Plainly and bluntly, we start. Walimu wenzangu (my fellow teachers), three things I beg of you. First, do not lose your self-respect, your dignity, your nobility. Second, remain united. Do not let anyone divide you for any reason. Once you start fighting among yourselves, others will use you for their own ends, and rob you of the power and strength to fight for your rights. Third, remember that your pupils and students are your primary responsibility, your reason for existence as teachers.
I promise I will not comment on matters before the courts. But about my brother and sister teachers, I will not be silenced. I am a mwalimu, and there is no way I can pretend to be neutral about matters concerning my teaching fraternity and sorority. But I will add a few words here in defence of my cry from the heart and humble appeal to you.
“Mwalimu”, as I keep boasting to you, is the name and title that I love and cherish most dearly in my public life. Now, it is Kenya, and more specifically the teaching profession in Kenya, that gave me the glorious name. The Teachers Service Commission enrolled me as Teacher No. 1013 (if I remember correctly) in May 1977 and sent me out to teach at Machakos Girls High School. That is where I was first called Mwalimu.
You may remember my telling you how pleasantly surprised and almost startled I was to hear not only my students but also my colleagues call me by that beautiful moniker. Since then, I have worn it like the badge of honour that it is, with such pride that if you came to Makerere and asked for “Mwalimu” without elaboration, most campus souls would direct you to me. I thank you, colleagues, for making me “the” Mwalimu of an entire university, if not country?
The background to all this is that the mwalimu label carried special connotations in both the Tanzania and Uganda of my youth. In Tanzania, plain “Mwalimu” was obviously Dr Julius Kambarage Nyerere, the independence hero, just as “Mzee” in Kenya referred to our founding President Jomo Kenyatta. I recall an occasion in Uganda where President Yoweri Museveni politely declined the title of “mwalimu”, proposed by the Hon Margaret Zziwa, a distinguished lady who was later to serve as Speaker of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA). Museveni is reported to have said that his refusal of the title was in deference to Mwalimu Nyerere, who had been his, and my, “teacher” in Dar es Salaam.
In Uganda, secular teachers are rarely called walimu. They are referred to by various local names, like “lapwony”, comparable to Luo “japuonj”, or “musomesa” (one who makes others read). Mwalimu (or “muwalimu” as they utter it) is reserved for Qur’anic teachers. This last one I particularly love, for two reasons.
First, it compliments me, as indeed it should every serious teacher, as a person of knowledge and learning, since its etymology is “ilm”, the Arabic for “knowledge”. You probably know that one of the 99 wonderful names of Allah is “al Aliim”, the All-Knowing.
This brings me to the second reason why I like being associated with spiritual teachers or trainers. I take my teaching career as a spiritual privilege, a divine opportunity granted to me to lead God’s people, especially the young ones, out of the darkness of ignorance into the wonderful light of knowledge. This, indeed, is how I would like all my fellow teachers to take and conduct themselves.
Teachers are the prime movers in every aspect of social change and development. After all, we are the ones that shape, form and guide our people at every stage of their growth, and it is these people who form the societies that we want. If we want a society of intelligent, well-informed, humane, caring, decent, honest and self-respecting people, it is teachers that have, in the first place, to impart these qualities to the young people in their charge.
But, as the learned lawyers often say, “nemo dat quod non habet” (no one can give what they have not got). We teachers cannot inculcate in our pupils and students those sterling virtues of self-respect, fairness, generosity, hard work, endurance and incorruptibility if we do not possess them ourselves. Teachers are, thus, expected to be the best samples of human character, men and women of almost saintly integrity. This, indeed, is what the parents, who wholeheartedly place our children in our hands, expect of us, no less. That is why they often harshly and hysterically criticise us even for the smallest failings.
Fortunately, most teachers I know do live up to the high expectations. I may not be an impartial judge, but I can say with conviction that the finest people with whom I have interacted in my long life have been teachers. I do not, however, want to gloss over the trials and tribulations to which we are subjected in our careers.
It all starts from the utterly fallacious assumption that we are in teaching because we could not find anything better to do. We thus find ourselves overworked, underpaid, rarely promoted and hardly ever consulted, even in the formulation of policies that we eventually have to implement, to the benefit or detriment of our students. Yet most of us are fully and highly qualified professionals, and the best there are in this indispensable field.
So, we must keep fighting, for our rights, for appropriate recognition, remuneration and representation at every level of private and public life. But people will not take us seriously if we start squabbling and wrangling among ourselves. This is even worse when the wrangles are among our leaders.
A mwalimu is a mwalimu, a person of decency, decorum and dignity. All our actions should be marked by these qualities. Shikamoo, Mwalimu, homages to every worthy member of the noble profession!
The author is a professor of literature. [email protected]