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A lawful week with women, media and our Kiswahili

Friday June 28 2019

Dr Assumpta Matei.

Dr Assumpta Matei. She is that author of Chozi la Heri. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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My former Makerere student, Dr Wanjiku Matenjwa, recently dropped me a note wondering how we can keep pace with all the significant goings-on in this chilly “City in the Sun” and elsewhere in East Africa. Alluding to Taban lo Liyong’s oft-mentioned lament about East Africa being a “literary desert”, Dr Matenjwa regards the cultural and literary glut on the contemporary scene as a flourishing forest in which we are spoilt for choice.

In my case, for example, within the bare fortnight I was in Kenya, I found myself at the Ngugi book launch, then giving a talk at Wanjiku Kabira's (UoN) African Women's Studies Centre (AWSC).

I also read a paper on language at the UoN School of Law, and sat in on a Radio Maisha/Deutchwelle Kiswahili dialogue (maoni mtaani) on the media and female empowerment, at KU. I was also honoured with a long-delayed meeting with Assumpta Matei, the author of Chozi la Heri, which I mentioned to you last week.


At the African Women’s Studies Centre, I shared with Professor Wanjiku Kabira’s PhD students my views on how African women literary practitioners create and deploy knowledge for the empowerment of the woman. It gave me ample room to expatiate on my feminist theory and ideology, even evoking the piece I shared with you in these columns a few years ago, headed, “How I Became an African Woman Writer”.

I was, however, preaching to the converted. The class, comprising over a dozen seasoned professionals from fields and backgrounds as diverse as Parliament, academia, the mass media and the UN, was immensely aware of the issues I was raising and did not hesitate to contribute relevantly as we went along. It looked like the dialogue would never end.


I am really looking forward to another encounter with the group. I am even thinking, seriously, of enrolling as a student at the Centre and get systematically educated in this fascinating discipline of Women’s Studies.

Anyway, I next headed to the UoN Law School, where I witnessed an epic debate on the Kenya Constitution between my long-time acquaintances and friends, Professor Githu Muigai, the former Attorney General, and his one-time teacher, Professor Willy Mutunga, the former Chief Justice. Need I say more?

But my main business at the Law School was to deliver a keynote lecture, officially named the “Neville Alexander Lecture”, after the famous South African scholar, linguist and freedom fighter, Neville Alexander, who was Nelson Mandela’s fellow political prisoner on Robben Island.


This was part of the Harvard University’s 10th Annual African Languages and Professions (ALDP) Conference, hosted by UoN’s Law School this year.

My invitation came from the Law School’s Prof Patricia Kameri-Mbote and my friend and former student, Prof John Mugane, currently the Director of Harvard’s Centre for the Study of African Languages.

My lecture dwelt on the challenges of East African multilingualism and the need for realistic language policies. You would probably know the main points, since I keep harping on them in this column.

My other engagements in Nairobi were on more familiar but no less exciting ground. The broadcast discussion at my “home ground” KU campus, to which my friend Dr Hamisi Babusa invited me, was, as I said, about the media and women’s empowerment in Kenya. Could anyone have devised a more attractive hook and bait for me?

The conversation was exceptionally articulate and informative, led by seasoned professionals from the media, academics, the law and civil society.

But two other things delighted me about the occasion. One was the rare opportunity I had to meet close up with some of the media personalities, like Zeinab Koome, Josephat Charo and Paul Nabiswa, whom I had only met through their voices or images on the screen.


Most importantly, however, the debate proved to me what I have always believed, that excellent Kiswahili is spoken in Nairobi and elsewhere in Kenya, maybe better than anywhere else in East Africa. Now, you know that I have heard our lugha (lingo) spoken in many places, including the Mzizima Coast, and the adjacent islands, where I picked it up. But it is really special to hear “our” Kiswahili, complete with the signature “ndiposa”, spoken with the fluency and flair that characterised the conversation at KU last week.

Speaking of good Kiswahili, I laughed at myself for my strange jitters at the prospect of my first meeting with Assumpta Matei, whose now household-name novel, Chozi la Heri, I had just chatted about in this column.

You would expect a hardened book professional like me to have no qualms about such meetings. But the shyness never goes away. Do you remember my telling you of my fear that Yusuf Dawood would beat me up after I did a pre-publication review of his novel, The Price of Living? He instead bought me dinner and ended up becoming a lifelong friend.

Assumpta Matei did not beat me up either. Indeed, we did have a meal together, although that was on our mutual publisher. But what pleasantly surprised me was that Matei was so much more than the artful, story-spinning Kiswahili virtuoso that I had imagined her to be, from reading her novel. I learnt that she studied at KU, is a UoN PhD Language and Linguistics graduate and an international educational consultant.


I will, regretfully, miss the launch of my friend Antony Wesonga Oduori’s new poetry book, 327 Thousand Feet High, in Eldoret next Friday, July 5. This is because it coincides with our own FEMRITE (Uganda Women Writers Association) week of activities, during which we will also launch our own poetry collection, Go Tell Home, in Kampala.

Oduori, a banker-turned-writer, like Kinyanjui Kombani, delighted us with his first verse book, Jam on Our Faces, a few years ago.

Well, if you are in Eldoret next Friday, get to the Sirikwa Hotel and soar all those thousand feet high with Oduori. Otherwise, you may find yourself with jam on your face.

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