David Mulwa is arguably one of the best East African playwrights. He has staged and written a legion of plays, including Buriani (1983), Redemption (1991) and Clean Hands (2001).
His play, Inheritance (2002), has been picked as an optional play by Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) for the KCSE literature examinations. Mulwa is currently a senior lecturer in the department of theatre arts and film technology at Kenyatta University.
He talked to writer OUMAH OTIENOH about playwriting and the East African literary scene.
Oumah Otienoh: What do you reminisce of your literary contemporaries such as John Ruganda and Francis Imbuga?
David Mulwa: John Ruganda was our junior elder who directed most of our plays. Our senior elders were my teachers, Taban lo Liyong’, David Rubadiri and Okot P’Bitek. When Ruganda directed Imbuga’s play, Man of Kafira, we all jubilated. He echoed that a new child had been born and we poured libations to appease the spirits of our literary ancestors and slaughtered a goat for the festival. It was a complete tradition.
John Ruganda was a brilliant mind, particularly when it came to stage directing. He was actually a shepherd and not a director. I learnt more from him about theatre than all the books I read. David Rubadiri, on the other hand, was a great philosopher, if I ever knew of one. We looked up to them. They were always interested in what we were doing on stage.
Talking of John Ruganda, why did he always prefer a small cast in most of his plays such as The Burdens and The Floods?
Ruganda loathed the irresponsibility of a large cast. He had no time to waste as he was brutally sharp. He was so impatient and a stickler for words. He always got pissed off with our laxity.
I remember during the rehearsal of Man of Kafira — a play penned by Francis Imbuga — he unrecognisably sat at the back of Education II hall at the University of Nairobi where we were staging the play and fumed an emphatic no to our cast. We all felt ashamed as he was the play director.
Your teacher, Prof. Taban lo Liyong’, termed East Africa as a literary desert. What is your take on this?
There is a lot happening in creative writing, especially on moral issues. Let’s not be stuck in the mud about old methods of evaluating literature. Most of the literary pundits are waiting for that great writer who may never come. The messiah we’re waiting for is deaf and dumb. The saviour is within ourselves. We should listen to our young people who are writing to the audience now. Let us all look at their tales.
Upon your return from a post-graduate scholarship from the University of Califonia at Los Angeles, you returned to the University of Nairobi but disagreed with Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the then head of literature department. What was the beef all about?
Ngugi had suggested that I take a teaching post in the department as a tutorial fellow and I utterly declined. I thought that he was belittling my academic achievements from overseas. Those days, I was full of myself. My ego couldn’t allow me to take up the post. I’ve since learnt to be humble. Ngugi lost his temper when I declined his offer.
Talking about ego, what advice would you give to budding writers who plunge into writing but can’t tame their ego?
Any nascent writer should keep an ‘open house’. Always be ready to be corrected. After all, what you’re doing is communicating to your readers out there. Don’t tell the critics to shut up. Critics are the midwives of any worthy writing process. Even so, a critic shouldn’t be a know-it-all at the expense of a writer.
Your play, Inheritance, has been picked as an optional high school text for the next four years by KICD.
I don’t feel the greatness. I’m being blunt and honest. I have been studied before. My play, Redemption, was studied at tertiary level for several years. Inheritance is currently being studied in Uganda and a legion of my plays such as Clean Hands and Glass Houses have made it to the study lists of most literature departments in our local universities.
Speaking of school texts, why have we studied John Ruganda and Francis Imbuga more than any other East African playwright?
It’s true the duo has stayed longer in our classrooms. But their works are great. Nevertheless, I’ll urge the curriculum developers to also let our students hear other voices instead of recycling same texts for our students. Why would we study Betrayal in the City for the third time running yet we have other dozens of plays by our local writers? Even if we must study Imbuga, why can’t we pick some other title like The Return of Mgofu?
KICD should allow teachers who teach these set books to participate in reading through a legion of books before settling on the best reads for its approval. We shouldn’t have vested interests while picking set books for our schools.
As a veteran playwright, what advice would you give to up-coming playwrights like Yours Truly?
Being a playwright is actually a hard job. Its an uphill task jumping between characters. A lot of playwrights go by the wayside when characters begin to rebel. When you feel dry, continue with the writing and then break through the impediments. When you take it up again, it will be polished. In my case, when I write a play, I also act it. In Redemption, my all time best written play, I played the role of Muthamba and felt his pain through the acts.
Prof, how do you balance between writing, acting, teaching and family?
It’s a bit tough but I have mastered the art through all these years. In fact, my wife is my greatest pillar in writing. She edits most of my works, like my latest novels such as We Come in Peace (2012) and Flee, Mama Flee (2014).
And what would be your parting shot to budding writers who plunge into writing with an intention of get-rich-quick?
They shouldn’t be after quick cash. If you write with money in mind, you will die a slow, miserable death. Just write to tell a story, the money will come someday.
The writer teaches at Ng’iya Girls High School in Siaya County and has written several high school revision books. [email protected]