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BUKENYA: An encounter with anthropologists

Saturday March 23 2019

A Call at Midnight was launched on March 16 at the home of Bethwell and Grace Ogot in Gem, Yala, Siaya County. PHOTO| COURTESY

A Call at Midnight was launched on March 16 at the home of Bethwell and Grace Ogot in Gem, Yala, Siaya County. PHOTO| COURTESY 

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I missed the book launch function in Yala, Siaya County, but still met interesting students at UoN

I should have been in Yala, Siaya County, last weekend for what we fondly call “Mama’s Day”.

This is our annual commemoration of Grace Emily Akinyi Ogot on the anniversary of her departure for the “promised land”, to quote the title of one of her many books. But a number of circumstances conspired to make me miss the occasion.

What I particularly missed about this year’s celebration was the launch of A Call at Midnight.

This is Grace Ogot’s posthumous novel about Idi Amin’s Uganda and the impact that the demented dictator’s regime had on the lives of many Kenyans and Ugandans (possibly including people we know in real life).



I have told you before of Prof Bethwell and Grace Ogot’s long and intimate Ugandan connections. So, I can hardly wait to savour the lady’s intricate blending of her inside knowledge, and love, of both Kenya and Uganda in her narrative.

So far, I am relying only on the appetite-whetting review by Dr Tom Odhiambo of UoN, in the Nation.

Grace Ogot seems to have defied the boundaries between our world and “Pagak”, the land of no return, and continued to regale us with her inimitable stories.

This of course is largely due to Prof Ogot’s devotion to “Mama” and his respect for her creative genius, which have made him ensure that all her worthwhile unpublished work sees the light of day.

But maybe there is an enduring quality to the good lady’s work, what William Wordsworth calls “intimations of immortality”.

I often wonder which of us scribblers writing today will be read with pleasure and profit 300 years from now.

A student at Makerere once defined a literary masterpiece as “a text that can make people laugh or cry a thousand years after its first appearance.”

Anyway, mention of students brings me to my friend and long-time colleague, “Japuonj” Humphrey Ojwang and his Anthropology students at UoN.

Among the whirlwind of my recent Nairobi activities, I also accepted an invitation from Mwalimu to speak to his finalist Anthropology class.

As often happens with these things, you rashly accept an invitation and then suddenly find yourself wondering if you will have anything useful to say.


Realising that these fifty-or-so young people were specialists in their discipline and will soon be setting out to practice professionally in their chosen areas, I began to get cold feet. It occurred to me that I knew next to nothing systematic about Anthropology, and there’s nothing more boring than an old dodderer rambling on about irrelevant generalities.

But I was reassured when I learnt that this particular class was handling an aspect of their course called “culture and communication”. I thought I could say a few intelligent things about these.

Moreover, if I dried up, I could fall back on the veteran teacher’s classic tactic: asking the students to tell me about their discipline and how they perceived its importance in scholarship and in society.

Would that not be helping them to revise?

In the end, our encounter was a mixture of both approaches, and we ended up having a friendly and relaxed conversation for the better part of two and a half hours on the fourth floor of the UoN Tower.

Incidentally, this was my first time inside that august structure, and I was thoroughly impressed with the comfort and décor of its study spaces.

Instead of towering over my hosts from the podium, I reclined in my chair and shared with them my strong conviction that effective communication was the most important skill in their lives.


The ability to package and share information with their target audiences was far more important than all the technical knowledge that they had acquired.

I referred them to the Canadian scholar, Marshall McLuhan, who summarised this in the dictum: “The medium is the message.”

The implication here is that the way you say something is what makes it significant to your audience.

McLuhan, one of the founders of modern communication studies, is the one who also gave us the phrase “global village”, anticipating the current globalisation phenomenon.

When I got to “culture”, I realised that I was close to their anthropological antennae. But I was leaving it to them to educate me about the relationship between culture and their discipline. All I did was to refer them back to my own Mwalimu on those very scholarly grounds, Taban lo Liyong, who defined culture as “a people’s way of life”.

I have, since 1992, added to that definition my own elaboration to the effect that “culture is the way a given society identifies, regulates, sustains and reflects on itself.” This leads to my (folklore-influenced) breakdown of culture into the four “identitive, regulative, productive and creative/reflective” aspects. The details, however, should wait for another day.

But the most enjoyable and profitable part of my encounter with the students for me was their “talkback” and discussion after my remarks. From their contributions I came to understand that Anthropology is actually a science (a sop to the sciences fanatics). It is “the scientific study of humans and human behaviour and societies”. As such, it appears to lie at the heart of all studies, humanities and sciences alike, which seek to prioritise the human being in their pursuits.

Now, which sane pursuit would not like to highlight the human in its concerns? Unfortunately, however, scholarship, appears to have immersed itself so deeply and narrowly into its own theories, hypotheses, algorithms and projections that the human being has become almost an afterthought in its concerns.

The science of Anthropology, as outlined to me by my new UoN student friends, might just be the answer to what I have always advocated: making the humanities more scientific, and making the sciences more human. I would go a little further and suggest that every discipline, whether science or humanity, should have an anthropology component.

After all, “Anthropos” means human being, and I do not know of anything more important.


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