Bethwell Allan Ogot celebrates his 90th birthday today. One would imagine that in retirement, Prof Ogot would be sitting under a tree, sipping porridge from a gourd, gazing at a newspaper and dozing off to be woken by a visitor or the chirping of birds, telling stories to visiting grandkids and hosting neighbours and relatives who drop in once in a while.
No. Prof Ogot writes on.
The professor continues with his research as he has done all his adult life. An avid reader and dedicated writer, Ogot will be having a ‘bookish’ birthday at his home in Yala, Siaya County, when he launches his book, History of Kisumu City 1901-2001: From an Inland Port to First Millennium City. At the same time, he will most likely be introducing his latest book in the ‘Kenyan cities’ series, History of Nairobi City from 1897-2010, which is in press.
Yet this birthday celebrations will and should not just be an Ogot family affair.
For Prof Ogot is not just a son of the Yala soil. This is a pre-eminent Kenyan, East African, African and a world historian. Here at home, Prof Ogot stands tall among the men and women of letters. Here is a man to be admired as a true teacher, researcher, writer and intellectual. He first published a book in 1964, an edited collection of essays, East Africa: Past and Present and has one in press this year, 55 years on. He has authored, co-authored, edited, and co-edited 38 monographs to date; apart from tens of individual essays, public lectures, opinions, among other academic writings.
He isn’t just prolific in that sense, he has also written on different subjects, from history to economics to oral traditions to literature. In history, his forte, his writings have been founded on the life and history of his people, the Luo, before venturing into the neighbouring communities, to the rest of Kenya, East Africa, Africa, the African diaspora and the rest of the world.
Prof Ogot is a local scholar with a regional and global reach. Of his first seven books (edited/coedited/authored), six were East African as evidenced by the phrase ‘East Africa’ in their titles. These were published between 1964 and 1967. From East Africa: Past and Present (1964), Problems of Economic Development in East Africa (1965), Racial and Communal Tensions in East Africa (1965), East African Cultural Heritage (1966), Research Priorities in East Africa (1966), to Law and Social Change in East Africa (1967), all these books sought to properly insert Kenyans, Ugandans, Tanzanians, the Sudanese, Somalis, Ethiopians, Burundians, the Rwandese, the people of the region, into world history.
Indeed in 1968, B.A. Ogot and J.A. Kieran co-authored probably the first major overview of regional history, Zamani: A Survey of East African History, a book that went on to be studied in East, Central and West Africa as well as the Caribbean. This book wasn’t just about the past, as it also problematised how history was/is studied, considering that the history of Africa had largely been studied through methods that were prejudiced against the very subject of study: Africans. Prof Ogot went on to edit Hadithi 1, 2 and 3, which were proceedings of the then Historical Association of Kenya — one of the most active and productive scholarly association of the 1960s and 1970s in the region. The two titles, by adopting the Swahili words, zamani (the past) and hadithi (story) not only gestured towards a celebration of African languages (Kiswahili) but also suggested that African stories (told in the present then) could help people access their stories of the past (history).
Apart from writing on East Africa, Prof Ogot has paid significant homage to Kenya, having written on the country since the 1970s to date in books such as Politics and Nationalism in Colonial Kenya (1972); Kenya in the 19th Century (1985); Decolonisation and Independence in Kenya, 1940-1993 (1995; co-edited with William Ochieng’); Kenya: The Making of a Nation, 1895-1995 (2000; with William Ochieng’); Kenyans, Who Are We? Reflections on the Meaning of National Identity and Nationalism (2012). In these writings Ogot has been concerned with the question of how Kenya could rise from the near stillbirth of the immediate post-independence years when a seemingly progressive nationalism was nipped in the bud through political assassinations and government policies that deliberately isolated some regions of the country from the mainstream of national affairs.
Yet such a profoundly intellectually productive and celebrated man is disarmingly unpretentious. Even in his autobiography, My Footprints in the Sands of Time (2003) one encounters an individual who is evidently self-effacing. Prof Ogot’s modest beginnings in Gem and the strong Christian ethos that he was raised in prepared him well for school. From Ambira to Maseno to Makerere University to the University of St Andrews to the School of Oriental and African Studies, he appears as a devoted student who, for instance, despite having to start a family whilst abroad, manages to complete his studies on time and return to Kenya to teach at Alliance School. When he later rejoined Makerere, Ogot was among the pioneer lot of African university teachers who would help transition the then colleges of Makerere, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam into full universities.
But the story of Prof Ogot the historian is conjoined on the book pages with the story of Grace Ogot. It is telling that when he eulogised his wife in April 2015, Prof Ogot noted that when Grace became worried that he was spending too much time on work and marking academic essays, he recruited her as an ‘interpreter and translator during field work’ considering she spoke seven African languages. This relationship explains Bethwell’s kind of history, one which often reads like a story being retold and Grace’s fiction, which seems to revive and restage history, especially of the Luo.
The fact that Prof Ogot is still writing at 90 years of age, recording our history, contributing to this country’s intellectual heritage and is still committed to education, tells its own tale and history of Kenya’s formation and attempts to become a nation. The kind of commitment to an intellectual cause that Ogot’s life evinces is a great lesson on the philosophy of life. From a man who loved mathematics but instead became one of the most celebrated African historians, deciding to record and retell his people’s stories and histories, we can learn that individual destinies can be refashioned. How come Prof Ogot never got seduced by the dollar to leave for greener pastures elsewhere? How did Ogot commit himself to the expansion of university education in Kenya when most of his peers preferred the elitist preservation of higher education for a select few? (Masinde Muliro, Maasai Mara, University of Eldoret, Kabianga, Karatina and Garissa universities all were initiated when Ogot was the Chancellor of Moi University). What continues to drive this nonagenarian to write when many of his generation have given up?
Probably the bigger question for the Kenyan academic community is how best to honour Ogot today. One of the most exceptional and enduring celebration of Prof Bethwell Ogot’s contribution to knowledge is from the African Studies Association of America (ASA), which has the ASA Ogot Award for the Best Book on East African Studies. Where is ours?
Tom Odhiambo teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]