“When death sings a mans praises,â€¨ Nothing can stop him from dancing.”
The line is from the stageplay “Lwanda Magere” by Okoiti Omtatah. He’s an award-winning Kenyan playwright. After reading this play, I understood why. Be forewarned that there may be spoilers in the article to follow.
I read the play in one session. It’s short, sitting at a little over a hundred pages. The language is bold, vivid and memorable. Proverbs and idiomatic expressions give the text a profound and mysterious air. I felt as though I had hopped into a time machine and travelled back to “old Africa.” A time when what a person said was as important as how he said it. There’s a delightful incident in the play when the hero’s eldest wife seeks to counsel him. He won’t allow her to speak, until she convinces him with a proverb that puts a smile on his face.
Okoiti Omtatah’s play is a faithful rendition of the old legend. If you have never heard it before, this version is true to all the oral versions. It also adds some nuances of it’s own. This gives it a distinctive, idiosyncratic feel. For instance, the portrayal of the antagonistic Lang’o people is humanist. They are no longer faceless, nameless “hordes of baddies”. They have consciences, and a clear sense of right and wrong. When Lwanda tells his wife about his mortal shadow, he places her under an oath not to reveal his secret. She violates this oath, and her father has to perform a sacrifice to absolve her of any guilt.
The play does well in exploring Lwanda’s personality. I got the sense that his arrogance was quite inevitable. He is a superhero, surrounded by mere mortals. They offer him the crown, but he turns it down in favour of life on the battlefield. Later on, he doesn’t understand why they are not willing to let him marry the rival king’s daughter.
The best part of the play for me is the last chapter, titled “Readings”. In it, we see Lwanda venture into battle, aware that the time to “join his ancestors” has come. Going above and beyond the call of duty, he remains on the battlefield after their victory. He wants to give his fallen comrades a decent burial. This is what leads to his demise. The enemies ambush him and, knowing his secret, are able to vanquish him.
Some plays are better read, not watched on stage. This is not one of them. One has to experience the costumes, the stage directions and the diction. The proverbs are musical and imaginative. I would like to know which are of the playwrights own creation. Here is my favourite one.
“When death sings a mans praises, Nothing can stop him from dancing.”
It reminded me of another proverb from “Akokhan”, the graphic novel by Frank Odoi. “Where grass has grown, grass will grow.”
Here are a few more from Omtatah’s play:
“It is only madmen who wait for ripples to turn into big waves before thinking of the shore.”
“A milk cow gives both milk and dung”.
“Every man is lame in his own way.”
“The sun, though far away in the sky, says to the eye, ‘You must blink when you look at me.’”
“Stars are never bright when the moon is full.”
“When the frog puffs up and curses by the waters edge, he doesn’t stop the mighty elephant from having his fill.”
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