In Summary
  • A new play, ‘The Green Cross of Kafira’, and a children’s novel, ‘Nyamu Nyamu’s Great Adventure’ have now been published after his death.
  • Do writers really die? It is my contention that they live forever. Not because some of their works are published posthumously, but because their thoughts are continuously implanted in the hearts of those who interact with their ideas.

One year after his death, strangely, Francis Imbuga still lives on.

His latest publications, a play entitled The Green Cross of Kafira and a children’s novel, Nyamu Nyamu’s Great Adventure co-authored with James Munga, have just rolled off the press.

The two books were published by veteran publisher Kakai Karani through his new outfit, Bookmark Africa.

This development is quite enchanting and takes away the pain and shock lovers of literature experienced a year ago when Imbuga passed on.

The loud drums that reverberated in the Kenyan sky at this time last year to announce that the great artist had exited the stage brought sorrow to the hearts of many, who did not realise that writers never die; they live on long after their death.

This realisation was visible at the memorial service for Prof Imbuga at his Kahawa Sukari home last Monday. Friends, relatives, family and colleagues celebrated the writer in a manner that suggested he was in their midst.

PRESENT

It was quite refreshing to hear Imbuga’s 10-year-old granddaughter Wambui, upon spotting me, remark: “Here is guga’s friend” (note the present tense).

Imbuga’s new play completes the trilogy of Kafira, which began with Betrayal in the City and was followed by Man of Kafira.

This new play is dedicated to Nobel Laureate Wangari Mathaai, who died in September 2011.

The foreword is written by celebrated literary scholar Roger Kurtz of the State University of New York.

It is crafted aptly to situate Imbuga within Kenya’s literary history and underscore his achievements, sources of his ideas and contribution to Kenyan literary tradition.

Unlike Kurtz, who writes about Imbuga and his new book from a detached position, I cannot pretend to do so since I was part of the evolution of the play from its first working title, The Temple of the Green Cross, through the heated debate that ensured at Mwikali’s Small World Bar that culminated in its present title.

That is why The Green Cross of Kafira is a special play to me in many ways.

It all started when I received the following e-mail from the author sometime in September last year:

“Dear Egara, at my professional age, I have next to nothing to gain from flatterers. That is why I thought of you. As you know, I have been working on a creative project for a local publisher. I have finally created something that I can only share with a select few. Kindly read critically the attached draft of The Temple of the Green Cross and let me have your honest views, including areas that need clarification etc within a week, if possible. I will really appreciate a fast response so that I can do the necessary revision for possible publication before the end of December. Kindly acknowledge receipt. Imbuga”.

I did not know that the author was racing against time, but intuitively, I read the manuscript in a day and sent him my response.

In many ways I found it an interesting piece of drama that reflected on the history of our immediate past, but with universal themes.

In its initial stages of development, I particularly found the use of a narrator fascinating and recommended that the narrator be given a more prominent role like that of Bertolt Brecht’s in The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

It appeared to me then that a bigger role for the narrator as a commentator on issues discussed in the play and as the conscience of the society and carrier of authorial vision would help enhance the themes even further.

This, the author pretended to buy into, but didn’t change much. That was Imbuga for you.

Generally, the play is about political intrigue, conflict between the state and church, political assassinations, oppression, poor leadership, hypocrisy and effects of a poor education system.

I was particularly fascinated by the use of “Rejects” — those that the system has neglected. Reject One tells us about the tribulations of police officers while Reject Two is a unionist.

Reject Three is student leader and Reject Four is a lover of nature and tells us about environmental conservation. Reject Five is an ex-vice-chancellor at Kafira University.

I recommended the introduction of another Reject from the political class, but the author, instead, weaved all that this Reject would say in building the character of the ex-vice chancellor.

As expected of Imbuga, there are a good number of memorable Imbugan sayings and statements in the play. These, I think, give the play the depth it requires.

Initially the author wanted the play to be set in Agoa, a visibly post-colonial state in Africa.

I was vehemently opposed to the name Agoa. In an e-mail to him, I said: “This play is set in Agoa, a visibly post-colonial African state. I am intrigued by the name Agoa because I know the acronym stands for “African Growth and Opportunity Act” (AGOA). The Act offers incentives for African countries to continue their efforts to open their economies and build free markets. I think it came in force when Bill Clinton was the president of the USA. Is it a coincidence that the country is called Agoa? The name just does not sound right in view of the issues you are discussing”.

This is how we moved up to the present title and the establishment of the connection to his Kafira plays.

IMMORTALITY

As I look back at the play’s development, some questions come to mind.

Do writers really die? It is my contention that they live forever. Not because some of their works are published posthumously, but because their thoughts are continuously implanted in the hearts of those who interact with their ideas.

We talk about Wahome Mutahi, Margaret Ogola, Doris Lessing, Chinua Achebe, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy and Richard Wright as if they are with us as we digest what their works reveal about our existence. We connect with them in a special way as people who have special sensibilities to see what ordinary eyes do not see.

But human life is structured in an interesting way. It has always appeared to me that we are all sitting on a pendulum from where we swing between polarities of joy and pain, tears and laughter, suffering and happiness.

ANOTHER FALLEN GIANT

Doris Lessing, another giant who has just fallen. She is one of the main literary players of the 20th century. PHOTO/FILE

Doris Lessing, another giant who has just fallen. She is one of the main literary players of the 20th century. PHOTO/FILE

As we celebrate Francis Imbuga’s resurrection through his new books, another giant has just fallen. This is none other than Doris Lessing.

I encountered Lessing through her novel The Grass is Singing as an undergraduate at Kenyatta University.

By all standards, she is one of the main literary players of the 20th century although I will never know why we considered her a racist writer as undergraduates.

My humble submission is that perhaps we bought this from our lecturer, Dr Kisa Amateshe, who displayed disdain of unimaginable proportions towards her during our tutorial sessions.

Nevertheless, when I look back, there is no doubt that her literary contribution was immense.

One of the pranks I will never forget from her was what she did to her publishers in the 1980s to prove that publishers do not publish books, but rather names.

She submitted a manuscript entitled The Diary of a Good Neighbour under the name Jane Somers, which the publisher promptly rejected. The book was later published by another house under her real name.

The main point Doris was making was that if you are unknown, then you cannot attract the attention of publishers. Upcoming writers, does this experience talk to you?

Doris Lessing, like Francis Imbuga, traversed many genres, but was distinguished for her contribution to the novel form though she was an equally good short story writer.

The two writers shared a keen sense for detail and concern for the “faceless”, the neglected and abandoned. These are the people Imbuga later called “The Rejects” in The Green Cross of Kafira.

REMEMBERING MARGARET

As we swing on this pendulum of laughter/ tears, it is difficult to forget that it was almost at this time two years ago when we swung to the extremes of the polarity of tears with the passing on of Margaret Ogola.

She gave us, among other books, The River and the Source and I swear by Apollo.

Long after her death, Margaret was back with Mandate of the People, a book that is so satirical of the Kenyan politics.

Underlying Ogola’s writings was the desire to transform society.

She had strong views of social order, which she presented in a unique style, simple but complex only at the attic of ideology.

It is true writers never die! Reflecting on their lives really helps us understand the nature of the creative processes.

Prof Kabaji is the director of Public Communications and Publishing at the Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology.