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Mwalimu David Mulwa: Celebrating a theatre giant

Arts and Culture
 Mwalimu David Kakuta Mulwa, a legendary icon in the Kenyan creative industry with over 50 years of vast experience. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

David Muchungu was acting in a theatrical production at Kenyatta University when he accidentally hit his head on a metal door frame and lost consciousness.

When he came to, David Mulwa, his director and lecturer, was beside his hospital bed, with a message… “There is this girl who was crying uncontrollably when you fainted; is she your girlfriend,” Mulwa whispered conspiratorially to his student. “Is she your girlfriend?”

Muchungu said no. “…Well, take advantage,” came Mulwa’s matter-of-fact answer.

Today, Muchungu and the ‘crying girl’ are happily married. “I was on cue,” said Muchungu, to much laughter from his audience.

This was last Saturday when Mulwa’s former students gathered at his Ruai home to pay tribute to their mentor, who is now retired but ailing. It was a grand reunion that left the 77-year-old thespian and writer almost choking in emotion at the outpouring of love from his former charges.

One would have mistaken the open grounds besides Mulwa’s house, for a political campaign gathering or a grand wedding. Such was the grandeur of vehicles at the parking lot and the lively dressing of those who turned up.

The oldest amongst Mulwa’s former students was communications lecturer, Dr Edwin Nyutho, whom Mulwa taught in 1974, while the youngest, barely out of their teens, is yet to graduate.

When it was his turn to address the gathering, Dr Nyutho vividly recalled his lines as Daodu, in Wole Soyinka’s play Kongi’s Harvest, directed by Mulwa in 1974.

“Before I joined KU, I did not know much about communicating, but through acting, David nurtured me into a better communicator. He was my teacher, my mentor and my friend,” said Nyutho, who later on became Mulwa’s best man during his wedding.

Dr Nyutho recalled that Mulwa, in his play, Redemption, wrote the character of Elton Muthemba, a rogue bishop, with him in mind.

“When we staged the play in Limuru, for the NCCK, the over 3,000 bishops, in the audience were spellbound,” said Dr Nyutho, who taught, among others, ANC leader Musalia Mudavadi in high school.

Also present was Dr Sarah Ruto, the  Chief Administrative Secretary of Education, who brought greetings from another of Mulwa’s former students, Dr Fred Matiang’i, the Internal Security Cabinet Secretary. Other PhD holders mentored by Mulwa, present during the event, included, Dr Shikuku Tsikhungu, who had coordinated the whole event.

Dr Shikuku teaches Film at Kenyatta University. He explained that he was motivated to organise the event after hearing the good things that were said at the Kenya Cultural Centre, sometimes last year, when Mulwa was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award in Theatre.

“I decided that I would make these people walk the talk and make Mulwa happy by going to visit him at home,” he said.

There was also Dr Wanjohi Makhokha, who also teaches at KU, and Dr, Elijah Munyi, who lectures at the United States International University. The Film and Theatre Studies faculty at the KCA University is made up, almost entirely of Mulwa’s former students.

Then there were the publishers, who included Lawrence Njagi, the immediate former chairman of Kenya Publishers Association (KPA) and CEO of Mountain Top Publishers, Musyoki Muli, the managing director of Evangel Publishing and a KPA council member, and Kithusi Mulonzya, the CEO of One Planet Publishers.

There was also Sheila Masinde, the Executive Director of Transparency International, who lavished praises on Mulwa and how he has shaped her career trajectory.

Though recovering from surgery – she was walking on crutches – Anne Mungai, the famed director of Saikati, the film, made sure to attend the event. “I have been in discussions with Mulwa to have his book Flee Mama Flee (One Planet) adapted into a movie,” she said. “It has a great African story.” Mulwa acted in Saikati II.

Muchungu is also an accomplished publisher and boasts of having edited several of Mulwa’s books.

By the time the gathering was coming to a close, the former students vowed to complete the construction of their mentor’s house which is currently stuck at ground level.

Mulwa, while thanking the group for its kind gesture, revealed that his original plan, while designing the house, was for it to be used as a writers’ retreat.

“There is only my wife and I living here, we cannot possibly use all the eight rooms when completed. “Anyone who has a writing project can find peace here while they finish up their manuscripts,” said Mulwa.

From the foregoing, it is clear to see that Mulwa is a true legend of the Kenyan, literary and performing art scene.

Dr Kisa Amateshe, Mulwa’s friend and colleague at KU, wondered why, despite his outstanding achievements in his chosen field, the university administration did not see it fit to award Mulwa a professorship.

It is said that Mulwa never saw a great play he did not want to act in, including those directed by his students.

The student actors spoke of a thorough and meticulous man while preparing to act in any play. “He would be the first person to arrive for rehearsals and would take his lines very seriously,” said a former student.

“Even if you gave him just one line in an entire play, he would practice it very seriously and seek your opinion as to whether he was doing it the right way.”

Mulwa’s commitment to the stage, was undeniable. In 1996 when while acting in the production of Francis Imbuga’s play, The Successor, he broke his leg, mid-play.

“He was playing the lead role of Chief Oriomra, with Sara Ruto playing the female lead role of Zira. While backstage, Mulwa failed to see a hole in the platform and fell eight feet down, breaking his leg,” says Muchungu.

“He refused to cancel the show, grabbed a walking stick, and did the whole show as an ambulance waited to take him to the hospital!”

Some of the notable productions Mulwa has played in, over the years, include Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, Kongi’s Harvest by Wole Soyinka, Muntu by Joe De Graft, and Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again, by Ola Rotimi, and Dedan Kimathi, by Kenneth Watene.

He has also had roles in big-screen productions like Born Free, To Walk with Lions, Kolor Mask, and Ingolo wa Keya’s The Baisikol.

The younger generation will probably remember him as Principal Mutiso in the Citizen TV drama, Tahidi High.

His memorable books include Buriani (Oxford), The Inheritance (Longhorn), and Redemption (Longman, now Longhorn), which have been secondary school set books at one point or the other. His other titles include, We Come in Peace (Oxford), and Master and Servant, which have been translated into Russian (Longman).

Mulwa has a Master’s Degree in Theatre Arts from the University of California at Los Angeles, graduating in 1973, and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Nairobi, where he graduated in 1969. He did his ‘A’ Levels at Alliance High School and before that Mukaa Intermediate School. 

In the end, Mulwa told his guests that teaching is a noble profession. “There is no better reward to a teacher than his students. “Teaching should be a conversation and not a one-way affair. As a teacher, what is in front of you is thinking, and creating beings. You should be ready and humble enough to take what your students say,” he said. 

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