Christopher Okemwa’s journey through the epic monologue
Christopher Okemwa is an internationally reputed Kenyan poet, theatre academic and director. He teaches theatre and literature at Kisii University in Kenya. He holds a PhD in performance poetry from Moi University, Kenya. He is the director at the Kistrech Theatre International. He is the founder and current director of Kistrech International Poetry Festival in Kenya. He is also the founder and director of KICHLA (Kistrech Children’s Literature Association of Kenya). He has published eight volumes of poetry, three children’s story books, two novels, one collection of short stories, one play, three oral literature text books & ten folktales of the Abagusii people of Kenya. His novel, Sabina and the Mystery of the Ogre, won Canadian Burt Award for African Literature in 2015. He has edited five poetry anthologies. He has translated into Swahili language four works of international poets. His poetry has been translated to Norwegian, Finnish, Greek, Serbian, Polish, Turkish, Spanish, Catalan, Armenian, Chinese, Czech, Arabic and Nepalese.
Currently he teaches three plays written by Bengali-Swedish poet and playwright Anisur Rahman as part of academic programme at his university over the year 2021. The plays are I am sheikh Mujib, an epic monologue, Dawit Isaak and the Minister & the Wolf. Kistrech Theatre International and Kisii University are jointly producing the plays in Swahili language and the productions are scheduled to be premiered for public in October 2021.
The university and the theatre producing the epic monologue, I am Sheikh Mujib as a touring production to celebrate Father of the Bengali Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s 100th anniversary. They are studying and conducting research on it over the year beginning in January.
On this occasion Daily Observer talked to him.
What are the subjects in these three plays that got your university to choose these three plays as part of academic programme 2021?
The issues tackled in these three literary works are socio-political concerns, politics of language, human rights violations, refugee issues, political assassinations and colonialism. These issues are relevant to the Kenyan society in which our students live.
What is the relevance of the plays to the Kenyan society and academic standard?
In I am Sheikh Mujib: an Epic Monologue we gather that one of the issues the father of the Nation, Sheikh Mujib took the government head-on was language. He promoted the use of Bangla as opposed to the use of Urdu by Pakistan. In Kenya we are currently grappling with the issue of language. Debates are currently on as to whether our country should drop the colonial language (English) and embrace our own regional language (Swahili) as a language of instructions in schools and public works sector, etc. Our leading writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o is already promoting indigenous languages and writing in them, while many see it as an exercise in futility since English, although foreign, has taken roots and it is impossible to replace it with Swahili or any other indigenous language (s). Sheikh Mujib was grappling with an issue of language in 1948 that we are currently facing now in Kenya in 2021.
In Dawit Issak, the play tackles the issue of politics and refugees, while in The Wolf and the Minister, the author, Anisur Rahman, deals with the plight of refugees. Politics, oppression and refugees are issues that are pertinent to Kenya society. We experienced refugees’ issues during the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007/2008, and their plight is similar to what Anisur Rahman describes in his play, Dawit Issak.
The two plays and the monologue are suitable for academic standards since they can be tested in the examinations of the university. We can test the two pieces on their suitability as plays in terms of their incorporation of theatrical elements. Characters, dialogue-building and diction are elements that can be looked into in these plays. We shall also test the themes and concerns tackled in the plays and their relevance to the students of literature and theatre in Kenya. For I am Sheikh Mujib: an Epic Monologue, we shall use it to introduce monologue as a genre in literature into our theatre curriculum, and as a result introduce variety of monologues: prose monologue, dramatic monologue, film monologues, etc to be studied in the University.
We are particularly curious of learning about the epic monologue, I am Sheikh Mujib. What is its relevance to Kenyan society and post-colonial context?
In I am Sheikh Mujib: an Epic Monologue, Sheikh Mujib’s life runs like the life of many great political figures in Kenya’s independent history. Sheikh sacrificed his life and his comfort for the people of Bangal and died working for them. We have had political leaders in Kenya who have sacrificed their lives because of the people. Tom Mboya and Robert Ouko who were charismatic leaders, were assassinated because of their political stands, their outshining nature, and their popularity among the people of Kenya and the Western countries. Kennedy Matiba, thought to have won the presidency in 1992, was tortured under the KANU regime of President Daniel Arap Moi and as a result, he became mentally deranged.
(To be continued)