Author Tony Mochama, in commenting on Adipo Sidang’s poetry collection Parliament of Owls, called him the “new emperor hooting the naked truth”. Only that Sidang’ is not that new, having spent 16 years writing 250 poems, 140 of which finally made it into the 280-page book published by Contact Zones.
Contextually, though, Mochama was right. And the question on everyone’s lips, especially those who have read Parliament of Owls, is: Where has Sidang’ been all these years?
“I was a literary monk cloistered in my quiet world of writing,” he says. Very few words for a man who started writing at 16.
As his poetry was marinating, Sidang’ was busy pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Urbaniana University, Rome, and later a Master of Arts in Philosophy (area of research Epistemology) at the University of Nairobi. The student then became a teacher of philosophy at his alma mater, the University of Nairobi, resigning in 2016 to pursue other interests.
These other interests included founding the Agora Theatre group, which gave birth to its firstborn child: a play, Parliament of Owls, which was staged at the Kenya National Theatre on June 24.
“We recorded the performances and we plan to go to different counties and play the videos to different audiences. We also hope to discover talent in the various counties through having different acts ‘curtain-raise’ before screening,” he says.
This way, he believes, he will have done his bit in nurturing talent in the literary industry.
Sidang’ funded the play himself, as he believes that it is high time that theatre-goers got treated to more than just the slapstick and tragicomedy plays that they are accustomed to.
Sidang’ acted in the play as Royal Owl and was the assistant director. It starred Dennis Lugendo as Money Bags Owl, Evelyne Mutanu (Oyundi, the Fire-finch) and Eva Akinyi (Iron Lady Owl).
The play, a political satire, addressed corruption, political leadership, justice, tribalism and social ills.
It was directed by renowned director and University of Nairobi lecturer Kimingichi Wabende.
LOVE AFFAIR WITH POETRY BEGINS
The former seminarian, who is also agnostic (a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God) began his love affair with poetry as a 16-year-old high school student penning “massive missives” on behalf of his fellow students who wanted to impress a damsel or two with their lyrical prowess.
The book’s prologue has lines from some of these over decade-old poems, as in the poem "These Works of Mine", where he writes:
Some were massive missives to women whose names/I ceased to remember
And how does his being agnostic impact his literary work?
“My writing is influenced by my existentialist school of thought, which lays emphasis on the idea of man as a free agent in search of an authentic living where there are choices and responsibilities.”
Parliament of Owls was launched in November 2016 to rave reviews, prompting the poet to pen a play to build on the theme of the title poem that castigates leadership. Not just political leadership but all kinds of leadership, he clarifies.
During the launch, the poet, who is also a budding songwriter, stage director and actor, screened a video of one of his poems, ‘Love is a Ring’ (in which he also starred), to an excited audience that is used to formal book launches with just book readings and ribbon-cutting as the climax of the affair.
Sidang’ also performed a rap song he had co-written with Zaka of the hip-hop group Ukoo Flani at the launch.
But it was the skit based on the title poem, "Parliament of Owls", by the University of Nairobi’s Travelling Theatre that capped it all, whetting the audience’s appetite and catapulting him into the world of playwriting.
“After the performance, the feedback I got was the skit should be a fully-fledged play and I began to think of how I could do that. That is how Agora Theatre was born.”
Performing the works, he says, is a way of archiving culture as well. He has a YouTube channel where he posts videos of his poetry performances.
GREW UP IN UYOMA
Sidang’, whose words in the book have been described as “too militant”, grew up in a village in Uyoma, Siaya County.
“My grandmothers used to tell me stories, and this defined how I see my world. For me, culture is lived, and it is the foundation on which I build my writing.”
His mother, a teacher, also cultivated in him a love for reading. Hallo Children, New Friend, Ewoi & the Ogre and the Moses series by Barabara Kimenye all coloured his childhood.
Culture, he says, defines how he packages his writing and in the play Parliament of Owls, this reality is illuminated. The Luo proverb Alot michayo ema tero kuon (The vegetable that is despised is the one that clears the ugali) best summarises what the play is about.
The play (and the title poem) was influenced by a Luo song about how birds (in their kingdom) ganged up against the owl, who up until then was a feared bird given his loud hoot and big eyes. The story goes that a little bird gathered courage and attacked the owl and the owl timidly scampered away and all birds chased him out of the forest. That little bird is Oyundi, who, though cunning and lazy (so the story goes), manages to save the kingdom!
A song from his childhood greatly influenced his characterisation of Oyundi. It goes:
Oyundi ni dhi mot, Oyundi ni tienda lit/Oyundi ni dhi umb (pi)/Oyundi ni tienda lit/
Oyundi ni dhi ng'wet/Oyundi ni tienda lit/Oyundi ni bi ichiem/Oyundi ni sesesese
(Oyundi please go fetch firewood – But my leg hurts/Oyundi please go fetch water - But my leg hurts/Oyundi please go get food in the forest - But my leg hurts/Oyundi please come eat - Oyundi runs sesese -implying very fast)
So what is next for the former literary monk?
“I have written a novella on the plight of children living with albinism and I am also working on my first novel.”
If Parliament of Owls is anything to go by, then book lovers are in for a treat.