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Why Mwalimu Bukenya is the actual guru of dialogic thinking

Saturday February 23 2019

Prof Austin Bukenya.


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When Mwalimu Austin Bukenya several times called me ‘the guru of dialogism in Eastern Africa,” I was left “kinywa wazi” (open-mouthed). Shocked and immobilised by this, I could not dialogise with Mwalimu.

Then he read my silence as a communicative affirmation of his assessment. No, this student’s silence did not speak to a concurrence with the overly generous assessment. Surely, as he knows in Latin, non sum dignus (I am not worthy) of the praise.

He is the guru of the dialogic approach and many of us are his students and mentees. He vividly knows it because when I wrote an e-mail to him on his 75th birthday and asked him a raft of questions, he did not dialogise with me. Being a great communicator, he could not contest a truth.


How can he not be the guru? Mwalimu grew up in Uganda, studied at the Universities of Dar es Salaam, York, Makerere and Madagascar. He has taught language, literature and theatre arts in Kenya, Scotland, Uganda, and Germany. He was a founder member of the Department of Music, Dance and Drama at Makerere University in the 1970s and director of the Performing and Creative Arts Centre at Kenyatta University in the mid-1990s.

He has, for decades, broken disciplinary boundaries and merged theory with practice in his work in the lecture hall, on the screen, on stage and in communities. Mwalimu is a novelist, poet, critic, essayist and master of the stage as a performer, writer and director. At the very least, he dances in and out of five languages and writes in many of them. He has Latin to boot!


With his teacher Pio Zirimu, Mwalimu introduced the terms “orature” and “oracy” to describe spoken literary trends to the African Academia at FESTAC 77. The tendency to privilege the written word over the spoken word by certain Western scholars was debunked by these two brains through the invocation of an alternative language to celebrate “oracy” and “orate” societies; those that have perfected the art of the spoken word.

Mwalimu taught me literary stylistics during my undergraduate days at the University of Nairobi, Kenyatta University College campus. He also gave me a key to his library so that I could manage and lend books on language and literature to fellow students. As the class representative of the literature class, I had many opportunities to interact with faculty members and I felt privileged to learn under them. As a mentee of Mwalimu Bukenya, I was interested in the study of language and linguistics. I therefore delved into the study of Kiswahili and deepened my understanding of its structure and literature.

During my doctoral studies at Yale University, I studied linguistics but took numerous courses in anthropology and comparative literature. It is at that time that I was introduced into dialogism by Professor Michael Holquist, the foremost scholar of the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. Having read orature and been mentored by East African literary critics, I saw the limitations of certain readings of the dialogic imagination when applied uncritically to African oral poetry. A reading of orature as monologic (single-voiced) was untenable in our context and needed to be challenged.


Through a deeper reading of our literary works, we extended dialogic theory to advance an appreciation of the polyphonic (multi-voicedness) nature of African literatures. On returning to teach at Kenyatta University, I taught literary theory and worked with a number of graduate students to produce PhD theses inspired by dialogism in its various forms.

I also deepened my understanding of the practice of dialogic thinking by working more pointedly with communities locally and globally through a strategic communication approach. In our work, we seek to identify “rays of hope” in communities and amplify them for social transformation. It is a calling.

Without doubt, dialogue is at the core of humanity. It is through dialogue that language came into being and through it we transform the work. When we engage in dialogue we give dignity and self-worth to each other. In the final analysis, a refusal to engage in dialogue is dehumanising.

It is no wonder that monologic tendencies nurture dictatorships which democracy is advanced through a celebration of multiple perspectives and interpretations of the world. Our work in languages, good governance practices, creativity and healthier communities, is propelled by a dialogic reading of the world. It is a resistance to singularity of viewpoint and a celebration of diversity.

When Mwalimu Bukenya, Dr Ann Kishe and I worked as Taskforce Members for the Establishment of the East African Kiswahili Commission, we had the opportunity to reflect on the social integration of our communities.

Mwalimu several times told us that East Africans were integrating socially and culturally through language and that the political class will need to play catch up. He has continued teaching Kiswahili in Uganda and encouraging many Ugandans to learn the language. The strengthening of the Community through Kiswahili is our shared dream.

Mwalimu is an East African par excellence; at home in Machakos, Mombasa and Dar es Salaam as he would be in Kampala. Late last year, Twaweza Communications and Santuri Media worked together to celebrate Mwalimu as an East African. The atmosphere in the full-day meeting of colleagues, students and admirers was electric. David Mulwa and Mwalimu Bukenya re-enacted a performance put together by the late Prof Francis Imbuga.


In our understanding, effective learning occurs through dialogue; through a convergence of minds. It is not based in a relationship of dominance but of equality and sharing. Equally, social transformation occurs through dignified interaction and a contestation and creation of ideas.

If dialogism is the ability to see the interconnections between texts to allow for different voices and value systems in a non-hierarchical manner, then Mwalimu Bukenya as an individual, writer, columnist, performer and literary critic encapsulates this complexity.

He is constantly in dialogue with other texts, other places, other individuals. Austin Lwanga Bukenya cannot run away from his rightful stool as the guru of dialogic thinking!


Prof Kimani Njogu is a linguist and literary scholar based at Twaweza Communications. [email protected]