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Campus losses and our university students singing for their supper

Friday November 29 2019

True education comes from close observation of life, and interaction with its intricacies. PHOTO | FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

True education comes from close observation of life, and interaction with its intricacies. PHOTO | FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP  

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I keep roaming and straying wherever my insatiable curiosity about matters linguistic, cultural, creative and feminist draw me. But my proper stomping ground is the university campus. All my adult life, university campuses have embraced me and coddled me with a uniformly unreserved warmth and affection. The camaraderie of my colleagues and, especially, the faith and trust of my students have made campuses my life, and it is an “enviably” happy life.


There is, however, no earthly life without a mixture of sweet and sour tastes, joys and sorrows. So it was this week that my thoughts of campuses were a blend of sorrows, worries and inspirations.

The main sorrow was at my beloved KU campus, where we lost a deeply inspirational colleague, Dr Wallace Kamau Mbugua. I neither taught nor worked with Dr Mbugua at KU, but we had known each other for many years, mainly through the schools drama festivals and workshops, in which Mwalimu was an enthusiastic participant.

Dr Mbugua was one of those tough people, including my friends like former Education PS Prof Karega Mutahi, my former KU colleague, supervisor and co-author, Prof Muigai wa Gachanja and the now departed Asenath Bole Odaga and Prof Duncan Okoth Okombo, whom I deeply respect. They literally had to fight every inch of the way up to the heights of academic achievements for which they are known.



Starting from considerably humble backgrounds, often working as teachers at elementary levels, Mbugua and suchlike friends worked steadily on their own, often studying privately, while supporting and educating their siblings and other relatives, until they hit the summits of academic achievement.

My dearest memory of Dr Kamau Mbugua, however, will remain his surprisingly generous offer to me to promote my then-newly published environmental play, A Hole in the Sky. This was back in 2015, and I was going through a particularly difficult mental and emotional patch. I do not know if Dr Mbugua noticed this, or he just wanted to help a friend with a shared passion for theatre. But, as Dr Mbugua rests, I am sure that he did his best for me.

Another campus bereavement that caught my attention was at Cambridge University King’s College in England. Sir Stephen Cleobury, the Master and Director of the world-famous Boys Choir there, passed away on November 22, St Cecilia’s Day, as it is called in the tradition-hallowed parlance of those old schools. Cecilia is the heavenly patron of all musicians.


The King’s College Boys Choir, which Sir Stephen directed for nearly four decades, is best known in the English-speaking world for its Christmas service of Nine Carols and Nine Lessons (Bible readings), which starts with a boy’s solo intonation of “Once in David’s Royal City”. It is relayed live all over the world on Christmas Eve.

But what is most striking about this choir, for me, is that it was started by King Henry VI in 1441, as a charity outfit for underprivileged children around the university campus. The poor boys would come and sing with the fellows and men (students) of the college, from whom they would receive basic needs, like adequate nutrition and an elementary education. Over the centuries, the Boys Choir has evolved into one of the most respected organs of King’s College, through which deserving choristers obtain not only recognition and awards, but also scholarships to study at the university. The English speak of “singing for one’s supper”, and here is a good instance of that.


This brings me to my third engagement with campuses this week. This is my concern and worry about the increasingly unaffordable costs of existing there, especially for our students. It is now a worldwide problem, with most college graduates in America, for example, reportedly spending the whole of their working lives struggling to repay college tuition loans. The shocking images of “security” forces cracking down mercilessly on our Makerere comrades, who were demonstrating against the ever-rising tuition fees, are still fresh in our minds.

Then fell the Helb bombshell! Kenya’s Higher Education Loans Board is threatening to “name and shame” those who have not been able to pay back their loans. This is a thorny and painful development, to which all of us should strive to find a helpful (“helbful”) solution.

Could a possible solution, then, be in getting university students to “sing for their supper” while they are at campus? Instead of asking for loans, they could ask for jobs, with the universities, and work as they study for their various qualifications. This is not a new (and crazy) idea from me. We have heard of work-study programmes, and the traditional source of graduate students’ sustenance has been in helping out as tutorial fellows, demonstrators or teaching assistants.


Indeed, I have heard that there is a university in Kentucky, USA, that already practises this. Every student who applies for study at the university also applies for a job and is given one on admission. The students thus earn salaries from the university and they pay for their tuition from their earnings. Why should we not try it out here, especially in these days of competence-based curricula? It would also ensure that the students practise what they learn, as they learn and work.

Such programmes would, of course, need a lot of imagination and reorientation. First, it would be necessary to erase from the minds of university students and staff the absurd assumption that university students should only be engaged in intellectual work and never dirty their hands with physical and manual labour, like sweeping and cleaning, cooking and serving food or repairing cars and boda-bodas.


Organisationally, each university department should have a practical production and service unit, designing and offering specific services, through its staff and students, to the university and the public at large. Here, indeed, would lie the litmus test between the so-called “useless” and useful, “marketable” ones.

I am sure Literature is ready to deliver. Can’t you see I am already singing for my supper?