn around difficult situations, even the mundane, into subjects of humour.

Ghasia. That was a word you coined for anything you did not agree with, but in jest. But of course, this was within the confines of the "Shrine". Sometime before your scholarly sojourn to Rwanda, doctors advised you not to eat meat or drink alcohol. This is roughly how you put it to us.

"Now imagine all my early life I lived in poverty (want) having been brought up by my grandmother after the death of my mother while I was still in primary school.

As an orphan living with my grandmother, the only food I knew was Ugali with vegetables: greens, greens and greens! Then Joining Alliance High school, I thought I had graduated from greens.

But alas, meat on the menu at Alliance was just a rumour, and now that I am working and have my own money, the doctors are telling me not to eat meat? Ghasia!"

As an actor:

If there was a driver on stage, that was you.

You enthusiastically pushed us on especially when we were acting alongside you. 'Muntu' by Joe de Graft in 1978 at Kenyatta University; that was one performance I will never forgot as an aspiring actor then.

The cast comprised lecturers, staff and students of the creative arts department. It was hilarious to see "headmaster" acting in a pair of shorts as the elder son of Muntu.

I was the fourth son of Muntu, and our mission and instructions from Muntu ( the late Prof Arthur Kemoli) was to go out and scout for neighbours within the area, that we as the family of Muntu, had just migrated to.

Having come from a rural school where teachers sat on a higher pedestal than we lesser mortals, and now seeing "teacher", and to make it worse, a teacher in a university walking alongside me while wearing a pair of shorts, was to say the least comical.

Films:

The Married Bachelor, a play I adapted and directed for the screen:

Having been short of funds to shoot the home scenes in Western Kenya, my producer, Nyongesa Iyadi, and I were planning to shoot the rural scenes somewhere in Machakos.

You came in and insisted that we have to shoot in Kakamega. The producer pointed the limitation of funds to enable the shoot in Kakamega - 450km from Nairobi - the principal location of the story.

You then offered to take care of our accommodation, meals etc as long as we could marshal resources to ferry crew and cast to Western Kenya.

The producer took on the challenge and a busload of cast and crew travelled to Western Kenya and camped in your almost completed house in Maragoli, Kisatiru near Bendera market.

That is where the entire rural scenes were shot for seven days; with 40 people living and sleeping in your house - wherever they could find space.

We carried mattresses and blankets and used the floors, verandah... You graciously provided food and a host of logistics like enlisting villagers as part of extras in the shoot. From the neighbouring Isukha location you brought in the Isikuti drummers who took part in the circumcision scenes.

You once told us of an incident in New Orleans when you were on sabbatical. You had just taken part in a film shot in Kenya by American producers - I think it was "Gorillas in the Mist" or "Mountains of the Moon".

It was scheduled to show in the university cinema so you proudly marshaled many of your university colleagues to come and watch a movie you had acted in.

As the film progressed, to your horror, you were not seeing yourself! Not even in the scene in which you were very sure you are appearing.

Your part had been edited out! You quietly sneaked out of the cinema theatre before the end credits and swore to support films that are written, produced and directed by Kenyans or Africans.

But of course you took that in humility and laughed it off with your colleagues when they eventually smoked you out after the "Imbuga No Show" had ended.

Well, it's been a long journey, I am not sure we really got to the end of it. Nonetheless, as we mourn your passing, I promise you that we will "also laugh" as we reminisce on the great times you shared with us and thank the almighty God for having given us this great opportunity to have known you as a teacher, mentor, thespian and an inspiration - all rolled into one. Rest in peace Headmaster.

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InFocus

Chapter Closes in the Life of Kenyan Playwright

The late Prof Francis Imbuga.

The Kenyan renowned playwright Francis Imbuga who gripped many readers with his literary masterpieces passed on after suffering a stroke in his house in Nairobi. Read more »