There is a common saying that a prophet is not recognised in his village. But the proverb is only partially true. For before one becomes known as a seer, he must have seen and pronounced wise words about some phenomenon, person, object or life in their home village. Prophets begin their journeys to other places — wherever they will be recognised — in their own homes or villages.
However, it may be that in their villages the recognition is only partial. Maybe because they are too familiar among many locals, who may not take the seers seriously. Or there is the petty local jealousies. Or the locals just don’t care.
Which is why seven years since Francis Imbuga died, not one of his many students has ever bothered to hold a serious literary — or let’s say theatrical — memorial in his honour. None.
Yet this is the man that can easily be described as the father of Kenyan school theatre. In other words, to speak of theatre in Kenyan schools, particularly universities, one will be forced to begin the conversation with the name Francis Imbuga.
In high school, Imbuga’s plays are routinely read. Betrayal in the City is a play that many Kenyans are familiar with. It has been a setbook for the literature section of the English paper in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination three times over the years. Many Kenyans will casually drop a phrase from the play during conversation.
The other two plays by Imbuga that Kenyans most cite are Man of Kafira and Aminata. However, not many Kenyans seem to know the last of his “Kafira” trilogy, The Green Cross of Kafira, which was published posthumously. Yet Imbuga first published two plays, Fourth Trial and Kisses of Fate in 1972.
Unfortunately, even for someone who spent his entire adult life writing plays, acting in and producing them, teaching Kenyans to take theatre seriously, or as John Ruganda would say about his plays, “telling the truth, laughingly,” it has taken his own family to write a book about his life and time.
Francis Imbuga: The Cherished Footprints (Bookmark Africa, 2019) is a brief story or history about the son of Samwel Govoga, from Wenyange village, Chavakali, Vihiga County.
This story of Imbuga’s life contained in about 190 pages of the book is a challenge to Kenyans who knew Imbuga professionally, socially or as family, to reminisce about him and remember him; or to actually write about him.
For his students and colleagues in the university, it is a call to properly honour him, say, with colloquium and a publication that captures the philosophy of his creative and non-creative writing.
The Cherished Footprints takes the reader to the beginnings of Imbuga’s life, when his father is conscripted into the colonial army to go fight in their European conflict in Asia.
The capture of Samwel Govoga was violent and disruptive, leaving the family confused. However, the young man came back from the war six years later. After he had been cleansed — considering that he had probably killed people in the war and had also been presumed dead — he was reintegrated into the family and married Irene Doris Ingede, Imbuga’s mother.
The boy named Francis Davis by his father would only acquire the family name Imbuga after completing primary school.
He was the couple’s first child and would have three other brothers and two sisters. His father married another wife, who bore six other siblings.
The father had had a son before Imbuga. Thus Imbuga would be raised in a big family, where he would naturally learn to listen to stories and (re)tell them as a way of life.
Imbuga is depicted in The Cherished Footprints as a keen and brilliant child who performed well at school.
He joined nursery school in 1956 at Keveye Primary School, passed his Common Entrance Examination in 1959 and joined Chavakali Intermediate School in 1960. He would later join Alliance High School after excelling in the Kenya Advanced Primary Education exams.
At Alliance, Imbuga would play basketball, write and act in plays, and would meet his future wife, Mabel Olubayo, who was studying at Alliance Girls School. He wed Mabel in 1973 and they had five children.
After Alliance, Imbuga joined the University Nairobi, from where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Literature and Education while Mabel later graduated with a degree in biochemistry.
Whereas Mabel would rise through the academic ranks to become the first female vice-chancellor of Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology in 2008, Imbuga would also rise through the academic ranks to become the dean of the Faculty of Arts at Kenyatta University. But above all, he was the pre-eminent Kenyan playwright.
Imbuga’s theatrical career thrived at Kenyatta University although it is at the University of Nairobi that he established his public actor persona. He was writing plays for the then Voice of Kenya (now KBC) radio and for production at the Kenya National Theatre with his university colleague Greg Adambo and continued doing so after undergraduate studies and during postgraduate training.
Imbuga graduated with a Master of Arts in 1975. He moved to Kenyatta University in 1978, when the Faculty of Education at the University of Nairobi was transferred to Kenyatta University College.
At KU, Imbuga carried on the spirit of the “free travelling theatre”, taking theatre beyond the university, acting at the Kenya National Theatre, writing plays and adjudicating during the national schools and colleges drama festival, among other activities.
He would later go to the University of Iowa, US, to study for a PhD in 1988, and come back in 1991 to teach at KU. He wrote his thesis on the work of John Ruganda, who in turn wrote his on Imbuga’s plays.
But Imbuga’s legacy can also be found at the Kigali Institute of Education, in Kigali, Rwanda, where he was hired in 2000. While he had applied to teach, he became the founding dean of the Faculty of Education and Social Sciences, thus implementing the English language curriculum that the country was adopting.
Here, too, Imbuga would plant his theatre spirit, writing plays and leading students in rehearsals as well as directing them.
His sojourn in Rwanda would lead to his sacking from KU, ostensibly for “deserting duty”. He eventually came back home to KU and became the director of quality assurance.
One would say that at the time the “grim reaper” claimed Francis Imbuga, he was just entering the realm of true greatness. His plays had claimed a pre-eminent position in Kenya’s literary heritage.
His students had spread far and wide, carrying his legacy, and his theatrical bequest to Kenyans was unquestionable. Imbuga wasn’t just a leading Kenyan playwright, successful actor and educator; he was also a public intellectual who wrote the satirical column Masharubu’s World, set in a bar, in the Nation newspaper from the 1970s to the 1990s.
It is not surprising that Wahome Mutahi, another playwright, would inherit the world of Masharubu with his very successful Whispers column from the 1990s till 2003. This is why The Cherished Footprints is a worthy celebration of the son of papa Govoga and mama Doresi.
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]