Imbuga’s works light the literary sky even in death

Francis Imbuga holding two of the books he wrote, during a recent interview at his Nairobi home on November 05, 2012.
The late Prof Francis Imbuga holding two of the books he wrote during an interview at his Nairobi home on November 5, 2012. Photo|FILE|  NATION MEDIA GROUP

“When he shall die; Take him and cut him out in little stars; And he will make the face of heaven so fine; That all the world will be in love with night; And pay no worship to the garish sun.” William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet

When the celebrated playwright, William Shakespeare penned these words, he could as well have been prophesying about another playwright who was to emerge in another part of the world, centuries later. And that man is the late Prof. Francis Imbuga.

For, the sudden demise of this renowned literary guru has not only shocked the literary world but also coincidentally heralded a fresh blossoming of one of his masterpieces, Betrayal in the City.

Just a fortnight before his passing on, the play had been selected as a set book by the Kenya Institute of Education, to run for a period of five years. It will therefore be studied in Forms Three and Four throughout the country, thus, in the words of Shakespeare, metaphorically ‘cutting him (Imbuga) out in little stars/And he will make the face of heaven (read Kenya) so fine/That all the world will be in love with night’.

The reintroduction of Betrayal in the City into the set book market might sound ominous when juxtaposed against his subsequent death a few days later, but one is wont to say that the physical Imbuga is no longer with us, but his spirit, his intellect, his skills, his works and the many literary offspring he brought forth will flourish for decades to come.

Imbuga was best known as a playwright, and he bestrode the drama arena like a colossus with his Betrayal in the City, Man of Kafira, Aminata, Game of Silence, The Successor, The Burning of Rags (all published by East African Educational Publishers), as well as the recent The Return of Mgofu, and the forthcoming The Green Temple of Kafira, both by Longhorn. Yet, few know that he also wrote poems, some of which were published in Boundless Voices: Poems From Kenya. He also tried his hand in children’s literature with his Kagai and Her Brothers, also published by EAEP.

Released a novel

Imbuga’s dexterity with his pen was given further weight when he released a novel, Miracle of Remera. Most literature scholars will agree that few authors are able to traverse and excel in different literary genres. But Imbuga did. In drama. In children’s literature. And in the novel.

Professor was also a teacher. He served Kenyatta University for three decades as a lecturer, and even had a stint at the Kigali Institute of Education in Rwanda, where former colleagues, students and admirers are still mourning him.

He combined his teaching with drama, for he was an actor of no mean repute. Indeed, way back in 1992, John Ruganda recognised him as a highly gifted actor, a seasoned theatre director, and a prolific playwright for stage, radio and television.

Ruganda, himself a renowned drama personality immortalised Imbuga’s works when he published his PhD thesis, Telling the Truth Laughingly: The Politics of Francis Imbuga’s Drama.

Released by EAEP in 1992, the book examines Imbuga’s thematic concern of alienation as well as his dramatic devices, central among them being transparent concealment “which appear to assuage the status quo while actually calling for its overthrow”. Little wonder that Imbuga’s works continued to enjoy wide readership in schools and colleges in Kenya and other parts of Africa, without inviting the cruel knife of the censor.

His works will continue to be read far and wide, and they will certainly continue to inspire generations to come. Thus, to contradict Shakespeare’s dictum in Julius Caesar, ‘(Imbuga’s) good will not be interred with his bones’.

Mr Kamau is the head of regional business, East African Educational Publishers.