‘Under the sod lies one of Africa’s great thespians’. This is the epitaph I would inscribe on the tombstone of my teacher and mentor Professor Francis Davis Imbuga. For those not in the know, the celebrated Kenyan playwright passed away on November 18 at his Kahawa Sukari home in Nairobi after suffering a stroke.
Imbuga emerged on the Rwanda academic scene in the year 2000 at the Kigali Institute of Education where he served as the Dean Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. However, many more others like me had ‘met’ Imbuga many years before through his works, notably the play ‘Betrayal in the City’ that was a set book in many schools in the region. I was privileged to meet its author later during his spell in Rwanda. The thrill of being taught in class by ‘the man’ himself was simply invigorating. Here, I was drawing from the ‘source’.
News of his demise was greeted with shock in his native Kenya and in the region. Social networking sites and regional papers were awash with glowing tribute to the fallen thespian.
What with his timeless plays whose messages still hold true today, years after they were published. One of his apprentices, Professor Kabaji Egara, in a moving tribute to the fallen playwright aptly describes his devastation after learning of Imbuga’s demise: “Like a dying cockroach, I tossed from one side of the bed to the other as I remembered my mentor, teacher and friend.”
Imbuga’s works spanning over two decades have sought to highlight the different crises that post-colonial Africa has endured. Through his works, Imbuga brought to the fore issues like nepotism, disillusionment, social unease, resistance and belatedly the HIV/Aids pandemic, leaving us with some memorable lines;
“When the madness of an entire nation disturbs a solitary mind, it is not enough to say that the man is mad”
“It was better while we waited. Now we have nothing to look forward to. We have killed our past and are busy killing our future”, both from Betrayal in the City and;
“Just remember this: wherever you go along the many paths of life on this earth, let your heart talk to your head, let them agree” from ‘Miracle of Remera’.
‘Miracle of Remera’ was Imbuga’s gift to Rwanda, an oasis in a literary desert. This is a book that I was privileged to critique during my final year at University. Written during his time at Kigali Institute of Education, Miracle of Remera is inspired by prevailing, seemingly hopeless situation where the fiction of the day on HIV/Aids largely embraced the apocalyptic narrative paradigm where HIV/Aids is equated to death.
Fiction writers on HIV/Aids like Meja Mwangi in The Last Plague, Wahome Mutahi in House of Doom, Joseph Situma in The mysterious Killer, and Majorie Oludhe Macgoye in Chira show that after contracting HIV/Aids it only becomes a matter of time before the victim dies as a consequence. Imbuga uses different strategies and devices to resist the damning predetermined ending of the AIDS narrative. He uses humour as a defense mechanism and a way of lessening the horror.
Typical of Imbuga, in Miracle of Remera he employs his magical realism by crafting a life affirming narrative. Miracle of Remera shows that there is hope for a cure of HIV/Aids by integrating a fictional narrative and real circumstances.
Such is the rich legacy that Imbuga has bequeathed us. The question is, are our young people ready to take up the mantle? When are we going to produce our own Imbuga? Is our education system offering room to nurture budding talent? The competing demands of modern life have relegated the Arts to the gutters. People no longer study for knowledge but for economic gain. Fields like Literature, History and other social sciences are now perceived as ‘less lucrative’ and sadly, they have been scrapped from the curricula of various education institutions. ‘If it doesn’t pay it is not worth the pain’ is the mantra.’
We need another ‘Miracle of Remera’.