Je suis Garissa: How I wish I were there for the reopening

Saturday January 16 2016

A picture showing a KDF soldier outside Garissa University College after Al-Shabaab attacked the institution on April 3, 2015 killing 147 people. Garissa University College (GUC) has now joined that distinguished league of stiff upper-lipped heroes who have looked terror straight in the eye and told it in no uncertain terms to take their nefarious trade elsewhere, preferably to hell. PHOTO | FILE

A picture showing a KDF soldier outside Garissa University College after Al-Shabaab attacked the institution on April 3, 2015 killing 147 people. Garissa University College (GUC) has now joined that distinguished league of stiff upper-lipped heroes who have looked terror straight in the eye and told it in no uncertain terms to take their nefarious trade elsewhere, preferably to hell. PHOTO | FILE 

By Austin Bukenya
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If I got an invitation to teach for a semester, even without pay, at Garissa University College, I would gladly accept it. Like most concerned people in this country, especially in academics, I was deeply touched and moved by the recent resumption of studies at this now-and-forever historical institution.

As all people of goodwill are agreed, resolute defiance of terrorism is the surest way of confronting and defeating it. As I said some time back, this has been Kenya’s response to those slimy and cowardly fratricides, since the Norfolk Hotel in 1980 to the Westgate Mall massacre of 2013.

Garissa University College (GUC) has now joined that distinguished league of stiff upper-lipped heroes who have looked terror straight in the eye and told it in no uncertain terms to take their nefarious trade elsewhere, preferably to hell. But GUC’s rise from the physical and emotional ashes has, curiously, a special personal significance for me.

The Sunday after the grisly attack, the chairman of the GUC Governing Council and his spouse were worshipping with us in a congregation in Nairobi. Before the end of the service, the celebrant invited the chairman to say a few things to the worshippers.

MAGICAL ADVENTURE

Truth to tell, I cannot remember much of what the good gentleman said. But what stands out in my memory, from his communication, is the calm courage, the impalpability, with which he shared his sorrow and disgust at the senseless slaughter of our children, and the gruesome defilement of the most precious higher education gift with which the north-eastern region had ever been endowed. He did not at that moment say what he and his GUC leaders and administrators where going to do.

But listening to the silences between the chairman’s brief speech, and knowing the power of the indomitable Kenyan spirit, I felt sure that GUC’s head might be temporarily bloody but certainly not bowed. (Incidentally, that quote comes from a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley). GUC’s glorious re-opening during the first two weeks of 2016 has redeemed my trust.

Outside the church I sought out the chairman, to shake his hand and thank him for sharing his grief with us, for, as our people say, a grief shared is a grief reduced. His wife joined him as we were talking, and, apart from revealing that she was a dedicated reader of this column, she reminded me that she had been my student somewhere along her academic path. Was I not, then, connected to Garissa?

The link, however, goes much deeper than that. I have visited Garissa twice and “spent” there, as our grandchildren say. I cannot boast too loudly about the first visit because it was only in transit to Hola in Tana River in the early 1990s.

Did I ever tell you about that magical adventure in the delta of the great river? I should, one of these days. My colleagues, Nyambura Mpesha, Waveney Olembo, Mutuota Kigotho and I were taking our oral literature students on a research trip to Pokomoland. People knowledgeable with the state of the roads in those days advised us that, although it was possible to get to Hola through Mombasa, the “easiest” way  would be through Garissa and Bura. Since one could not do that Nairobi-Hola journey in a day, we had to spend a night in Garissa.

What first struck me about the town as we entered it in late afternoon was its greenness. I had not realised that, although located in a desert area, Garissa was blessed with  plentiful water from the river that traverses it. Then the story of the Cantaloupe Priest, the American missionary who used to teach youngsters how to grow watermelons in Garissa, started making sense to me. I cannot remember the name of the establishment where we stayed, but it was memorably hospitable and comfortable.

Anyway, the next morning it was time to cross the river again and head towards Bura, of the great irrigation scheme fame, and ultimately to Hola, Mnazini and the other riverine settlements. Since I have promised to narrate that story to you some day, I will let it be for now.

HOMEGOING OF SORTS

But I cannot resist the temptation to gossip to you that that is where we collected the thrilling tale of the elegant, arrogant twins who escaped from their ogre husband on a pair of flying winnowing baskets, as they crooned the captivating melody “kicheu, biga kwehu/kicheu, kwehu Mbanda” (basket, fly home/basket, home to Mbanda). You will also remember that that’s where Senoga Zake, Washington Omondi, Graham Hyslop and their team got the melody for our National Anthem.

Back to the Garissa story, my second visit was actually official. It was on the invitation of an eminent educationist, Adnan, who was then headmaster of Garissa Boys’ High School. Adnan had been my MA student and supervisee at Kenyatta University, and in our prolonged and close cooperation on his research and dissertation, I came to learn a significant lot about Somali oral poetry and other genres.

So, my visit, with the mission of talking to his students and other scholars from the surrounding schools, was a “homegoing” of sorts. I was thoroughly feted, with a guided tour of the town, including a visit to the then-Garissa TTC, an impressive campus, which I believe came to house the core of GUC.

Adnan was later to earn a PhD in Literature, with, according to him, some advice on literary theory from his old Mwalimu. Who am I to contradict a crowned PhD? But that was not the end of the story. When Adnan’s son came to study at the Kampala International University, he made it a point to connect with me. He eventually treated me to a delicious tea and samosa meal in  Nairobi’s CBD, soon after he took up a banking job.

Need we belabour the point? Would I be exaggerating if I said, “Je suis Garissa” (I, too, am Garissa)?