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Literary rebel bemoans fading theatre, timid writers

By Amol Awuor and Abenea Ndago | February 6th 2016

He bears a striking resemblance to the late Prof Ali Mazrui. Indeed, when Mazrui died, the literature scholar says his children received condolence messages. Dr Kisa Amateshe has fought many battles. Nevertheless the Literature and Theatre Arts lecturer at Kenyatta University remains a vintage rebel.

“Bahati Estate in Nairobi’s Eastlands hardened me before my father shifted the family to Ziwani Estate,” he says. “Tom Mboya was our neighbour and my benefactor. He took me to Pumwani Secondary School, from where I went to Kamusinga for A-Levels beginning 1970.”

In Ziwani, Dr Amateshe recalls that poverty was so real that he regularly pushed mkokoteni (handcart) to Gikomba to make ends meet, apart from becoming a boxer. Before he joined Makerere in 1972, the don discovered his talent in theatre at Pumwani Secondary School. He was Lakunle in Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel, and Brutus and Antonio in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice respectively.

His love for theatre occasionally makes him draw comparisons between Kenya and Nigeria, and Amateshe says that there are specific reasons why local drama lags behind. “First is government support and NGO funding,” he posits. “Nigeria has that in abundance. Private companies support Nigerian theatre. It’s different in Kenya. After our much-publicised national drama festivals, the best motivation our young thespians ever get is a bottle of soda and a quarter loaf of bread. No one wants to make a follow up so as to nurture creative talent — not even the Ministry of Education”

The theatre scholar also says that Literature Departments in Kenyan universities leave a lot to be desired.

“We rarely support creativity,” he says. “I foresee a situation where future literature students will never even go for fieldwork in drama, yet the idea of theatre is firmly anchored on actual participation.”

Amateshe nostalgically recalls Makerere University. He says it was there that he was taught by great minds such as David Rubadiri, Pio Zirimu, Timothy Wangusa, David Cook, and Austin Bukenya. He happily  joined the Makerere Travelling Theatre.

“East African Literature was very vibrant then,” he remembers, “in spite of its censorship by Idi Amin in Uganda, and Jomo Kenyatta here at home. Writers’ criticism of their governments was open. Dhana Literary Magazine in Makerere was unbeatable! It was a platform for the exchange of ideas.”

Leaving Makerere in 1975, the don was posted to teach at Kakamega High School. His stay there ended in 1976 when he joined the University of Nairobi on a Norad masters scholarship, a course he completed in 1978. But life took an unexpected twist. “I had my Masters degree,” he says with irony. “But there was no new job for me! I grudgingly accepted a Teachers Service Commission re-posting to Butere Girls High School. I think ethnic ideology did not want to see me at the University of Nairobi.”


He recalls an unlucky day for him in 1979, when girls at the school went on the rampage, and nine acres of sugarcane went up in smoke.

“I will never forget the day,” he says. “I discovered that the human heart is a dark place indeed. Why? I had literally saved my headmistress from the students, but after the strike, she blamed me for the confusion and sought to have me transferred to a little-known school somewhere in the flood-ravaged  Budalangi!”

But on the very day that Amateshe was walking to Kakamega Provincial Education Office to finalise the humiliating transfer, a Mr Avedi (then Kakamega High School principal) spotted him.

“It was Mr Avedi who saved me. I heard someone shout, ‘Heh, Amateshe, what is the problem?’  I explained my misfortune, and Avedi literally walked me to the Provincial Education Officer and pleaded my case. I was re-posted to his school —Kakamega High— with a salary increment of Sh200.”

Then came the tumultuous year of 1982, and Amateshe was still whiling away his time at Kakamega High when a newspaper advert caught his attention. Kenyatta University was offering a job. “I made simultaneous applications; one to the Department of Literature under Dr Jane Nandwa; and another to the Department of Education under Dr Jonathan Olembo. Nandwa grabbed me fast.”

Life at Kenyatta University would have been heaven for Dr Amateshe, but for his association with the Mwakenya Movement in 1984, an underground outfit believed to have been opposed to Kanu’s autocratic rule.

“My supposed crime was a speech I had delivered at the university’s Cinema Hall titled The Role of Universities in Developing Countries. Professors Edward Oyugi, William Ochieng and I were quickly whisked to Nyati House to answer charges of disturbing the peace.”

His rescue  came in the form of a friend — a boxing judge in Kakamega — who was to preside over the interrogations at Nyati House. “He was surprised to see me. He asked the other panelists to leave the room then calmly warned me, ‘be careful, Amateshe. Things are not okay.’ And then I was set free. Remember that university dons could not even leave the country without a signed authorisation from the state.”

Amateshe got a Commonwealth Scholarship in 1988 and went to Britain from 1988 to 1992  where he got his doctorate from the University of Southampton; an experience he says exposed him to world cultures. While there, he also became the Chairman of Afro-Caribbean Boxing and Drama associations.

He later worked as a consultant with the British Council from 1993. He travelled to Townsville-North Queensland, Australia as the only tutor from Africa to attend the Young Playwrights Festival. He also facilitated Regional and National Drama Workshops for Kenyan schools and colleges. Amateshe also acted as Head of Department of English at the University of Malawi.

He says: “The difference between East African Literature now, and what it was then is that people like Ruganda, Ngugi, and Okot were impossible to compromise. Our writers are timid. They seek cheap favours from ‘above.’ They are not combative in a principled way.”

The scholar’s controversial voice made  him a student leader and Executive Secretary of The Makererian, an informative Makerere University newsletter. He says that was the time Idi Amin wanted him expelled from Makerere. But Julius Nyerere, as head of all the three East African universities, rebutted the attempt.

The don remembers Amin’s visits to Makerere then, especially the  advance party of soldiers who  students to laugh intelligently when Amin was around.

The Mazrui look-alike also recalls the day the then Liberian leader, President Tolbert visited and Amin introduced him, saying: “Ladies and gentlemen. The man sitting near me is a very impotent man.” He recalls how Amin’s soldiers raped college girls, and how starving students literally fought over food.

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