Unveiling the other Kibwana: Social activism through poetry

Former Makueni Governor Kivutha Kibwana during an interview

Former Makueni Governor Kivutha Kibwana during an interview on December 5, 2019.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Most Kenyans know Kivutha Kibwana as a lawyer, academic, politician and human rights defender.

Prior to retiring from politics in 2022, he was Makueni County governor for 10 years, a reign that saw him widely feted for nurturing cottage industries, setting up affordable health systems and centralising citizen participation in governance.

Kibwana was MP for Makueni Constituency between 2002 and 2007, during which period he served in President Mwai Kibaki’s government as minister for environment and natural resources and minister for lands.

Having taught law at the University of Nairobi for 25 years, he was also active in civil society in the 1990s during Daniel Moi’s rule.

Today, Prof Kibwana is recognised as a founding father of the sector from his role as the founder of the Centre for Law and Research International (Clarion) and as the Spokesperson of Kenya’s pro-democracy movement, the National Convention Executive Council (NCEC).

What many don’t know about Prof, as he is amicably referred to, however, is that he is a prolific writer, publisher and poet, with numerous published works to his name.

Recognising the role of art in social change, he also sees it as a potential solution to the problem of youth unemployment, if the broken value chain of the creative economy could be fixed.

Prof Kibwana launches his poetry collection, These Words: An Anthology of Poems (One Planet Publishers) on Tuesday, March 21, 2023, at Ufungamano Hall, Nairobi, from 2 to 5 pm.

Entry is Sh2,000 which is inclusive of a copy of the book and refreshments. We caught up with him to find out about his new book.

You have written and published previously, what book number is this?

At the outset let me say I cannot compete with the late Prof George Magoha whose CV was legendary. I have written and edited/co-edited many law books. However, in the creative field, I have published poems in anthologies, for example, in Melodies of the Motherland (1999) and Ngaeka Waeka: Myali Ya Kiikamba Poems (2010). I have published plays as well: Utisi (1974); The Grand Race (1978); Kanzala (in both English and Kiswahili) (1998). In 2009, I also published Walk with me God. In 1976 with John Ruganda and others, we published a play Majira Ya Ukame. With Kawive Wambua we have authored an unpublished play Yua Yii Ni Inene, Mwaitu/This Famine is Big, my Mother which was performed at the Kenya National Theatre. I have an incomplete novel manuscript, Season of Sowing.

What is this poetry anthology about and what inspired you to write it?

It is largely about life in the undemocratic Kenya of the 80s and 90s. Initially, I wrote the poems to record the pain I, my colleagues and the people were going through. I saw friends “assassinating” themselves through alcohol. People got detained and killed and others fled into exile. 

However, many of the poems address issues of the youth which are dear to me. Others are about family. One had to record the pain and future hope so as to remain sane.

Did you learn any lessons or make any internal discoveries when writing it?

Whatever an author writes, I believe there is always a personal element even if hidden in stories about others. I learned in life and my writing to be transparent about myself. Some of the poems describe my period of fraternising with the bottle. I guess many people like to hide some of whom they are or were.

My creative writing has taught me to empathise with people, especially the downtrodden. One of our daughters observed most of my poems are sad; am I intrinsically a sad person?

The times were sad. However, there are more recent poems which focus on possibility; a dawning future despite the crises we face.

What journey do you want your readers to go through when reading the book?

For young persons, particularly the post-1990s generation, I wish they could interrogate and learn about the difficult past we went through so that they can say: Never again. We need to become our own people who cannot be easily manipulated by politicians or whoever else. We must reclaim our agency: the ability to act independently.

Is there a particular type of reader you are aiming to reach with this book?

I want everybody to access this book. Unlike Christopher Okigbo, I don’t write for poets. I have never quite understood his statement because, after all, he sacrificed his life for the same people who couldn’t consume his poetry. I am saddened that literature in English and Fasihi ya Kiswahili were subsumed within the English and Kiswahili languages.

When literature was a stand-alone subject, students learned a lot. However, the system became apprehensive of students with critical analytical skills. I would also like my book to be read in secondary schools, tertiary institutions and universities.

Looking back at your work and the work of activists of the 80s and 90s in trying to transform Kenya, do you think you have been successful? What regrets, if any, do you have?

As a country, we recorded and immortalised our struggle for change in the Constitution of Kenya, 2010. But, as Willy Mutunga wrote, the Constitution was made by the middle section of our society. There wasn’t enough civic education so that the people could appreciate how to get the Constitution implemented.

One can say phase one of our struggle was about making our Constitution. Phase two is about living our Constitution.

We must work as a people to make sure that the Constitution is implemented to the letter. Any regrets? I know, although Sam Cooke’s song said ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, change is a process.

We, however, must be persistent to achieve change in all sectors, not just in politics. After my stint as the NCEC Spokesperson, one day Duncan Okello told me: “You will be a marked man.” Regrettably, it takes a lot of effort to achieve what shouldn’t take that long.

By Samson Wekesa and Patricia Gitau