Francis Imbuga, the thespian who told the truth laughingly

Francis Imbuga during an interview at his Nairobi home on November 5, 2012.

Francis Imbuga during an interview at his Nairobi home on November 5, 2012.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Yesterday, November 18, 2022, marked the first decade since the doyen of African drama, poet, researcher, novelist, mentor, administrator, essayist and teacher, Prof Francis Imbuga, passed on.

Imbuga was a lead Kenyan playwright who honed his acting skills as a student at Alliance High School. He won the Best Actor Award in 1969 as the lead character of a play he had written.

He would write, act, direct and publish the following plays: The Fourth Trial (1972), Kisses of Fate (1972), The Married Bachelor (1973, later revised to Burning of Rags in 1989 to include the development of women characters), Betrayal in the City (1976), Games of Silence (1977), The Successor (1979), Man of Kafira (1984), Aminata (1988), The Return of Mgofu (2011) and The Green Cross of Kafira (published post posthumously in 2013). He also authored two novels: Shrine of Tears (1992) and Miracle of Rimera (2004).

Imbuga is a master of a unique style that intertwines humour with the theatre of the absurd that he used as a weapon during the tyrannical one-party regime to enable him to write socially critical drama in a charged political environment that was antagonistic towards writers and particularly the theatre of the time that was critical of the oppressive regime.

Transparent concealment

Notwithstanding the charged atmosphere, Imbuga wrote plays with transparent concealment using clowns as the main characters who would criticise the government without risking his incarceration.

The “Kafira trilogy” emerged out of this sneaky criticism. Since Imbuga is a larger-than-life thespian, as evidenced by an informative but rudimentary study of him by his counterpart John Ruganda entitled “Telling the truth Laughingly,” I will limit my focus on Kafira trilogy as I pay homage to this great son of the soil. 

The first on the list is Betrayal in the City. Published in 1976, it has been a Kenyan high school set book for a record three times. The play explores the political psychology of African dictatorship through Boss, a repressive head of state.

Mulili, a semi-literate clown and cousin of Boss is employed first as a soldier and later appointed to the committee planning for the forthcoming visit of a head of state from a neighbouring country who is to be entertained by the prisoners. Imbuga uses Mulili to condemn nepotism and bad governance.

His semantically and syntactically incoherent statements are critical to the government in a concealed manner. The blame is on Mulili who utters them in his attempt to communicate in English in spite of his illiteracy. Jusper, a university student, is also a mad clown in the play. Through the two, direct criticism of the powers that be is avoided.

Kafira trilogy also has Man of Kafira. Published in 1979, the play carries some of the characters from the first trilogy under changed circumstances. Boss, the former leader of Kafira in Betrayal in the City is now deposed, living in exile in Abiara nation. Featured in the play also are religious leaders, Boss’ wives, his host Gafi, the New Kafiran President and the returned Jusper.

Political betrayal

Jusper appears to be continuing his role in the previous play to act as a clown who appears to be mad to bring to the fore political and personal betrayal. Through Jusper and indeed other characters, the role of art in critiquing oppressive regime is explored.

The last of the Kafira trilogy, The Green Cross of Kafira, was written years later and published in 2013, a year after Imbuga had crossed to the land yonder. The contemporary play criticises the land-grabbing tendencies of the political elite which leads to ecological disasters.

The criticism is rendered through Sikia Macho, the narrator and five Rejects also referred to as Lunatics who expose the problems that Kafira is facing. Unlike the first play where the characters are disillusioned: “it was better while we waited, now we have nothing to look forward to,” the last play ends in optimism as Sikia Macho concludes by saying “To tell you the truth, I can’t wait for tomorrow.”

It is unfortunate that we, his mentees and successors, will experience the tomorrow he envisioned without him! 

Dr Mutuku wa Muneeni teaches literature at Kenyatta University


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