• He was a decorated man of letters and a regional champion of the arts
Masinde Kusimba, Francis Imbuga: The Cherished Footprints. Nairobi: Bookmark Africa, 2019. 174 Pages. ISBN 978-99667494-1-3
The American playwright Arthur Miller, famous for his play, Death of a Salesman (1949), once said, “Everything influences playwrights. A playwright who isn’t influenced is never of any use.” The environments in which writers act play defining roles in shaping their craft and art alongside their immanent talents, training and the muses.
This lesson manifested itself this week clearly in a new book that celebrates the life of one of Kenya’s famous playwrights, the late Francis Imbuga. The book is entitled: Francis Imbuga: The Cherished Footprints, and is published by Bookmark Africa founded by Kakai Karani, a former student of the playwright.
The book is the authorised biography of the talented author, who died on November 19, 2012. It is written by Masinde Kusimba, a media specialist and author. Imbuga is famous for plays that are staple readers in schools and colleges across the continent and beyond.
The biography was launched on Monday as part of the events of Kenyatta University Culture Week. The annual festival attracts many visitors and displays a wide range of cultural events, cuisine, performing arts and sporting talents from across the country and yonder.
Imbuga was one of the founding members of the festival as part of the academic calendar in KU, where he was based as a scholar for over three decades. He held various dockets for years.
The launch was attended by family members, led by his widow Prof Mabel Imbuga. She is the immediate former Vice Chancellor of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. It was hosted by Prof Paul K Wainaina, the Vice Chancellor of Kenyatta University, in honour and memorium of the fallen professor and playwright.
The chief guest was Interior CS Fred Matiang’i. He is an alumnus of the university and a former student of Imbuga. He was represented by Dr Mwenda Ntarangwi, the CEO of the Commission of University Education and a respected cultural studies scholar. He called for greater appreciation of the role that writers play in our modern societies, and the need to continue heeding to Imbuga’s progressive social vision.
The event offered an arena for the gathering of theatre educators, scholars, publishers and arts students. They met in celebration, communion and reunion with the writer’s texts and contexts of life. They included Prof Austin Bukenya from Makerere University, Prof Egara Kabaji of Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, Prof Monica Mweseli from University of Nairobi, Dr Fred Mbogo from Technical University of Kenya and Dr Evans Mugarizi from Moi University. Others included prominent writers such as Ken Walibora Waliaula, David Mulwa and Miriam Were.
Prof Bukenya remembered the fallen author as a decorated man of letters and a great regional champion of the arts. Imbuga served as Dean of Arts in Rwanda after the Genocide. Bukenya insisted we need greater support for languages in the new curriculum, especially Kiswahili. It is a medium for regional communication and our binding cultural tie uniting East Africa in heritage.
Former colleagues, led by the HoD, Dr PM Nthiga, paid homage to the sage in fellowship. Present was Prof Oluoch Obura, who like Imbuga studied theatre arts in the seventies at UoN in the era of Marxist ideologies and Black Aesthetics. Kisa Amateshe, the eminent poet, recited a moving elegy in honour of his fallen friend. Wasambo Were, a leading figure in the development of Kenyan theatre, also attended.
The Cherished Footprints narrates the life and times of Francis Imbuga from his formative years to sterling career episodes, leading to his demise. It is not a simple grass-to-grace tale typical of the biography as a genre in the Kenyan context. We are presented with a unique story sewn from primary family sources and old friends’ accounts of a man bred by nature and nurture.
Imbuga grew up in what the novelist Stanley Gazemba pastorally calls The Stone Hills of Maragoli, in modest circumstances. His father figure, who worked away from home in colonial Nairobi, plays a marginal role in his formation. It is his grandparents and his mother who shaped his elementary life.
Consequently, age-cherished customs of his people and evangelical Christianity fed his youth. The two forces formed a firm firmament for his future career in the arts. His plays bear this thematic mark of a postcolonial tradition that aesthetically articulates the hybridity and ambivalence with roots in colonialism.
Imbuga’s progressive vision of society is seen in his progressive images of women like Aminata in a play by the same name. It can be seen also in his strident advocacy for better governance practices. He articulates this need for social justice, inherited from his grandfather, consistently in his most popular plays, especially Betrayal in the City and The Successor.
The new biography rekindles the saying that writers never die. They live on through their words and artistic works. The contexts that produced the cherished dramatic texts of Imbuga are not very different from the ones his readers and audience dwell in.
Masinde Kusimba has brought home the wisdom of Arthur Miller. His book invites us to follow the footsteps of Imbuga the man, the playwright entertainer, the son, the parent, the educator, the role model and more so, the offspring of challenging environments, out of which success can arise.
The book is available in leading bookshops across the country and from the publisher.
Dr Makokha teaches Literature and Theatre at Kenyatta University