The laughter at death’s self-delusion that it can silence Kenya’s recently departed writers must be so hearty among these artists that it would be better not to shed sad tears at Francis Imbuga’s passing.
Stinging as his sudden death is, this is the time to celebrate Prof Imbuga’s rich legacy and amplify the uplifting message he has had for us since his teenage years as a dramatist.
But we should cry — and cry hard — when his warnings against ethnic and electoral violence in his last published play, The Return of Mgofu (2011), continue to be disregarded with impunity.
Born in humble circumstances in Wenyange Village in western Kenya on February 2, 1947, the theatre personality who strode the Kenyan arts scene like a colossus died early Monday morning, leaving behind gems and masterpieces.
Besides his wife, Prof Mabel Imbuga, and their seven children and four grandchildren, Prof Francis Davis Imbuga is survived by lots of relatives and thousands of students that he taught and mentored. Some of his students are writers and professors in their own right.
Other literary writers who have left us recently include Margaret Ogola (1958-2011), Ezekiel Alembi (1960-2010) and Wahome Mutahi (1954-2003).
Like Imbuga, these writers addressed the themes of equality and reminded us to respect human life in all its forms.
Perhaps Imbuga’s greatest legacy is that he taught Kenyan writers to be humorous within the limits of decency.
Before he came to the scene, you would find humour in serious literary texts only if you searched for it using a high-powered microscope fitted with comedy-coloured lenses, nose, stage, and eyepiece.
The “serious” works by foundational writers were so dry that to call them interesting was to revise the Oxford English Dictionary and give that word a whole new meaning.
When they made an attempt at humour, the works resorted to grating sexual references, such as women giggling when they stumble upon Mugo playing with his dysfunctional penis in Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat (1967).
Charles Mangua came to our rescue from the university-based bores with his salacious Son of Woman (1971), in which the autobiographical narrator, Dodge Kiunyu, promises to repeat his filthy lines “until your elephant ears ache”.
The success of Mangua’s novel gave impetus to similarly humorous work by David Maillu.
But it is Imbuga who managed to create satire without relying on crude sexual references, since his humour derives from skilful characterisation, folkloric exaggeration, and deft play with language.
In Kenyan theatre, you don’t want to play the role of a villain because a hostile audience might find it difficult to separate you from your fictional role and jump onto the stage and beat you up, as they tried to do in a dress rehearsal of Ngugi’s Maitu Njugira at the University of Nairobi’s Education Theatre II in 1982.
But so charming are Imbuga’s works that it is even cool to play the bad guy in his dramas.
Imbuga’s villains, such as Mulili in Betrayal in the City (1976), are, for some reason, as popular with audiences as Shakespeare’s Iago.
When the play was a set-book in Kenyan high schools, it was not surprising to find popular teachers and students who had been given the moniker “Mulili” after the goofy fellow.
Contrast and humour
Because of his strategic use of humour, Imbuga could get away with anything.
While Daniel arap Moi’s regime (1978-2002) razed Ngugi’s Kamiriithu theatre in 1982 and sent the brain behind it to exile, functionaries in the same regime patronised events at the similarly conceived Vihiga Cultural Centre, which Imbuga helped found in 1983.
Honestly, I am suspicious of theatre guys. My last stage performance was as a first-year student at a different university from where Imbuga taught.
It was a rendition of the Jamaican Mutabaruka’s mournful reggae poem of rage and loss, They’ve invaded Angola again/dem inviade Angwoola again.
Figuring death as apartheid troops raiding a sovereign African nation, we improvised this song to memorialise fallen colleagues and teachers.
When I realised my co-actors had to smoke marijuana backstage every time to “make this sh--- really comical”, I left theatre arts for the less colourful European fiction.
To be sure, like their students, Kenyan theatre and literature professors can be perverts — cursing in the corridors to lecture halls and even pinching female students’ bottoms along the way.
But Mwalimu Imbuga treated his students with utmost respect, to which they responded in equal measure.
During their first meeting with Imbuga, some students were disappointed that he was not a clown like some of his most memorable characters.
They would be surprised at the professor’s intellectual profundity and unwavering interest to ignite sparks of intellection in the learners’ brains.
To achieve his ends as a teacher, Imbuga taught with his signature genial humour and humility, summoning participatory approaches which teachers at all levels would be none the poorer for applying in their lessons.
When sodas were still fashionable to drink on university campuses, Imbuga would buy crates of the stuff and ask his students to form a circle as in a village baraza to discuss weighty academic matters while enjoying their drinks.
Wahome Mutahi had a similar talent with humour. Popularly known as ‘Whispers’, he made fun of death by calling it “becoming past tense” or “expiring”.
Although the Kanu regime could at times not brook him, Mutahi would satirise the Church, and it didn’t take the humour too badly.
Indeed, the Consolata Missionaries published 14 “Whispers” Sunday Nation columns in a volume titled Whispers and Camisassius (2002).
Like Mutahi, Imbuga cannot become past tense. Treating serious themes in dignified language, his books will never expire.
For his part, Ezekiel Alembi was best known as a children’s writer whose works motivated young readers to explore the world without compromising decency.
While professors rarely make their books available even in the university libraries where they teach, Alembi went out of his way to “give back to the community” by donating books to groups outside the ivory towers and discussing with them the ideas he had to offer in his works.
Margaret Ogola rarely used humour, but her works addressed, in easy prose, the place of gender in African traditional societies.
Her The Place of Destiny (2005), examines the theme of death, seeing the end of the current life as the beginning of a more fulfilling phase of existence if you gift your life to others.
Her most memorable character, Akoko in The River and the Source (1994), is a woman who struggles against all odds in a male-dominated society. The novel joins Imbuga’s play as a set-book next year.
Like Ogola, Imbuga examined gender issues with great sensitivity in his plays. Written specially for the Second World Women’s Conference in Nairobi in 1985, the play Aminata depicts the discrimination against women by a male-dominated system by presenting the struggles of a brilliant and tenacious lawyer against traditional beliefs that men use to disinherit women.
Imbuga’s experience in theatre began at Alliance High School, which he attended from 1964 to 1969.
He won the national Best Actor’s Award in the 1969 edition of the Kenya Schools Drama Festivals in which he took the leading role in Omolo, a play he had written.
He joined the University of Nairobi in 1970 to study for a Bachelor of Arts (Education Option), graduating with honours in 1973.
As an undergraduate, Imbuga appeared on television programmes, some of whose script he had written, without abandoning his stage career.
His screenplay series Omolo was popular on Voice of Kenya TV in 1971 and 1972. It satirised the growing gap between the rich and the poor and the lethargy of government bureaucrats.
Imbuga returned to the University of Nairobi to study for his Master’s degree, which he was awarded in 1975.
He had written a thesis titled “Techniques of Improvised theatre,” under the supervision of Ghanaian playwright and intellectual, Joe de Graft of the Muntu (1977) fame.
In 1976, Imbuga became a lecturer in the Department of Educational Communication and Technology at the University of Nairobi, before moving on to Kenyatta University, where he rose to become a senior lecturer in literature.
He joined the University of Iowa in 1988 to 1991 to study for his PhD. He wrote a dissertation of the work of Ugandan playwright John Ruganda, who passed on in 2007.
The newly minted Dr Imbuga returned to Kenyatta University with renewed energy and fervour to serve and was immediately promoted to associate professor in literature.
In 1992, he was elected the dean of the Faculty of Arts. He easily won a second two-year term as dean. In 1996, he was appointed a full professor of literature.
Although Imbuga does not agree with Ngugi’s position that effective literature should be in one’s mother tongue, in 1986 he published a Luhyia language book titled Lialuka lia Vaana va Magomere. It is about his community’s circumcision rituals.
As a boy, Imbuga was a Sunday school leader. Although he seems partial to African traditions, the influence of Christianity is obvious in some of his dramas.
In Aminata, for example, the church is shown as a possible arena to stage the battle for women’s liberation and subsequent gender equality.
Imbuga’s father, Samuel Govoga, worked in Nairobi as a security guard for the Nairobi City Council.
Young Imbuga was close to his loving and resourceful mother. The closeness to his mother, who died when the Imbuga was only 17 and in Form One at Alliance High School, might explain why Imbuga is so sensitive to the women’s rights in his works.
According to John Ruganda in his book Telling the Truth Laughingly: The Politics of Francis Imbuga (1992), the death of Imbuga’s mother in 1964 was shattering. This might explain why death was to become so central an idea in his works.
Brought up by his grandparents, Imbuga’s rural background is seen in his plays, which are garnished with beautiful proverbial sayings, song and dance, and etiquette and idiom derived from oral literature.
Because Imbuga’s dramas derive their techniques from oral performance, they have flexible scripts that have been improvised for various types of performances.
Imbuga describes his works as “dramas of ideas.” His plays provoke deep thought and discussion because of the subtlety of the symbols employed and the open-ended nature of their plots.
Although he uses some elements of the absurd theatre, in which little action takes place, and the audiences are left suspended regarding what to make out of life as depicted in the play, Imbuga does not celebrate the futility of philosophical arguments.
Imbuga’s early writing dramatises the tensions between rural and urban Kenya.
Written in 1971 to satirise moral vacuity among intellectuals, The Married Bachelor (1973) revolves around the escapades of an urbanised university lecturer of culture who finds it difficult to practise some of the theories about culture that he preaches in his polemics. The play was retitled Burning of Rags.
In Kisses of Fate (1971) he depicts a young man and woman, Yohana and Doris, who go to America for higher education and get married in New York. Unbeknownst to them, they happen to be biological brother and sister.
The play The Fourth Trial (1972) revolves around a woman who could not bear healthy children.
After losing three of them, her husband’s father wants her divorced, but her mother-in-law wants her to be given a fourth chance.
It is Betrayal in the City (1976) that put Imbuga on the national map. The play and its sequel, Man of Kafira (1982), satirises the corruption that defines post-colonial Africa.
A set book in Kenyan schools from next year, this sophisticated dramatic gem was chosen as one of the two plays to represent Kenya in the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (Festac) in 1977.
Games of Silence (1977) pokes fun at authoritarian regimes in Africa. His next play, The Successor (1979), is a fictionalised account of the intrigues surrounding the Kenyatta presidency (1964-1978) since 1975.
In a biographical essay on the playwright, critic James M. Muli summarises Imbuga’s artistic production aptly when he says that “Imbuga’s plays deal with a spectrum of issues ranging from the domestic to the socio-political and reflect his belief that the artist must participate in the struggle for personal and national liberation.”
Imbuga has two magnificent novels to his credit: Shrine of Tears (1993) and Miracle of Remera (2004).
The debut novel presented the dilemmas of artists grappling with problems caused by bad governance. The other novel is a hallucinatory story about the discovery of a home-grown cure for HIV/Aids.
As a literary critic, Imbuga was a great supporter of non-elitist art. In a perceptive 1993 essay, titled “East African Literature in the 1980s,” Imbuga was one of the first major literary scholars to encourage the serious study of popular literature, a set of texts that the academy had dismissed as lewd trash in favour of highbrow academic writing.
Referring to works by Wamboi Pat Ngurukie, David Maillu, Henry ole Kulet, James Irungu and James Shimanyula, Imbuga argues that “popular literature is closer to the reality experienced by a majority of East Africans than the so-called serious literature.”
This bold statement encouraged me to write a thesis on Maillu’s work.
Imbuga was also supportive when I tried to write on his play Aminata for the Kenya Literature Bureau. It was so humbling to discuss the play with the towering literary giant.
For the last few weeks, I’ve frankly been thinking about my own death more than before.
That’s why the text massage carrying the shocking news about Imbuga’s passing found me still in the office at 2.30am trying to beat an unknown deadline.
Diagnosed with a blood condition I’m certain I won’t come out of alive, I’ve been burning the midnight oil at least to leave one good book behind for people to remember me by when death invades Angwoola again.
Imbuga led the way with his magnificent gems. His is an act hard to follow. I salute him.