“If I should die, think only this of me: That there is some corner of this vast land that is forever East Africa.” These were the tranquil sounds that murmured in my mind as I came round from a brief fainting spell at a meeting in an Arusha hotel recently.
Those of you well-acquainted with English verse will already have recognised them as inspired by Rupert Brooke’s famous war sonnet, The Soldier.
Yet, my mind was worlds away from any militancy or fear of death. Indeed, the prevalent sensation in me was one of profound joy and gratefulness for the wellspring of tenderness and love that my temporary frailty had unleashed from my friends and colleagues from all over East Africa. That, in any case, is what Arusha stands for.
Let us face it. No one is flattered by betraying dramatic symptoms of feebleness, especially in public. Without wanting to indulge in what contemporary Waswahili call “usaguzi” (stereotyping), we can observe that men, in our brutally gendered societies, are particularly averse to being perceived as weak or self-pitying. Some commentators even posit that this is one of the reasons why many men, unlike their sisters, are hesitant to seek medical help for perfectly manageable conditions.
IN LOVE WITH EAST AFRICA
So, I cannot pretend that I was proud of my rude interruption of that late evening regional meeting with my fainting antics. But, as I was saying, I could not help celebrating the “udugu” (there was no “n” in the original) family solidarity that the episode elicited from, well – the family. Incidentally, the care and concern lasted through the conference and on the journey home, until I was safely delivered to my Upper Hill roost.
In any case, I now realise that my celebration had actually started earlier than my “collapse/recovery”, or even my arrival in Arusha. Indeed, in hindsight, one can say that the temporary blackout was probably the result of my anticipation of and excitement about the Arusha adventure, which made me overlook a few basic requirements of long-distance travel and elderly life management. But I should try and tell the tale a little more coherently.
It all started several decades ago. You could date it back to July 1965, when I started my East African sentimental journey by flying from Entebbe, through Nairobi and Zanzibar, to Dar es Salaam to embark on my university studies.
Actually, memories of those flights flashed through my mind as our plane taxied off the tarmac at JKIA for the evening hop to the Kilimanjaro International Airport. Fifty-three years since I first landed here, I was still flying in and out to all those beloved East African destinations.
Now, those plane hops may have been and may still be just physical experiences – and I have told you I enjoy flying – but obviously there is more to them than what first meets the eye. My endless wandering and roaming around these vast expanses of mountains, savannahs, forests, lakes and the infinity of the ocean have defined me and made me what I am and what I best love being, merely East African.
Everywhere I have been, I have fallen in love, loving East Africans, working with them and being loved by them. That is what was being expressed to me by those many strong and tender hands and hearts attending to me and ensuring my recovery and comfort in Arusha. This Community loves me and I love it.
That may sound sentimental, but it is an experience deeply ingrained in me and, I believe, in most of my age-mates. In our youth, practically every step you took around the region defined you and your neighbours as East African. We students, for example, paid for our heavily discounted tickets in East African shillings, flew on the glamorous East African Airways or crisscrossed the lands and lakes on East African Railways and Harbours trains and steamers.
There was no need for passports, since the borders were just nominal. We communicated through the East African Posts and Telecommunications, went to colleges of the University of East Africa and graduated with University of East Africa degrees.
So, you can imagine the trauma, the sorrow and the disorientation that we suffered when we saw all this battered and shattered, back in the 1970s.
But those of us who have been blessed with relatively long lives cannot help celebrating the day that our East African “country” came back to its senses and decided to work and grow together again. Nearly two decades into the venture, we can hardly claim that we are anywhere near the glorious times that I was recalling. But every little gain is a cause for hope and optimism.
This explains my recent exhilaration at being in Arusha again. I was, once again, part of the regional team to finalise the East African Kiswahili Commission report to help our leaders formulate a language policy for the region. I have told you before of my involvement with this body from its earliest days. But actually seeing it at work in the very city where it was conceived could only make me sing: “my own eyes have seen the glory”.
I may not have performed brilliantly at the late night first meeting, but the rest of the proceedings left me with no regrets about the fruits our Jumuiya (Community) is reaping from its revival. To begin with, it is much bigger now, with six member states.
Then I noticed that, instead of the old Arusha International Conference Centre, which Mwalimu Nyerere had generously put at the disposal of the Community, we were now housed in the Community’s own complex, built with the help and goodwill of those who appreciate the importance of regional integration.
My only prayer now is that the new generations of East Africans will increasingly appreciate the value of this asset, and be as happy in their Community as I have been, and still am, in mine.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]