Tribute to Wasambo Were and his theatre arts legacy

Here is a worthy case for the award of the Elder of the Burning Spear

In Summary

• Prof Were has built this republic of theatre arts and letters

The writer with Prof Wasambo Were, a guru of drama in education in Kenya
The writer with Prof Wasambo Were, a guru of drama in education in Kenya

The season for theatre arts is here again. Last week, the fifth version of the Kenya International Theatre Festival began earnestly at the national theatre. It has turned out to be a Pan-African event, with theatre companies from all the four corners of the continent putting up shows of amazing glitz.

As the dramatic extravaganza unfolds and theatre-goers binge on the spectacular plays and creativity, my mind finds comfort in another dimension of it all.

Now that amnesia is one of our national habits, how many today recall those of other generations who, in the lifework, have made theatre in post-colonial Kenya live?

Think here of the guru who it is said was the mind behind the establishment of Kenya’s most popular and national extravaganza of theatre celebrations. I mean the Kenya Colleges and Secondary Schools Drama Festivals.

The guru, Dr Luka Wasambo Were, was born in Gem, Siaya county, on  May 28, 1945. Records show he is one of the first black Chief Inspectors of Schools in the early decades of our Independence.

Wasambo was educated at Maseno and Kisii High in the 1960s and developed a knack for theatre and stage-craft. The 1970s would see him join the University of Nairobi at the helm of its life as a centre of Socialist aesthetics, especially in literary education.

He was taught and mentored by Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Prof Micere Mugo, whose radical ideology of Black Aesthetics played a key role in orienting young Wasambo to see theatre as a tool of social change.

He interacted with other revered African dramaturgs, such as Joe De Graft from Ghana and John Ruganda, as well as Okot p’ Bitek of Uganda. This higher education period would enshrine in Wasambo a fascination with theatre both as art and praxis. It would define his lifework forever.

After college, he joined the Ministry of Education of the government of Kenya and rose to become one of the pioneer black Chief Inspectors of Schools. In the 1980s, he grew theatre arts by working closely with theatre academics such as professors Oluoch Obura, David Mulwa, Kisa Amateshe, Austin Bukenya and the late Francis Imbuga.

In 1982, the gifted Wasambo was admitted at Birmingham University in the United Kingdom to pursue a Master's degree in Theatre Arts.

While abroad, he would meet at the famous Africa House in London with his teacher Ngugi, who had by then fled to exile. The failed coup of 1982 had taken a toll on the radical academics at the Department of Literature at the then only university in Kenya, the University of Nairobi.

His other teachers: Prof Kimani Gecau and Prof Micere Mugo had fled the country to Zimbabwe, too. Wasambo saw in clear times the nexus between theatre and politics as the dark cloud of the age of postcolonial disillusionment covered the Kenya of the 1980s.  

In 1983, he returned to Kenya and rejoined the Ministry of Education. It is while serving at the echelons of the Education ministry in the early 1990s that he would leave to join academia.

He joined Kenyatta University in 1992 at the invitation of the then Vice-Chancellor, the Maths professor George Eshiwani. The latter was a long-serving secretary of the Kenya National Examination Council, with a very high view of the arts. He instructed Wasambo to start a university cultural week of celebrating local arts, finding talent and nurturing it.

Wasambo invented the famous annual Kenyatta University Cultural Week Festivals. During his long service as the director of the-then Centre for Creative and Performing Arts at Kenyatta University, he cultivated the talents of many, such as comedian Kajairo, novelist Kinyanjui Kombani and the Reddykyulass trio of John Kiarie (KJ), Walter Mong’are (Nyambane) and Tony.

Pedagogically, Wasambo created a vital 4th Year BA practical course called Drama in Education (ALT 410). He argued that learning the arts inside classrooms should be augmented with practical experiences. Today, his hybrid approach to learning and instruction is the philosophy of education driving the national reforms under the Competency-Based Curriculum.

On the basis of this philosophy, Mwalimu Wasambo has worked closely over the past two decades with the Malindi District Cultural Association (Madca) based in Malindi. Since the turn of the century, he has been taking his ALT 410 students, of different generations, myself included, on annual field trips under the auspices of Madca.

These student-practitioner partnerships around notions of indigenous African theatre culminated in field visits to Bungale in rural Kilifi. It is here that one finds the revered funerary shrine of Mekatilili wa Menza.

In 2013, marking the centennial celebrations since the Mekatilili Resistance against British colonial rule, Mzee Wasambo was one of the luminaries who was recognised by the Kilifi county government for his contributions to theatre and performing arts.

For over four decades, the stellar lifework of Dr Luka Wasambo Were has nurtured our theatre arts inside and outside our national educational circles. Here is a worthy case for the award of the Elder of the Burning Spear on Jamhuri Day. He has built this republic of theatre arts and letters.