Kivutha Kibwana

Makueni Governor Kivutha Kibwana during a past interview in Nairobi.

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Stubborn Hope: Kivutha Kibwana’s ‘These Words’

What you need to know:

  • Kibwana wrote the poems in the anthology as a response to a sudden creative compulsion.
  • According to the book's foreword, Kibwana wrote the poems in solitude to tame his emotions.

Title: These Words: An Anthology of Poems

Author: Kivutha Kibwana

Year of Publication: 2021

Publisher: One Planet Publishing & Media Services

Length: 117 pages

Available: In leading bookshop countrywide

Reviewer: Makau Kitata

The foreword to Kivutha Kibwana’s 2021 anthology of poems, These Words, published by One Planet, is an interesting attempt by a writer to speak to the reader and explain why he wrote. This theme has occupied creative minds and thoroughly theorised by George Orwell, the author of Animal Farm and 1984.

There are several reasons why people write: For egoistic purposes – just to be better than one’s peers; for aesthetic purposes – to merely enjoy a musical turn of phrase; for historical purposes – for those inclined to recording important moments in time; and for political reasons – to influence others. Orwell recommends balancing these reasons. Yet, all committed writing is political: The writer aims at influencing the readers’ way of looking at the world.

Kibwana has many tributes and attributes: He is a politician and an academic; his style of leadership and publications on constitutional law are part of his public image. The least celebrated is his place as a creative artist. He has written plays, poetry in Kikamba and English, and published creative content on YouTube. So, what has he done with writing a foreword to his poetry?

In doing so, the poet diminishes the distance between the person writing and the voice behind the poems; the virtual personality that the reader hears, independent of the writer – the persona. In a creative work this threatens the universality of the experience. The dangers of erasing the distance between person and voice are easy to see. Supposing one writes a moral lesson in the work, then fails to uphold the moral values. 

These poems were conceived in the 1990s and 2000s, a period, according to the foreword, of betrayal and hopelessness in life. This period in Kenya’s history marked an opening in democracy in Kenya, characterised with a burst of creative energies: The Kamirithu players replayed Ngugi’s plays in bars and motels; plays in vernacular became acceptable in mainstream theatres; story tellers like Wahome Mutahi could hardly satisfy the thirst for well told stories; even the presidency was satirised by the Redykyulass group. Meanwhile, poets were at work, though less visible.

These Words

Cover of the book ‘These Words: An Anthology of Poems’ by Prof Kivutha Kibwana.

Photo credit: Pool

Kibwana wrote the poems in the anthology as a response to a sudden creative compulsion. Wordsworth has said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions, recollected in tranquility. Kibwana’s foreword claims that he wrote the poems in solitude to tame his emotions. This underlines one of the basic uses of poetry: As medicine that allows us some precious respite, allowing us to remain alive and mentally healthy. 

The movements in the anthology mark phases of personal, social and political moments of self-discovery. The poem, ‘For Kichamu and Others’ is a memory to colleagues at the Centre for Law Research International (CLARION); an outfit Kibwana founded with Kichamu Akivaga, Willy Mutunga, Smokin Wanjala and others in the 90s. That community is memorialised in a poem that documents the start of structured action for constitutional and political change in 1992. It is a poem about friends who met in a bar, disillusioned, and cynical as a result of the stifling vagaries of the Moi dictatorship. The poem is not merely a memory, but a call to arms upon the members to raise themselves and overcome pain and become combatants in the spirit of Lenin. 

The poet’s anxieties are captured in the many poems that are a meditation on death, suggesting that it is only after reconciling with the idea of death that life can have a meaning. The 90s were times of death, especially of children, the youth and political activists. There is a poem on street children, ‘Kyanguli,’ last respects to university students killed by the Nyayo regime like Solomon Muruli, Festo Etaba, Okeng’o Kenneth, Makokha Mutabi, and Eric Mutwiri Kamundi. But these poems are also about the living youths of Kenya. They are eulogies with epitaphs that recall Langston Hughes’ famous poem, “What Happens to a Dream Differed?” 

Youth in Kenya is imagined metaphorically in the poem titled ‘Youth Seed’. In a society where adolescence is a dangerous stage in life, the poet philosophises that, ‘you cannot kill a future yet to unfold.’ Poetry on the formative years is about finding oneself and making choices. Kibwana has created a boy persona – KK and RM, every Boy, whom he advises to take responsibility with phrases like: man yourself, and adult yourself . The girl persona, Lulu, is every Girl in the anthology. Through her, he delves into the delicate topic of love, advising her not to fear loving, alongside the certainty that she will wean from its hurts.

The poet’s understanding of love is profound: Love is a sacred void where God sows a craving quest. Therefore, compatibility and estrangement are the fibre of that incompleteness of divine creation called love. It is a sobering lesson to discover, through poetry, that love is incompleteness.

Heroes of Kenya

The poems dedicated to a persona called Nazi are a straight tribute to Kibwana’s wife. In these poems, she becomes Nazi; every Woman; the embodiment of comradeship in youth and old age. The poet confesses his indebtedness to the lovingly stubborn social support of a woman when he is on the verge of being destroyed by disappointment, and disillusionment, war with a lunatic state, and disenchantment – induced-alcoholism. In poetry, the poet is able to admit his vulnerability and submission to things stronger than any man; like liquor and love. Ironically, the poet seems only to have discovered the love of Nazi in old age. 

In poems documenting rampant political violence, the poet memorialises Father John Anthony Kaiser, Wagalla, Kikuyu, Rwanda and the ironical new year’s Kesha in Kiambaa. This culminates into the poet’s redefinition of IDP as ‘Independent Determined Person’, which is an indictment to the irony of Kenya’s independence that allows one to be displaced from the home.

The poetry celebrates the heroes of Kenya – from the humble to the militant. Kijana Wamwala is worth remembering because he was always simple, while the memory of Dedan Kimathi is significantly deconstructed. When Kibwana was serving as a minister in Kibaki’s government, the Kimathi monument was erected on Kimathi Street next to Kimathi House.

In the poetry, the spirit of Kimathi does not ask for a monument, a name on a street or a public building. It asks for a free country; a free people. Even as he was quietly toeing the line as a minister, Kibwana was privately extending a revolutionary angle to meanings in Kenya. This heroes corner includes poems for Mukami Kimathi and Willy Mutunga that ask the reader: “Have you ever wondered why we praise heroes when they expire? It is because they make no demands on our national conscience.” This theme on heroes is capped with the poem on Timothy Njoya, drawn as a messenger against State House and pulpit pharaohs, a testament to the role of the clergy in Kenyan politics.

It is uplifting to read from a prominent Kenyan who has chosen poetry as a form to document his life. 

Dr Makau Kitata teaches literature at the University of Nairobi