In a country where some university dons stir trepidation and are a source of anguish, Dr Waigwa Wachira was a rare instructor, one whose students of over four illustrious decades paid great tributes upon his death on Monday.
“He didn’t look at himself as a professor, he had this colourful sense of humour and was very brilliant,” said Kingwa Kamencu, journalist and former presidential candidate, who was his student in the early 2000s.
Munyao Mutinda, an editor with The Nation remembered his first class with the good old dramatist. ““He swaggered dressed in tight jeans, a T-shirt and boots. “Boom, twaf!’ he thundered, his fingers formed into the stage of a gun. ‘Ku***ina, Ku***yoko, toa pesa, mara moja.’We froze, as he walked around like a robber, repeating the dreadful words.
The lanky, aging, professor with a greying moustache and a deep-nose bridge who spoke in a hoarse voice was a skilful playwright, consummate poet and Country Music enthusiast. He came to class with a guitar, which he deftly played for students. His Single ‘Marry Me’ is still a regular at the KBC English Service, Sundowner Program.
As an actor, he appeared as Mukara in Gorillas in the Mist (1988) and as the race policeman in Walt-Disney's Cheetah (1989). But he excelled more in drama, penning acclaimed plays and nurturing a generation of dramatist.
“He promised us the last 15 minutes of remaining time on earth when he came to teach us briefly,” remembers Nathan Mutuku, who joined the university when the don was sickly, and all but retired earlier in the decade.
The ’15 minutes’ were the longest session he ever attended.
“He was a passionate orator, who ate, drank, and dreamt performing arts,” notes Nathan Mutuku. Teaching introduction to Drama and East African Drama, he was very nurturing.
“He used to make us go to class quite early, we could not miss his class. He was very nurturing,” recalls Kamencu who, as a first year student, was invited by the good old professor to attend an Association of Theatre for Children and Young People (ASSITEG) forum.
In the evenings he taught Mutuku and his classmates, Mutuku would be inspired to produce and direct plays for the Kenya Drama Festivals that he went as far as Nationals training Machakos Teachers Training College.
This would also earn him adjudicating roles. Writing on Facebook, Mkwasi Mcharo-Hall remembered how professor nurtured her nascent career in Drama.
“You directed me in the performance of Martin Luther King’s speech with such seriousness, you’d think there was a million dollars at stake and had me win an award at the American Cultural Centre for it,” she wrote.
On his music, KBC’s Catherine Ndonye who plays his single wrote in 2016 that “very few artists have been able to record a song that resonates through several generations and retain the appeal it had when it was released," referring to his best-selling single, Marry Me. Released in 1983, ‘Marry Me’ knocked Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ from the local charts, becoming No. 1.
“Waigwa Wachira was undoubtedly and unreservedly a man to admire: talented with a most compelling presence on the theatre stage,” says Dr George Outa, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi and consultant, adding, “Talented with a commanding, husky voice, nostalgic tone of "Will you Marry me." According to Outa, Dr Wachira was born an artist. Dr Outa bemoans the dearth of institutions that “could genuinely nurture these types of rare talent and build them for what they are instead of our extreme focus on the highly questionable; nay superfluous, and certainly un-needed-the other 'bookish' type of intellect.”
Wachira obtained his Bachelor’s degree from the University of Dar-es-Salaam, and proceeded for further studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the United States. He taught and directed plays at the University of Nairobi and has held similar posts at the Drama Centre in London and at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Dr Wachira was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and was rather sickly in the last decade, even though he would be seen strutting within the university with his beloved guitar. Dr Wachira leaves behind a wife and two children. He will be buried on October 24, 2017 in Nyeri.