What you need to know:
- Parliament of Owls, a stunning debut collection of poems was first published in 2016.
- Adipo then adapted it into its play version, and toured it with Agora Theater in 2017.
As the excitement of the KCPE week comes to a close, it is important here to look at some of the new high school literature texts.
In the Opening Act of the play Parliament of Owls (East African Educational Publishers) by Adipo Sidang, we are immediately drawn into the world of these nocturnal birds by two characters.
Osogo, the weaver bird, is in a state of sadness, as he plays melancholic tunes on his flute.
Red String, a sycophantic owl of the Royal trees, with hollow eyeglasses made from millet stalk and a protruding tummy, thus cutting a comic figure, stealthily encroaches (onto) the space of Osogo.
But there is nothing comical about their verbal twilight-lit confrontation (as opposed to the literary cowboy shootouts at high noon).
Osogo wants to know why a certain ‘cunning’ weaverbird was killed, yet she had the Right to Life.
Red String replies with the cliché that (all) freedoms have their limits.
Then adds ominously: ‘Falcon goes as high as he can because he is created to hit high levels. He can touch the clouds and tell us when it will rain. But you weavers cannot. That is why falcon is our weatherman...’
The implication is clear!
Birds like Osogo, the Weaver, are meant to ‘lie low like envelopes,’ in the words of the belligerent if intelligent late Maa politician, William ole Ntimama.
And in Adipo’s allegorical play, set in the Bird Kingdom, the owls have cast themselves as the only birds with the capacity to think intelligently and make ‘brilliant’ laws for the good of the Kingdom – which is ruled by a mysteriously malevolent Royal Owl, King Tula Nyongoro.
As Red String explains to weaver bird Osogo, right from the get-go, ‘we Owls have the largest eyes, and power will always rest with We the night birds and the omnivores, not with you, day-time grain peckers! We must protect the Kingdom from you for the sake of protecting it from Hyena, Snake and Mongoose.’
For the third and fourth formers who will read (and perform) this play, that is now an optional KCSE set book across all secondary schools in the country, Sidang’s play may be seen as a play on the narrative of either ‘ruling ethnic ethnicities’ (who believe it is their right to rule based on ‘large eyes’ or tyranny of numbers) or, also, tribal kingpins who pretend to protect ‘community’ turf from other hostile tribal toughs.
Yet, like in the ‘Parliament of Owls’ (which is really the collective phrase for these oft dreaded doom fowl, associated with all sorts of superstition in African folklore, including being harbingers of Death), the way business is conducted in their august House will leave the reader aghast, as they are selfish.
Of course, inevitably, there is rebellion in the Kingdom of Birds, pitting a fiery tiny female fire-finch against Arum Tindi, thunderous ground hornbill and chief propagandist for the parliament of Owls.
This is reminiscent of the sly but persuasive Snowy in George Orwell’s classic ‘Animal Farm,’ whose Swahili version ‘Shamba La Wanyama’ was a Kenyan secondary school set book for many years.
To be candid, KICD deserves not just kudos but a big bouquet of flowers for finally replacing old European classics like Henry Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and John Steinbeck’s The Pearl (which this writer read almost three decades ago, as a set book) with more contemporary works like John Lara’s The Samaritan and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Artist of the Floating World.
A Silent Song & other Stories, edited by the youngish University of Nairobi don Godwin Siundu was also a big win.
It is also clever of them (KICD) to be moving beyond ‘ancient’ ‘NGO’ themes like FGM (found in the old set book ‘Blossoms of the Savannah’) to the new Oxford University Press set book ‘Father of Nations’ – that is both continental and contemporary in scope; and penned by a retired Physics professor called Paul Vita who studied in the USA, then worked in both Tanzania and Senegal, then Canada – before ending his career as a UNESCO director here.
Adipo Sidang, himself a brilliant philosopher who works within policy and governance intersections, having previously taught in a few Kenyan universities, is also an award-winning poet and playwright.
His Young Adult Literature book, A Boy Called Koko, was the winner of the 2017 Burt Award (Kenya).
‘Parliament of Owls,’ his stunning debut collection of poems (that earned him the sobriquet the ‘New Emperor of Poetry’ in certain hallowed Nairobi literary circles) was first published in 2016 by Native Intelligence, Contact Zones’ series (sponsored by the Goethe Institute).
Adipo then adapted it into its play version, and toured it with Agora Theater in 2017 – and now every school in Kenya has the chance to engage with it over the next five years.
It is significantly symbolic that Sidang’s work has ‘inherited’ the set lit mantelpiece from David Mulwa’s ‘Inheritance’ play.
It was becoming a matter of grave concern that teenagers in Kenya’s secondary schools were reading literary set books by geriatric authors, many thematically dealing with colonial and neo-colonial concerns, that are far removed from their contemporary Kenyan realities in the second decade of the 21st century.
By their own admission, this disconnect between ‘reality’ and the content of those past set books is what led many of them into disliking literature, and never reading another (fiction) novel beyond high school, especially in a modern world full of digital distractions (and Netflix).
If, in the future, KICD continues with this ‘Adipo’ trend of assigning contextually relevant literary set books, and well-penned by local writers (as opposed to dead white men like Ibsen), maybe we will see more post KCSE students thumbing through novels in matatus (and getting smarter), as opposed to fidgeting with ‘smart’ phones, even as vapid content dumbs young minds down to Generation Nyet!
Tony Mochama is the author of three Burt Prize YA novellas.