Last Monday, I attended the launch, at Kenyatta University, of The Cherished Footprints, Masinde Kusimba’s biography of the late Professor Francis Davis Imbuga. I need not tell you about the book, as I know you will read it. Nor need I tell you about Francis Imbuga, the Betrayal in the City, Aminata, Man of Kafira author, who is a household name in East Africa.
Rather, I wish to share with you the startling insight I had into the fascinating relationship between the two professors, Francis Davis Imbuga and Mabel Imbuga, which made them such successful family and professional partners.
Professor Mabel Imbuga, the former Vice-Chancellor of the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), was actually our host at the launch. I felt particularly honoured and touched by her invitation to the occasion.
It gave me the opportunity not only to share with her our memories of Mwalimu Imbuga but also to express my own admiration and respect for her for what she has achieved in the past two decades.
I must have made honourable mention of her somewhere in these columns, as when I wrote about the age of the female vice-chancellor.
Prof Mabel Imbuga is, however, a person of strong understatement, and I could not talk decently about her in my usual, loud boastfulness. But it would not be boasting to say that the two first female vice-chancellors of Kenyan public universities are close acquaintances of mine, the other being Prof Olive Mugenda of KU.
Being a VC, whether man or woman, has never been an easy job. Now that my sisters are honourably out of the hot seats and not burnt to cinders there, I can quietly congratulate them. This is of course in view of my firm belief in the benefits of my sisters’ leadership in every field. If we can run a university, we can run bigger things. My readers will know that we (my sisters and I) are gunning for such, as early as 2027, if not earlier.
But I did not get to say any of these things to the good professor at the launch of her husband’s biography, for two main reasons. First, the galaxy of writers, academics, publishers, media gurus and other public figures around her made it a struggle even getting close to her.
Second, and more importantly, Prof Imbuga suggested to us, both in the format of the launch and in her brief and articulate personal testimony, that we were celebrating much more than the illustrious scholar and creative genius that Francis Imbuga was.
She was, most importantly, sharing with us her intimate knowledge of the unique human being, the man to whom she had been married for 39 years, following a friendship and courtship that lasted five years and dated from their teen years at the Alliance Schools in the late 1960s.
It is true to say that Mabel and Francis “made” each other, and determined what each became not only as a family person and parent but also as a professional in their different careers. Mabel is full of testimonies of how Imbuga kept encouraging her and urging her on to advance in both her educational attainment and professional advancement.
When she was hesitating about applying for the VC’s job at JKUAT, it was Imbuga who told her, “Go for it. You will get it.” That is the enabling, empowering man that every husband should be!
Conversely, however, Francis Imbuga could not have become the roaring success that he was if he had not had Mabel’s full confidence and support. Acting and theatre in general is often ignorantly perceived as a “crazy trade,” whose practitioners are always pulling pranks and playing “let’s pretend”. If Mabel had held this primitive view, and told Francis that she did not like theatre, the grandmaster would have been in a really “chaotic” dilemma.
Moreover, there were many difficult and anxious times for theatre and its practitioners in the final three decades of the last century. Ngugi wa Thiong’o was detained in 1977, Micere Mugo, Ngugi wa Mirii and Kimani Gecau were forced into exile and John Ruganda was denied a job at Moi University and eventually hounded out of the country, all apparently because of theatre. There were times when we were on tenterhooks as we acted some plays, including some of Imbuga’s scripts, for fear of offending those who had come to think that all literature, and especially drama, was “subversive”.
Mabel Imbuga could have advised Francis Imbuga to turn to other pursuits for his own safety and that of the family. But she did not. My own early impressions of her in the late 1970s, as she attended to us on our numerous impromptu visits to her home, and the endless parties, is that she watched our “madness” with an amused but indulgent detachment.
On the academic and teaching front, all of us in middle range academic posts were, in the mid-1980s, being pressurised to get PhDs or face stagnation or even sacking. Those who could, like Prof Ireri Mbaabu, John Ruganda, Jane Nandwa and Francis Imbuga himself, went abroad and struggled to complete the doctorates in record time and return to their families and jobs.
Mabel Imbuga seems to have taken the challenges of holding down her job and managing the family on her own during Francis’s absence in the US with remarkable efficiency and aplomb.
In short, probably the best thing that ever happened to Francis Imbuga, the fiery, irrepressible creative artiste, is Prof Mabel Imbuga, the cool-headed, methodical scientist, who fully, trustingly and lovingly believed in him and his calling.
My conclusion is that the beautiful Francis-Mabel love story symbolises the inevitable productivity of sensibly blending the sciences and the arts in our lives and education.
It is a perfect chemistry. Do read the biography, won’t you?