Christopher Okemwa is a poet, actor, dancer, playwright, story-teller, and (short-story and children) writer. He graduated from Kamagambo Teachers’ Training College and has taught for several years in Kenya. He later graduated from the University of Nairobi with a Bachelor of Education degree, specializing in English and Literature. He later pursued and completed an MA in literature from the same University. His doctoral study at Moi University in Kenya focuses on the Nature of Performance Poetry in Kenya. He currently teaches Creative Writing (Poetry & Drama) at Kisii University College, Kenya.
Okemwa has published two collections of poetry: Toxic Love, and The Gong. (Nsemia Inc., 2009). He has three collections of children’s stories: The Village Queen, The Visitor at the Gate, and Let Us Keep Tiger. The latter was nominated for Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 2011. In 2011 he published a collection of adult short-stories, Chubot, the Cursed One and Other Stories (Nsemia Inc., 2011) and an oral Literature text, Riddles of the Abagusii People of Kenya: Gems of Wisdom from the African Continent (Nsemia Inc., 2011).
Okemwa is a well-known playwright and actor. His award-winning plays and poems have been staged at the Kenya Schools Drama Festivals. As a respected drama and literary critic he has published numerous articles in the dailies, journals and newsletters. In 1991, he attended and participated in a theatre and technical workshop in Bristol and Winchester, sponsored by the National Operatic & Dramatic Association of England.
In addition, Okemwa has presented his poetry research in international forums. This is in addition to attending and performing his poetry in international poetry festivals, including XX International Poetry Festival in Medellin, Colombia. In 1993 he participated in a poetry workshop in Northern Ireland.
Among his awards are the 2002 Editor’s Choice Award for Outstanding Achievement in Poetry, presented by the International Library of Poetry, and the 2006 Changamoto Arts Fund award of for the performance of his poetry in Secondary Schools in Kenya.
Okemwa’s childhood was unique, riddled with poverty, despair and loneliness. Out of school most of the time, due to fees, he sat on an ant-hill outside their rural home watching the colours of the rainbow on the rural sky. On fine days he would run about with other boys of similar circumstances to catch grasshoppers and butterflies in the vast fields next to the river banks while, at the same time, watching the orange rays of the setting sun slowly sinking in the western horizon. During market days Okemwa would sit with other little boys beside the road and watched people carrying their wares to the market, counting the number of vehicles that drove by, while making faces and gestures at children who accompanied their parents to the market. With no basics in life, and being brought up with just a mother, Okemwa didn’t enjoy the life other children in the neighbourhood had. In the poem Gong, he vividly captures the true texture and feel of his childhood:
The Gong Of my childhood rings louder Its echo hurtles in, faster Catching up with me Every night in my dreams The bicycles, donkey-carts The farmers’ open vans Raced up and down this pebbly road Leaving behind trails of dust
I sat here, on this anthill On a market day Counting people, donkeys I was a loner then The mantis as my teddy bear. Okemwa grew to become a boy. He had numerous ambitions. He wanted to go to university to study and get a degree. He had no money for it. He wanted to become a writer, but didn’t know how. His failed ambitions and wishes, desperation and restlessness is best captured in the poem Round in Circles: Round in Circles You go round in circles, your head In the clouds, expecting a hitch, a hiatus Anything somewhere along The slippery arcs of your life
Something to assuage the length Of the circles, swerve that constant Fixation of your already-worn-to- A frazzle mind in making a pile
You start with scotching your niggling In trivial cogitation, hitching Your wagon to a star, wishing heavens Broke down into gold-specks, pearls and diamonds
Drowned in cupidity nature secretly
Folds wings, seceding from your strategy Leaving you scraping the barrel, wretched On a shoestring, doing anything for lucre. Worshipping at the shrine of mammon You see your whole self atrophy Into nothingness and purpose of living Is lost—all is chasing intangible wind! You go out in the dark one night To look at the moon, stars and meteors Trying to calculate how symbolic These can be to the wealth of the mind. One morning your thoughts darken With thick haze of desperation, you Realize how steady nature’s clock is And the need to learn this hard fact. ——— Okemwa grew up a troubled boy. He knew he wanted something, but didn’t know exactly what it was. He knew there was an ember deep inside him that was smoldering, but didn’t know when it was going to burn out. He knew he had not arrived at his destination, but didn’t know what direction he exactly was heading. There was something in him that was not mixing or hadn’t mixed. He failed to understand himself and didn’t think others understood him; and this led him to be withdrawn.
What Makes Me Tick If you could extract the blue feelings From my heart, or, like a pawpaw fruit Bisect me, and see the seedy inside Of my overburdened self Or thrust me up the sky and see me come down Through the moon-lit night, hollering Screaming to the one present—who is also an absence Or, if you are a scholar, climb up my belfry And study the polished sticks of metal That touches to bore my body’s chime You will get to know the stuff That ignites my body, soul and spirit. But still you may not comprehend Or, more so, reach to finger the delicate inside That is the satellite of my whole being You will still miss out on one single fact That must combine with another to make me tick
Even when Okemwa became a teacher he still felt he hadn’t reached his destination in life. He taught absent-mindedly most of the time, day-dreaming, scribbling his poetry on his pupils’ exercise books. His salary was meager and didn’t meet all his needs. He didn’t know whether it was alright for him to continue teaching or to stop and do something else. The poem, An Old Retired School Teacher tells a lot about his attitude towards teaching:
An Old Retired School Teacher I met an old retired schoolteacher His coat was faded, his shirt tattered Wrinkles and crevices filled his forehead Upon his chin was pasted a grey tuft Of soil-caked, fluff-filled beard He tottered along on an empty road His lips moving, muttering to himself I stopped to ask him his troubles Why he was lonely and talking to himself He said he had seen good old days And enjoyed every hour of his life He had taught so many great people Some of whom held big positions in government The society as it stood then, he said Owed it all to his hard work as a teacher But he shook his head and regretted That his head carried half the world’s problems And darkness was engulfing his twilight years. He said he had retired a year ago And TSC hadn’t released his pension His third wife was at Pumwani giving birth He had not paid dowry for his fifth wife \And to add injury to salt Neither of his sons-in-law had paid their pride-price The old man looked at me again With red eyes that were heavy with sleep “Son,” he said, “how I long for youth hood!” He curled his nose and moved his lower lip Turned and tottered away, muttering to himself.
——— Okemwa is now married and with his wife, Damiana, they have two sons, Eng’ and Ris. Most of the poems that have been written during his married life show mature tone and theme and the absence of that boyish feelings and expressions. The poems indicate joy and a life fulfilled. To him a wife is a scalpel with which you rent open the past. The joy Okemwa’s wife came with has made him understand himself and has opened the mystery of the past. In the poem, Having Known you, Okemwa sees his wife as a scalpel that he can use to cut open the mysterious past and untie the knots that seal it.
Having Found You
These days life has taken on a rosier hue In the postmortem of the past I should use you As my scalpel, to carefully rent open What, for years, could not be pierced by a pen Riding high on the waves of joy you have brought To my life, I can now touch the past, untie its knot And reveal the life, beauty and joy that hides therein Which, in your absence, could not be felt, smelt or seen My life is now filled with brighter sun-lit rays That illuminates the dark crannies of the old days Revealing the richness that I never knew existed But which hid under the heart, undiscovered, wasted
Let me have you as my scalpel to carefully rent open The past, to feel the sadness brought by wild oats sown And the irony of joy that rose and fell underneath The mysterious fabric of truth and beauty, life and death.
With Okemwa there is joy, but beneath that joy there is death. When the long hand takes us away we cannot take with us what we currently own, but will leave them behind for others to enjoy. Okemwa wonders why we take many years investing or building what one day will be owned by other people. He questions life, disturbs it to give an answer, but all he gets is fears, hopelessness and emptiness. In the poem The Mortal Soul, he says:
You will take nothing with you, not a jewel not a penny Better then to learn to live without the good things you own For the soil in its selfish mode won’t provide you any But will let you lie there, empty, naked as you were born Or, better still, you can try and be dead in Ghana Where for example if you are a well-known farmer You can be buried in a casket the shape of a banana A driver in a bus, a carpenter in a mallet or a hammer At least that will make you feel a little worthwhile You won’t regret a bit for having worked so hard And lost everything at once; your enormous verse file Will be there, running round you, in case you were a bard But even those West Africans don’t have any luck For when in the soil you won’t identify the colours The holy white, the rich green or the dark black The mortal soul knows only the red on the flowers.
The Gong features Okemwa’s entire life, from birth to death. It is a journey of a disturbed soul, a restless spirit, which finds no repose anywhere, but weavers about, floating freely in the emptiness of space and time, ending up in soothing art of writing poetry. The Gong was published in November 2009.
Meanwhile you can reach the poet via the following contacts: P.O. Box 3956, Kisii, KENYA or P.O. Box 18057, 00100 Nairobi, KENYA or via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Nsemia Inc. Publishers: email@example.com