In John Sibi Okumu’s play ‘Kaggia’, two filmmakers try to devise a screenplay around the life and times of Bildad Kaggia, one of the founders of Kenya’s Land and Freedom Army.
One of the two suggests their film’s title could be Kaggia: Unsung Hero. But his colleague rejects it, claiming it’s too judgmental and doesn’t reflect everybody’s view of the man. After all, he needlessly died a pauper when he could have enjoyed the spoils of Independence as offered him by Jomo Kenyatta himself.
With the publication of Sibi Okumu’s Collected Plays 2004-2014, I propose the author be known as Kenya’s Unsung Playwright. But that title might also be rejected by those who don’t agree or say Sibi Okumu is known for being a thespian, but more for having been an actor on television and film than the stage.
He might even be better known as a director of shows like Eric Wainaina’s off-Broadway musical Mo’ Faya. And among Kenyans, he might be best known for being the former TV interviewer of famous men on The Summit.
In fact, until the recent publication of his plays by Jahazi Press, his most enduring renown could be as a remarkable French teacher and interpreter at UN forums.
But it’s the publication of those six major plays which provide evidence that Sibi deserves a pride of place in Kenya’s and Africa’s literary world as a writer of deep insight into the history and everyday life of the people of Kenya.
Perhaps it’s because there is invariably a time lapse between the premiere performances of his plays that the public may not understand the depth, breadth, and subtle wit of Sibi’s plays. But by reading all six, or even just one, the reader will see the artistry, imagination and research that has gone into their creation.
The range of the six plays is diverse, yet there are common threads that run through them all. For one, there is the element of memory history that features in nearly every play.
From the 1982 coup attempt in Meetings, to the pre-Independence struggle in Kaggia to the post-colonial assassinations in Role Play, Sibi slips Kenyan history into his works. But he never does it in a pedantic or didactic way. It invariably comes out in the context of ordinary people’s life experiences.
The media also plays a role in many of the works. In Minister, Karibu!, for instance, the story of con-men and corrupt politicians is framed within the context of two media men, one American, the other a Kenyan, who try to tell the news of a supposed Coalition Conference of politicians. Meanwhile, they are missing the real story of daylight robbery by con-men posing as pols inside a rural hotel.
And in Meetings, Sibi actually assembles sound bites from the time when the coup plotters had seized the national radio and pronounced the country liberated from arap Moi’s rule. But once toppled, the radio announcer who had previously praised the coup’s success has to quickly pivot and praise the return of Moi’s status quo.
Issues associated with family are also prevalent in Sibi’s plays. Meetings is all about a family reunion that reveals the way big historical events like the 1982 attempted coup disrupted individuals’ lives in deeply personal ways.
The issues of race and identity are threads that run through several of the six. In Elements for instance, identity is a central theme of the monologue delivered by a woman writer of mixed racial backgrounds. She tells a friend about how people always try to place her according to her mixed-race as if race was the most important aspect of her being.
Elements is also one play in which a character takes on multiple roles at once. It also happens in Kaggia when the filmmakers morph into characters that were key in the former Mau Mau leader’s life.
Poetry is another element that Sibi features in his plays. For instance, in Role Play it’s not the so-called intellectuals who are the poets. It’s the house help who share their passion for poetry, a passion also had by Sibi.
Finally, his most recent play, Dinner at Her Excellency’s is all about a dinner party arranged by a European ambassador who invites opinion makers for supper, aiming to get a crash course in Kenyan politics.
Instead, she gets an ear-full of petty opinions which sadly reflect the mentality and personal self-interests that Sibi seems to see as plaguing not just politicians but other sectors of Kenyan society.