Often one hears the phrase “teaching is a noble profession”. Not many Kenyan teachers would agree with this saying. Today, teachers work in very demanding conditions — congested classes, inadequate teaching aids, poor remuneration, hostility from neighbouring communities, disdain from the larger community and demoralised colleagues.
Nevertheless, there is still something ennobling about teaching. There is joy in knowing that one did contribute to the growth and development of a particular child; helping them mature into adults; aiding them to become valuable citizens.
Yet too many teachers retire into obscurity, without telling their stories to others than those they directly taught. For, after more than 30 years teaching, considering that many teachers join the profession in their early 20s and retire at 60 years, teachers do have many stories to tell about how they became interested or trained in a particular subject; what they first ever experienced when they were posted to a school; how they taught specific topics; who they taught and how they related to the learners; and what current and future teachers can learn from them.
Kuria Mungai, a teacher who retired early and became a bookseller, tells his story in the teaching profession, as well as his time as a book marketer, in the book In Love with the Book: My Life Story (Mini Max Communications, 2019). This is not one of those long autobiographies that Kenyans are fond of writing these days. It is short and clear. It is nostalgic. It celebrates the tens of people who have interacted with and made Kuria’s life what it is today. In other words, by telling the stories of others, we can see the type of person he is.
If it is true that in life it is the simple things that matter, then Kuria presents to the reader a story, if not stories, of very modest things that he has done, and which have led him into what appears clearly to be a happy retirement. For starters, Kuria isn’t shy to say that he went to a harambee secondary school — schools that were built by parents immediately after independence, when the government could not put up enough schools to accommodate the hundreds of young Kenyans who wished to join secondary school. The schools lacked adequate facilities, and qualified teachers — many of the teachers were untrained Form Four leavers; and were often spread too thinly, meaning many schoolgoers had to trek long distances to school.
However, despite all these challenges, Kuria passed his Kenya Junior Secondary Examination but didn’t proceed to Form Three. Instead, he joined Kisii Teachers Training College, from where he graduated as a P2 teacher in 1968. He was posted to teach at Narasha Forest Primary School in Baringo, then Tenges Day Primary School, Solian Primary School, Maji Mazuri R.C Primary School and Saos Primary School. Some of these schools were ‘forest schools’, well-built by the standards of the time and had plenty of food supply, making life manageable. But they were also far from big towns like Nakuru, where one could get other necessary goods and services, because of a poor road network.
Yet, Kuria shows that with hard work and commitment to better one’s life, even the hardships experienced by someone with little pay then could improve his life. So, he decided to study for the Cambridge School Certificate examination in 1969, the same year he started teaching, scoring a Division 2. Thereafter, he sat for the London General Certificate of Education ‘A’ Level examinations in 1972, scoring two Principal Passes in CRE and Kiswahili. This was the minimum entry requirement for a university degree.
Kuria would join Kenyatta University College, then a constituent college of the University of Nairobi, in 1973, to study for a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in “English language with Linguistics, Religious Studies and Philosophy, and Education.” He graduated with a B.Ed., in the second-class honours, upper division in 1976.
From college, Kuria didn’t teach for long at Molo Secondary School, where he was posted, because he joined the Family Planning Association of Kenya in 1978.
That is the story of the teacher-turned bookseller, as he improved his academic and professional qualifications and climbed the socio-economic ladder.
But why should we read this story? Because it has many nuances. Kuria was clearly an ambitious man. He bought a Suzuki motorcycle in 1971 for Sh2,300, paying a monthly premium of Sh200. He thereafter bought a Volkswagen Beetle car by trading in his bike and topping up the initial balance and increasing the monthly instalments. All these life improvements were based on savings, despite the very modest salary then. According to Kuria, “a typical P2 teacher’s payslip in 1972” showed a basic pay of Sh500, which was the gross pay, with Sh13 as Graduated Personal Tax and a union fee of Sh3. A “typical payslip for a BEd teacher in 1978, for instance, had a gross pay of Sh2,250 only. Yet teachers such as Kuria lived a decent life and dreamt of improving themselves.
Kuria’s life story says a lot about the life of Kenya. It speaks to the dream of freedom and self-improvement that many Kenyans desired when the country got uhuru. He epitomises the aspiration and industry of many of his relatives and members of his community who suffered colonial repression in the 1950s but went on to improve their lives by working the land — he is a farmer even today.
Kuria’s life suggests that hard work, self-denial and perseverance in life has dividends in the end. He may have started life as a P2 primary school teacher but he retired a happy man from a job he loved.
Compared to many auto/biographies that one reads about in the newspapers today, Kuria simply tells a straightforward story in In Love with the Book. He isn’t afraid of speaking about his first failed marriage, his children and their failures and successes, or his relationship with his workmates. His views about many aspects of life are forthright but not preachy.
This is a man who ends his story with a celebration of his “village heroes”: Zablon Kamau — whom he describes as “one of the very few young men from our village who actively fought in the forest and came back unscathed”; Eliud Mwangi Njuguna, a teacher; Bethuel Muiruri, a primary school teacher and committed Christian in his village. The beauty of In Love with the Book is in the brevity of the story and its celebration of others.
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi; [email protected]