Prof Ogot: Our song to a venerable and very marketable man of history

Wednesday March 18 2020
Prof Ogot

Professor Bethwell Ogot at his home in Millimani Estate Kisumu. PHOTO | TONNY OMONDI | NATION MEDIA

By Austin Bukenya

“Those who know not whence they come know not whither they go” (asojua atokako, wa’aendako hajui). Both in English and in my “grandmother tongue”, that sounds like a methali or proverb. But it is actually a saying that I adapted and put in a short umanju that I extemporised for Prof “Japuonj” Bethwell Allan Ogot during the celebrations of his 90th birthday. This was on Saturday, August 3, at his residence in Yala, Gem Location, Siaya County.


The aphorism suggests that a diligent understanding of our past leads to a confident handling of the present and a prudent planning for the future. We grow through careful avoidance of the mistakes of the past and adoption of the positive values that have sustained us and ensured the survival and continuity of our societies. That is how the preeminent professors ponderously pontificate from the rostra and podia of their lecture theatres!

But even for us plain folk, the past goes beyond what happened in the last 24 hours. We mean not just years and decades but also centuries, millennia and even aeons. The longer and clearer our memories are, the stronger and more self-assured our societies will be. Indeed, as Chinua Achebe points out in Morning Yet on Creation Day, one of the tools that our enslavers and colonisers used to devastate our societies was the lie that we had no faith, no philosophy, no aesthetics and no history.

Armed with this falsehood, regarding Africa as one mass of primitive, savage mass of darkness, waiting to be discovered, converted and civilised, the predators moved in with their greedy gods, guns, gadgets and governors to work on the “natives”. The rest, as they say, is history, a deeply depressing history that is still playing out in the African Diaspora and even on our continent.

For, much as we glory in our hard-won independence, there are many areas of our societies where it is “not yet uhuru”, to echo the unforgettable Jaramogi. On the cultural front, for example, there is what Ngugi wa Thiong’o, whom Bethwell Ogot taught History at Makerere, calls “decolonising the mind”, systematically liberating our thought and behaviour patterns from external impositions.


You may compare that to my “deshenzinisation” hypothesis seeking to combat the inferiority complex imposed on us by those who brainwashed us into thinking that we were inherently “shenzi”, and therefore incapable of normal, decent behaviour expected of any human being. Only shenzis steal public funds when given an opportunity to serve. Only shenzis would slap, imprison or kill one another just because of political differences. Only shenzis take advantage of their positions to harass their juniors at work or students at school, or even patients at hospitals.


Are you wondering what all this has to do with history? Well, sages like Bethwell Ogot would tell you that it is everything. Scholars like Walter Rodney may argue convincingly that the main reason why Africa became and remains underdeveloped is that slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism robbed her of her material resources – human, natural and territorial – and continue to do so under various guises.

But equally validly, the main historical problem of Africa can be identified as the psychological distortion and perversion of the African. We might have been lucky not to be told, in the colonial times, that “we belong to the Caucasian race and our ancestors were the Gauls,” as some of our Francophone relatives were told. But we were called infidels, accursed children of Ham, destined to draw water and hew wood for our superiors.

Our communities were labelled barbaric “tribes”, our languages dismissed as malformed “dialects”. We were subjected to notorious practices, like the “colour bar” in Kenya or apartheid in South Africa, which locked us out of most of the significant social and geographical spaces of our own land. Our ancestors and elders eventually had to resort to active resistance, even armed struggle, to try and rectify the situation, as we learn from history.

But you do not have to dig very deep to discover that even those liberation struggles were strongly inspired by the work of African historians, like Sheikh Anta Diop of Senegal, who disabused their fellow Africans of all the lies they had been told about their past and the reality of African power and dignity. The early post-independence generation of historians, to which scholars like Ogot and Mazrui belong, played a major role in enlightening our minds and alerting us to “the challenges of freedom” in the building of their new societies and states.


Back to Prof Ogot, however, the most striking quality about him is his absolute love of and commitment to his discipline, History. Here is a man who has been nearly everything important in academic and public life, international scholar, Professor, Member of the East African Legislative Assembly, Chancellor of Moi University, and still Professor Emeritus at Maseno University. Yet, when all is said and done, the production and interpretation of history remain his primary concern. His favourite place is, even now at 90, at that desk in his study in the Bethwell Ogot Research Library at his Yala Home, now a facility of national status.

That is where he continues to write and send out his books for publication. At his birthday celebrations, we witnessed the launch of his much-loved Kisumu 1901-2001: From an Inland Port to First Millennium City, presided over by CS Prof George Magoha, Ogot’s longtime colleague, protégé and close associate. Part of the stunning news at the occasion was that Prof Ogot will, quite soon, give us a history of Nairobi City, and a history of the University of Nairobi.

Watching the energy, gracefulness and sheer articulateness with which this fourscore-and-ten elder goes about his life and work, I could not help wondering what keeps him so buoyantly active. In my homage to him I could only hazard a guess. Is it love?

“You’ve loved the times,” I wrote, “and the years have cherished you” (ulizipenda nyakati, na nyaka zikakuenzi).

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]