Fare thee well Akivaga, the man who decolonised the teaching of literature

Saturday June 3 2017

Symonds Kichamu Akivaga was a literary scholar

Symonds Kichamu Akivaga was a literary scholar at the University of Nairobi. He will be buried today at Mbale in Vihiga County. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By KHAEMBA ONGETI

On Friday evening, Kichamu Akivaga was to spend a final night at his house, a short distance behind the Ewa Mbale police station, awaiting interment today.

We shall be saying goodbye to a brilliant, selfless man. Akivaga did not live for money or other material things that money buys. He lived to propagate ideas. And he did this through speeches, writings and, yes, humour. No one laughed more infectiously than Kichamu Akivaga.

I remember it like it happened yesterday, when we met for a drink at the famous Bombax on Ngong Road close to KSTC in August 1982. There had been an attempted coup d’état. Security operations had led to mammoth arrests. In a Kibera court, a man had been accused of looting meat from butchery. While many looters broke into shops to carry away electronics, this particular person had found need for just meat. The court audience had found that hilarious. When they laughed at the accused, the magistrate did not take it kindly. The looter and those who laughed were all sentenced to one month in jail.

Akivaga told us the story in-between bursts of laughter.  Whenever he laughed tears came down his cheeks.

I had met Akivaga for the first time when he reported for his teaching appointment at Nairobi School in 1973. Then I was in Form 3, stream 3M. Micere Mugo had taught us in the first term as she waited for her appointment at the University of Nairobi. Akivaga took over from her in the second term.

Akivaga immediately struck you as a man with an agenda for social change. His well-kept beard told you about his political affiliation. Did he not know Jonas Savimbi of Angola personally? As a student at Dar-es-Salaam, had he not travelled to Musumbiji?

He quickly endeared himself to those of us left-leaning students in Patch. In a short while, he had brought Ngugi wa Thiong’o to talk to students at a school where Ngugi’s ideas were not really welcome. But it did not matter to us and to Akivaga because since 1972 we had had the first African headmaster, David Mureithi. We loved Mureithi. He worked well with Akivaga.

Then Akivaga brought Fr Donders from the University of Nairobi to talk to us. Philosophy! Akivaga the ideologue was shaking things up.

A memorable occasion with Akivaga was when he took my friend, Mudasia Kadasia, and I to a public lecture delivered by Dr Walter Rodney at the then Kenya Polytechnic. Transport? Akivaga’s own maroon Renault 4.  Renault 4 and Citroen Pallas were the choice cars for staff at Nairobi School. The Renault 4 excited boys most because of the position of the gear stick and the manner of engaging gears for that car!

Here we were, high school students, being introduced to the radical thinking of the author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. The audience was made up mostly of university students.

I remember a man called Okoth-Owiro asking a question. Micere Mugo asked another. Akivaga himself demanded change action from African leaders. We were awed. We were inspired. To this day I fail to understand why Africa allows itself to be raped economically. If it is not raped by Europe, it is raped by China. Needless to say, after the lecture, Akivaga saw to it that we grilled the city. Properly!

My teacher of English and literature was the best there was. He used what I later came to learn were “student-centred methods” of teaching. Akivaga’s class was about talking, writing and reading. Between 1973 and 1975, I read about 230 books. With Akivaga you had to keep a record of what you read.  Much of my reading consisted of political treatises. Many were sourced from his personal library, apparently shared with Henry Indangasi. Akivaga’s house had books everywhere, especially the floor. 

The 1974 EACE examination was a test case for Akivaga the teacher. He was the only African teaching English to Form 4s. Out of the four distinctions (grade 1) in Literature, two came from his class. Dr Joseph Jesse Masiga and I made him proud. Dr JPR Ochieng-Odero and Mudasia from 4A got the other two distinctions. Akivaga’s unconventional teaching methods had been vindicated.

Not done yet, he was to outperform many others with the 1975 “A” level Literature class of Geoffrey Simiyu, Sam Odera, Fred Ngacha, and R.T. Aswani, which revealed how effective the teacher was.

Apart from classroom work, Akivaga wanted to Africanise the literature syllabus in Kenya. He would talk to us about the spiral curriculum: beginning from that which is close and moving out to the distant. That is the time Ngugi, Owuor Anyumba and Okot p’Bitek wanted a decolonisation of literature. Do you remember the 1974 Nairobi School National Literature Conference which changed the way literature is taught? That was Akivaga’s idea.

In 1976, Akivaga was appointed to work with the University of Nairobi in extra-mural studies, stationed in Kakamega. Naturally, his house at Shirere was a port of call for many of us. Books, men, books!

In 1978, he went to the University of Edinburgh where he earned a Masters degree. Later, he became a lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s Kikuyu campus.

With time, Akivaga achieved what he came to do. With time, our lives took different paths.  With age we lost the energy to grill the world. Today, S. Kichamu Akivaga makes his final bow. Go thee well, sir, my teacher, my mentor.  

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