“You know, you can be anything that you want to be.” That is what I said to our now tragically departed Bomet Governor, Dr Joyce Cherono Laboso, back in the early 1980s. Well, it was not only to her but also to her colleagues, or “comrades” as they preferred to call themselves, in a remarkably talented undergraduate class that I was privileged to teach in my early days at the then-Kenyatta University College.
Among Joyce Laboso’s classmates, if my memory serves me well, were such distinguished scholars as current Professors Wangari Mwai and Esperanza Ndege, and other eminent personalities, like Charity Wambui Kamau, Josephine Muringo Ndambiri and George Nyamweya. My other dear ones will remind me and correct me, and also bring me up to date with their current engagements. Just to jog our memory, we were at the Kanamai Conference and Holiday Centre in Kikambala, Kilifi County, when I pronounced my prophecy.
My colleagues, Prof Ciarunji Chesaina, David Mulwa, the late Jane Nandwa and Arthur Kemoli, and I had taken our students out on an oral literature field trip, and we were using the tranquil seaside establishment as our base. Surrounded by the pulsating youth, elegance, brilliance, eagerness, good humour and energy of our charges, I felt thoroughly blessed and contented with my pedagogical calling.
I was in no doubt that the future of Kenya was in the hands of these young people, and whatever I could contribute to their knowledge, awareness or motivation was very well worth the effort.
Has “history absolved me” and my colleagues? I am not the best-placed person to give an objective answer to that. All I can say is that the track record of women and men like Joyce Laboso made us, her teachers, feel justified in our humble educational endeavours. Mind you, we always add the sobering rider that we cannot be sure whether these people became what they did because of us or in spite of us.
Be that as it may, we are grateful for and proud of our having been associated with Governor Dr Joyce Laboso and her other illustrious contemporaries during their formative years.
You no doubt realise that, however much we try, my elderly colleagues and I cannot disguise our sorrow, shock and sheer sense of loss at the tragic departure of Governor Joyce Laboso. Indeed, my desultory snatches of reminiscence above are no more than the straws at which we habitually clutch in our vain attempts to sustain our faltering spirits. Still, we cannot fail to celebrate and applaud the integrity, competence and distinction with which Dr Laboso has served in the different capacities in which she found herself in her all-too-short life.
Dr Laboso’s courage, perceptiveness, seriousness and flexibility, whether as academic, home-maker, politician or overall leader, is particularly striking at the present moment when our education, and especially higher education, is under close scrutiny for the kind of human resource it produces. Most of us, for example, are still puzzled at the recent revelation that first-class university graduates can and do go for years on end without meaningful employment.
I have not heard of an infallible formula for earning a first-class degree, nor do I know of one for ensuring universal employment for all university graduates, however “marketable” their degrees might be. But I feel increasingly convinced that a good education, or a good degree, should be much more than high grades. While these matter, they have no inherent value over and above the human, social, communicative and creative skills that should also be core components of a good education.
Indeed, when I dared dream, back in the early 1980s, that Joyce Laboso and her contemporaries would be resounding successes in the field, I probably had an eye on the kind of education that I felt they were receiving at the KU(C) of those days. They were certainly sound scholars, and we gave them of the best we had to give in Languages, Linguistics, Literature and Education. But over and above that, we tried to ensure that they were not single-tracked nerds or bookworms.
Away from their struggles with theories of education, psycholinguistics or stylistics, we had our students richly immersed in performing and creative activities, for example. Indeed, many of our students were as well-known to us through co-curricular activities as through their class attendance. This was particularly true of us in the humanities.
Even the composition of the staff of those days hints at that. You were as likely to find Dr Arthur Kemoli directing his choir at Harambee Hall as teaching poetry in Room 22. The same would go for David Mulwa and the late Francis Imbuga and me, with our theatre. I was also a frequenter of the KU tennis courts, as several of my former students reminded me after one of my recent articles.
But that is enough of this “hymn to ourselves”. After all, great leaders are as much born as made, and no one should claim absolute credit for the emergence of great leaders like our dear departed Governor Joyce Laboso.
We might claim her as one of “our own”, since she had not only been our student but also followed us in the noble profession. But how can we account for her outstanding success in callings like parliamentary leadership and regional governance, into which she had been almost reluctantly drawn?
As I hinted earlier, our claims of association with Joyce Laboso should be only of gratitude that we were privileged to be there and watch her unique greatness unfold. This may mitigate our sorrow, but it does not lessen the burden of our loss. For the death of this unique woman, at the height of her powers, is a truly national tragedy.
Joyce Laboso inspired us with a faith in the strong, confident, unshakable, and unstoppable leadership of Kenyan women. The best tribute we can pay her is resolutely continuing with the struggle in which she was involved.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]