I finally arrived, last weekend, at the Taj Mahal, the shrine of love, in Gem, Siaya County. This is the mausoleum that Prof Bethwell Allan Ogot built for his dear departed consort, Grace Emily Akinyi Ogot. I nicknamed the mausoleum Taj Mahal, because it reminded me of one of Grace Ogot’s most poignant short stories, Taj Mahal, in the collection titled Island of Tears.
In the story, a Kenyan woman sits on the steps of the Taj Mahal in India, one of the most visited tourist sites in the world, and contemplates the immortal power of love. The Taj Mahal, was built by a Mughal Emperor as a mausoleum for his Queen, Mumtaz, in the 17th century.
As the Kenyan visitor immerses herself in the awesome artistry of the monument and its environs, she feels completely at one with the legendary lovers and comes to the emotive conclusion that, ultimately, nothing matters in life or death but love. Is Grace Ogot’s story autobiographical? That question is almost an occupational hazard for all of us in creative writing.
In the case of Grace Ogot’s story, however, we have tangible evidence that it has a lot of autobiographical material in it. Indeed, Prof Ogot confided to me last week that he was actually there when Mamma “conceived” the story, on the steps of the Taj Mahal. Prof told me that Mamma was so moved by the experience that she remained utterly silent for many hours after the visit. Then she wrote.
Anyway, what particularly struck me as I stood on the hallowed ground at Yala was that Grace Ogot’s story was as prophetic as it was philosophical. In the end, only love matters. Prof had invited me to Yala to attend and “say something” at the second anniversary memorial of the departure of Grace Ogot.
This, I presume, was because of my patent admiration and enthusiasm for Grace Ogot’s writing and, of course, her (and the Professor’s) long and close association with Uganda and Makerere. I must confess, however, that I was a little taken aback when I realised that the “something” I had to say had been billed in the day’s programme as a keynote speech!
Anyway, I eagerly accepted the Professor’s invitation. It was, in fact, a sort of debt settlement, as I had been unable to honour his invitation to the inaugural memorial last year, when the mausoleum was opened.
But there was another reason for my eagerness, besides my love for literature and Grace Ogot. This is my profound respect for Professor Ogot’s devoted and exemplary scholarship. Both on the African and the international scene, Bethwell Allan Ogot’s career is a model for totally committed, focused and unrelenting academic excellence. He is a conspicuously rare species in our times of “what is in it for me” priorities, even in scholarship.
I never was nor ever will be a good historian, but I never tire of boasting of the fact that Ogot was a professor at Kenyatta University, where I also taught! Getting a gesture of recognition, however casual, from this intellectual giant was deeply humbling and highly inspiring.
But that is Bethwell Ogot, the quintessential scholar and humanist. He is always ready and willing to recognise and, especially, inspire anyone trying and struggling to make headway in any area of positive human endeavour.
This was clearly reflected in the intimate group of guests congregated at Yala last Saturday, ranging from teenage school leavers through recently graduated PhDs, topflight academic and political leaders to his mellowing fellow elders. They all had heart-warming stories of how “Japuonj” (Mwalimu) had positively contributed to their success. Needless to say, his parenting cut across all professions, ethnicities and nationalities.
Among the distinguished guests, for example, was Prof Paul Zeleza, the Vice-Chancellor of the United States International University in Nairobi, who actually introduced me to the gathering before I made my keynote speech. A Malawian national, Prof Zeleza narrated to us how Prof Ogot had identified him as a young promising scholar and consistently guided him towards becoming the international authority that he now is.
'LOVE IS ALL' HYPOTHESIS
Most of the testimonies, however, underlined the perception that Bethwell and Grace Ogot had always worked together as a team in their social, intellectual and inspirational adventures. The recurring and echoing phrase was “Professor and Mamma” This played beautifully into my “love is all” hypothesis.
The point is that this wonderfully gifted and gifting couple owed their prodigious achievements mainly to their love for each other, love for their work and love for the people around them. This had, indeed, been brought home to me the Friday evening before the ceremony.
I arrived at the Ogot homestead, locally known as the White House, long before the relatives and other guests began to arrive. So, I had several privileged hours alone with the Professor. He took me on a one-on-one tour of the mausoleum and the Bethwell Allan Ogot Research Library. The library is a magnificent structure, all by itself beside the main house.
Even more importantly, it is a real library, stocked to the gunwales with all sorts of creative and scholarly works, tomes and tomes of them, a far cry from the little store room that I call my “library” down in my village. The big news about the Ogot library is that one of our main state universities is adopting it as a research library, and they are in the process of exponentially expanding its stock and its space. Indeed, it is the university that has respectfully given it the full names of the Professor.
The centre piece of the library is the Professor’s study, where he spends at least two hours every morning, doing his writing. If I had just a tenth of such discipline, I thought, I too would be a genius! Prof told me he has just completed a 500-page history of Nairobi, along the lines of his earlier History of Kisumu.
Closer to my love theory, Prof loves telling the story of a relative of his who was so angry with him back in the old days that he refused to take even a glass of water at his house. The quarrel was that on completion of the building, Prof had “stuffed it with books and papers”, instead of getting a (second) wife to occupy it. Prof’s “bookmania” may have had something to do with his “failure” to get the expected wife, but I think the “sufficient” presence of Grace Ogot in his life had a lot more to do with the decision.
I had concrete evidence of this when we toured the mausoleum, where a treasure trove of the great lady’s memorabilia — her books, photographs, articles, medals, certificates, citations and decorations — is neatly displayed. The collection is still growing. But as the Prof was taking me through the display, I could not fail to notice a certain kind of youthful spring in his gait — he is only 88, you know — and, especially, a very tender tone in his narration. Here, I thought, is proof of an undying love.
But equally importantly, I realised that earning all that recognition and all those glittering honours was the result of working tirelessly, relentlessly and endlessly for the public good. Such energy could only have been fuelled by a genuine love for the work and for the people it was intended to benefit.
Thus did I come away from Yala, considerably schooled and sobered by the lessons I had learnt in the many faces of genuine love.
Prof Bukenya is one of the leading scholars of English and Literature in East Africa. [email protected]