Wasambo, fallen giant and trailblazer who earned his niche in history of theatre

The late Theatre and Drama Specialist Dr Wasambo Were. [File, Standard]

It is said that life is a temporary terminus, death is the journey to the real destination. These sage words come in Kiswahili out of the maestro Samba Mapangala and his Orchestra Virunga - named after the towering mountain range of Mfumbiro. If you stand on their summit what you see is the lush lingalaland of Zaire, the million jade hills of Rwanda and fecund misty country-side South of Uganda. 

Dunia Tunapita is the song of wisdom that educates us to make our lives meaningful. The musical master intensified this message of existential gravity when he later issued the evergreen Vunja Mifupa. Here, he advises people to make hay while the sun shines. In this life, according to Mapangala, a wizard of pop music exhorts mankind that life is transient and its meaning lies in finding your central reasons why you exist. After such a find, leave a mark out of deeds that matter.

That was a decade ago. Simmers is no more. Rhumba still thrills. It will for all of eternity. It is the folk ghost of our fallen giants like Franco Makiadi and Tabu Ley Rochereau. It is the quintessential spiritual language of our regional Panafricanism. It dies, we die with it. Hasn’t each generation found itself dancing to the beats of Congo here? Yes Rhumba lived, it lives, it will live for the message it bears in the best of its ranks is an exhibition of our African essence at its apogee.

It is this maestro Wasambo of arts, performances, philosophy and passion for African culture that we shall bury come Friday in Yala.

His home is a stone-throw away from where we laid to rest his contemporary and fellow Rumba enthusiast Prof George Magoha. Gem is the greater location that boasts of being the cradle of fine sages and scribes of that part of Kenya. It is where the who-is-who in the world of theatre and performing arts will convene to escort the fallen Wasambo Were to the land of the ancestors.

Wasambo was a larger than life figure. He retired to Yala from the Kenyatta University in June last year having worked for 30 years. In that span, he made several strokes of strategic transformational leadership as a pioneer expert of theatre studies in Kenya.

For over three decades, Mwalimu served as a towering summit of knowledge and inspiration to countless students, guiding them through the enchanting realm of performing arts with unparalleled expertise and unwavering passion. His teachings were not confined to the boundaries of a theatre stage or lecture theatre; rather, they transcended conventional academia and ignited aesthetic infernos within the hearts and minds of those fortunate enough to cross his path.

It is Wasambo who initiated the idea of the Kenyatta University Culture Week. It ended up as a key brand of this university to this very day. Is it not this annual event that nurtures youth talent in the arts that presented Reddykyulass to the world?

Honest Kenyans will tell you that the trio led by Nyambane back then not only brought comic relief to our competitive politics, but launched the sector of stand-up comedy, which in turn generated latter-day artists from the Churchill Show to those constellated around the hugely popular Terence Creative.

Millions watched Churchill on TV and millions today follow Terrence on YouTube.

What all these demonstrate is how the creative and patriotic mind of a single Kenyan can usher in reforms for an entire sector, a tradition, a form of art.

Wasambo understood the basic philosophy conveyed by the hit songs of Mapangala.  Life is temporary and one has to make the best out of it in the heydays.

Performing arts pundits in Kenya will remind you that it is the same Mwalimu Wasambo who conceived and initiated the national drama festivals for our schools and colleges in the year Mapangala launched Dunia Tuna Pita. Out of this annual extravaganza across all our three levels of learning - primary, secondary and tertiary - talents have been injected into the media and entertainment industries from the finest of our young thespians, year in year out.

It is just a fortnight ago that President William Ruto directed there be a special treatment of this entertainment sector within the debate on the Finance Bill 2023 in the context of his national strategic development vision. The President is aware of the critical role that performing arts play in civic education, youth employment and national cohesion. His election bid last year was backed by many young people and a plethora of leading artists and creatives.

Culture weeks and drama festivals; these two brainchild-ideas of Wasambo and their resultant effects in contemporary Kenyan must be understood in their historicity as explained above. Ironically, in his twilight years, my former officemate never took credit, but basked in the fulfilment of watching the youth seizing such chances and making the best for themselves and by extension the nation. Culture weeks are now a key part of education calendars of our learning institutions as are drama festivals.

Gone, last weekend, is this remarkable man who conceptualized them at a time when his peers and the nation did not quite (fore)see the fiscal and didactic potency of drama in education. Gone is this guru who in fact taught a unit by the same name, ALT 410: Drama in Education, to generations of Kenyatta University students who are ubiquitous at the helm of media and publishing worlds.

Outside Kenyatta University, tributes continue to flow from people whose career he influenced directly or indirectly including Kwamchetsi Makokha, Opiyo Mumma, Oluoch Obura, Barrack Muluka, Kinyanjui Kombani, Emmanuel Shikuku and others. Wasambo was not just a strategic thinker and philosopher in the area of national and educational policies on theatre; he was a true visionary also. He was a direct student of the revolutionary, the University of Nairobi of the 1970s.

His Marxist teachers then, and ideological parents, include professors Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ngugi wa Mirii and Micere Mugo. They empowered the younger Wasambo to see the power of art and the agency with which it can bear the weight of liberation. He made practical their theories of black consciousness and resistance aesthetics.

It is in this way that it can be said: the fallen giant transformed the way we teach drama and understand it in Kenya. In this sense, he earned his niche in the history of theatre in Kenya as a trailblazer who defied traditional norms and redefined the very structures that govern the theories and praxis of performing art. He recognised the importance of preserving cultural heritage within the Mapangalan worldview of life itself as a valuable, but limited resource. Consequently, he sought to breathe new life into our old cultural traditions.

But it was not merely his intellectual achievements that set Wasambo apart. He was a mentor in the truest sense of the word, guiding his students not only in the academic realm, but also in the complex journey of life. With a compassionate spirit and an empathetic ear, he nurtured battalions of younger art teachers and critics. I shall stand at his funeral both as a witness and a testimony.

He offered paternal guidance that steered me well from the time I stepped in Kenyatta University from an outback village in Bungoma at the age of 18 as a literary arts student, to the time he offered me a chance to share an office with him after I was hired as a permanent lecturer, upon returning from further studies abroad a dozen years ago. His mentorship became a lifeline for many, illuminating paths that may have otherwise seemed obscured by doubt and uncertainty.

Despite his immense contributions and undeniable impact on the fields of education, culture and entertainment Luka Wasambo Were never received any recognition from successive governments of Kenya. He was inexplicably overlooked as the state rewarded people who were his students or mentees.  

It is an unfortunate truth that even in their sixth decade of existence as postcolonial spaces; African societies fail to acknowledge the brilliance and dedication of individuals who truly change the world. Or do so only after they have left us to join our ancestors.

Governments and institutions often fall short in recognizing those who have dedicated their lives to the betterment of humanity. This man, nay, this hero of Kenya now dead, stands as a shining example of this unfortunate oversight, a testament to the inherent flaws in our system of recognition. Hail and farewell, Mwalimu Luka Wasambo Were, our theatre tower as tall as the Mfumbiro and Mapangala.  Jowi! Jowi! Jowi! Wasambo eee!

Dr Makokha is a theatre and literature critic

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