Many have read his books and few have had a chance to interact with the prolific writer Prof Francis Imbuga.
But it is not too late to get to know this man who coloured the lives of high school students with his interesting setbook; the man who is remembered, and revered at the same time, as a literature icon.
An exhibition that serves as a memorial of Prof Imbuga’s works was launched on Monday at Kenya National Archives, and it will run until April 2019.
The breakfast gala event saw the late professor’s family and close associates talk about the man they had come to know over the years as humorous and full of life.
“It’s exactly six years since dad passed on. Through your prayers and support, we thank God that we’ve grown in strength and faith to get by,” Adrian Imbuga, the only son of the Imbugas, said.
He described the late professor as humble, witty, philanthropic, headstrong and a person who had no room for mediocrity. Mzee must be rolling in his grave seeing how his favourite team AFC Leopards has been fairing lately, he added.
Doris Mbugua, the Imbugas eldest child, said that working on the exhibition and reading her father’s notes made her discover the world Prof Imbuga lived in at different points in his life.
“I also got see a lot of my mother during this time. As a scientist, she’s very conservative with information; but looking at pictures from the past she was able to tell us more about her life and I enjoyed the experience of her opening up to us,” Doris said.
She also found out that the novel The Animal Within, which the late professor finished writing in 1972, seemed to be inspired by his life at that point. When the book was rejected, Prof Francis Imbuga almost gave up on writing.
Imbuga’s family hopes that the exhibition will inspire younger generations to write.
Dr Evans Mugarizi said the late Prof Imbuga’s magnanimity was evident when he was asked to help set up the English Department at Kigali Institute of Education in Rwanda. When Dr Mugarizi was hired, the professor took him into his house.
When their time in Kigali was coming to an end, Prof Imbuga asked that they do something for the house helps--a young man and young woman--so that they can continue earning a living. They took Alex to study tailoring and bought him a sewing machine while Maria studied catering.
“Little did we know that we were setting a foundation for a couple. They got married and had a son—Evans Imbuga,” said Dr Mugarizi.
The couple gave their son Dr Mugarizi’s first name and Prof Imbuga’s surname.
Dr Reardon Olubayo, Professor Mabel Imbuga’s older brother, praised his brother-in-law for being honourable.
He said that Francis Imbuga had pestered his sister about not having finished paying her dowry and he wanted to pay up. That was a few years before he died.
When Mabel’s family eventually, and reluctantly, gave in to his request to fulfil the matrimonial obligation, they were expecting a small and private affair. However, Prof Imbuga came to the home with a whole entourage, including the then mayor of Vihiga.
“He knew he would not live forever, and he lived well; he’s what I’d call a first-class gentleman,” Dr Olubayo said.
Gachoka King’ori, who had to be given a moment to compose himself after his emotions got the better of him, said that since July he had been preparing to hand over the Olympia Traveller DeLuxe portable typewriter that Prof Imbuga had gifted him in 1994, when he was a student at Kenyatta University.
He was able to use the typewriter to grow his writing career. Gachoka wanted to donate the typewriter to the Kenya National Archives, but the director, Francis Mwangi, told him the institution could do more by putting up a wall in honour of Prof Francis Imbuga.
“At least I now know it is in safer hands,” Gachoka said.
Prof Mabel Imbuga only had fond memories of the man she was married to for 37 years. The two met in 1968 when students from Alliance Girls and Alliance Boys would go to mentor students in other high schools.
“When we went to university, I discovered he was humorous and handsome, and he attracted many girls. But he never veered from us,” she said, eliciting laughter from the guests.
Calling him an ideal husband and father, Prof Mabel said he influenced her career too. They went together to university and he advised her to switch courses because he felt it wouldn’t have been good for a mother of a young family.
“So he went and changed my course before we were even married,” she said.
They would get married in 1973 have six children – Doris, Paul, Bridgette, Margaret, Betty and Louisa.
Francis also mentored her and encouraged her to pursue her masters degree, even bringing home application forms for her to fill out. He also challenged her to apply for deputy vice chancellor position at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, which put her on course to being the vice chancellor.
As a partner, Mabel in turn created a conducive environment to enable him write.
“He was always writing down notes and putting them somewhere; and I never allowed anyone to touch them so that it wouldn’t derail his train of thought,” she said.
The night Francis Imbuga died, he and his wife had had a long conversation as he enjoyed his favourite sherry which he had nicknamed “mkomboti”.
He told her he wouldn’t make it to the graduation that was coming that December, even though she protested and told him she would reserve a special seat for him.
“What I’d like to say is that he died a very happy person, just before finishing The Green Cross of Kafira. As a family, we had the play staged before we eventually published it with the help of some of his friends. I would like to thank everyone for being so supportive,” she added.