A library for my birthday present and a pending promise that I intend to keep

Saturday February 9 2019

A  group of young Ugandan Kiswahili activists, called Jumuyia ya Kiswahili, has just set up a library in Kampala, the Mwalimu Austin Bukenya Maktaba, which I will be opening as part of my birthday celebrations.

A group of young Ugandan Kiswahili activists, called Jumuyia ya Kiswahili, has just set up a library in Kampala, the Mwalimu Austin Bukenya Maktaba, which I will be opening as part of my birthday celebrations. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH 

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Even as you read this, I will be in the process of turning 75 years old! I will become a Platinum mzee tomorrow, February 10, at around 8.10pm. I am told that I was one of the first babies to be delivered at the then-brand new Masaka General Hospital in southern Uganda. The doctor who attended to my mother was Samson Kisekka, who was to become Ndugu Museveni’s first Prime Minister and Vice-President, many years later.

You can thus see that I arrived in some style. But describing myself as ‘Platinum’ is a bit of exaggerated self-glorification. While it is true that 75 years is the right date to have a Platinum Jubilee or anniversary, such designations are usually reserved for institutions, like churches and schools, distinguished leaders, like monarchs, and hallowed relationships, like marriages.

Many married couples are, especially, insistent on these observations. Indeed, they have special names and rituals for each anniversary, up to as many as may be granted them. Thus the first anniversary is the paper or cardboard one, the second is cotton and the third is leather.

After that the main celebrations are marked in five-year intervals, with the fifth nicknamed wooden, the tenth tin, the fifteenth crystal and the 20th China. The “China” here alludes to the fine clay kitchen and tableware believed to have originated in the land of those enterprising friends of ours. Indeed, the designations of all those anniversaries are figurative of the value and staying power of the relationships.


Anyway, the point is that we should not dismiss these celebrations and observations, including birthdays, as frivolous pastimes of the lazy and spoilt bourgeoisie. They are crucial ingredients in the building and maintenance of social cohesion. In the case of wedding anniversaries, for example, we all know that the family institution needs all the support and encouragement that it can get. Occasions for mutual appreciation, reassurance and encouragement, shared with friends and neighbours, go a long way towards lending that support and encouragement.

But to return to the anniversary celebrations, at 25 we enter the jubilee range, with silver at 25, ruby at 40 and gold at 50. Beyond 50 come the diamond at 60, sapphire at 65 and the precious platinum at 75, where I am now crowing from. Beyond that lies the glorious centenary at 100, which is becoming quite common these days, at least as far as birthdays are concerned.

The upper milestone anniversaries are called jubilees because, I think, they are not just one-day commemoration happenings. Rather, they are durations of not only celebration and thanksgiving, which “jubilee” means, but also of reflection on where we have come from and where we are heading. Thus jubilees, whether gold, diamond or platinum, are marked by various activities over the whole year during which they occur.

In my case, do not regret that you missed the party that is just about to begin. It will be raging till February next year, in nearly all of my “home” cities, from Kampala through Kisumu, Nairobi and Machakos to Mombasa, Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar, with a strong likelihood of appearances in Eldoret (my Golden 64) and Arusha (where I left my Jumuiya heart). Surely you cannot fail to get to one of those venues or another, with your presents for the Mwalimu — ahem!

Indeed, the presents are already flowing in, and there is one that left me utterly stunned and thrilled to bits. It is a library, yes, a whole library full of shelves and — quite a few books! A group of young Ugandan Kiswahili activists, called Jumuyia ya Kiswahili, has just set up, in one of the most elegant parts of Kampala, the Mwalimu Austin Bukenya Maktaba, which I will be opening as part of my birthday celebrations. Now, can things get better than that? I have all my life dreamt of owning a lot of books. Now here I am, with a whole library to my name!


There is, however, one thing that my Kampala friends do not know, but my Machakos relatives do. My joy at receiving the Kampala Maktaba was tinged with a pang of embarrassment and regret at a promise that I am yet to keep. Do you remember my project (well, concept) of a Machakos Reading Room? I am ashamed to say that, owing to several unforeseen developments, the project has not yet been implemented. I will try and discuss with the Elders how to deliver before my jubilee runs out. Ahadi ni deni (a promise is a debt).

This brings me back to the point that I left hanging, trying to justify the megalomaniacal elevation of my birthday anniversary to the status of a jubilee, as if I were an institution or a celebrity. I certainly am a mere kabwela (common man). But the irrefutable truth I have learnt from my 75 years of surviving and thriving, with minimal input on my part, is that I am the wonderful and proud product of a host of committed, dedicated and loving people who have made me what I am.

These range from my relatives in Kampala, Kajulu and Kaloleni, my friends, colleagues and students in Makerere, Machakos, Nairobi, London, Stirling and Bayreuth, my teachers and jamaa all the way down the Coast and across to the Islands, to you, my dear readers, who have done such a lot to keep me going, especially over the past few years.

So, the Platinum Jubilee that we are celebrating is not of the insignificant Bukenya individual but our collective achievement in creating, nurturing and sustaining the tongue-wagging, pen-wielding mzee that keeps stealing a few minutes of our weekend every Saturday. As the Ubuntu philosophy has it, mtu ni watu (a human being is fellow human beings), and I am because you are. Here, then, is a happy Platinum Jubilee birthday to me, and to you all, who have made me.

Incidentally, do not forget to be my Valentines, come Thursday.


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