A few weeks ago there was a special celebration in Nairobi. A party to commemorate the writer, Prof Austin Bukenya. The party was in honour of this baba mkhulu’s elder membership of the artistic and intellectual world in Kenya/East Africa/Africa/the world.
Bukenya was being ‘remembered’ as a celebrated contributor to the art, culture, literature and as a senior public intellectual — which he indeed is. Memories were recalled in honour of his writing, teaching, acting, mentoring, wisdom, parenting, etc, in the region.
This was and is the right thing to do. To pay tribute to these artists and intellectuals when they are still alive is the honourable thing, rather than when they are dead, as we are doing today about Prof James David Rubadiri.
Indeed, Bukenya deserved to be honoured in a bigger space, with the celebration spread more than it was, but at least there is still a record that he was feted.
This is why it is sad that we are mourning rather than celebrating the late Rubadiri. We are merely retrieving memories from the archive, to convince the spirits that we did know he who has passed on to the other world.
We are unable to sit down with him and have a cup of tea and thank him for his verses, stories, jokes, wisdom etc. For we have become a people who easily forget the ‘old’. We consign the aged to the ‘past’, to the countryside, and the ‘old people’s home’; we abandon them till they die. That is when we ‘remember’ shreds of their worth.
When I saw the announcement about the death of Rubadiri, there was a discussion of the famous anthology of poetry, Poems from East Africa, edited by him and David Cook.
Even those who call themselves writers can only remember the collection of verses — there is little or no discussion of who Rubadiri was, how he came to be an ‘East African’, and what other works of literature did he produce.
How ironical that this enduring collection of poems is the work of two non-East Africans. Well, Cook and Rubadiri lived and worked in East Africa at a time when Africans still dreamt of a free Africa. These itinerant creative and intellectuals left a legacy that today’s artists and intellectuals can only envy.
Rubadiri’s death marks what is a fast approaching end of a generation that truly dreamt of an Africa where anyone could live, work, die and be buried anywhere.
The political enthusiasm of the 1960s and early 1970s may have been halted or marred by the Cold War ideological differences of the global north, which spawned violence and economic downturns in many newly independent African countries, but the artists and intellectuals of that era still crossed the borders, in many senses, effortlessly.
For East Africans, the centrality of Makerere University, the seeding ground, of the artistic and intellectual spirit of the first two decades of independence in Africa cannot be gainsaid.
David Rubadiri, Okot p’Bitek, Robert Serumaga, John Ruganda, Austin Bukenya, Taban lo Liyong, Theresa Musoke, Elimo Njau, Eskia Mphahlele, Jak Katarikawe, are some of the names that easily come to mind, of ‘Kenyans’ of the 1960s and ‘70s who were born in other African communities (assuming that the colonial imposed borders were and are still artificial) but lived here and contributed immensely to Kenya’s cultural and intellectual heritage.
Indeed, if there is anything one can call the ‘glory days’ (a contestable idea) of Kenyan culture and scholarship, a large part of whatever came out of that time must be attributed to these ‘Kenyans’ from the rest of Africa.
These individuals and their output were products of their time, yes, but they also were probably more determined to make something important out of their lives wherever they lived.
Reading Ngugi’s memoir, Birth of a Dream Weaver, reminds one of the spirit of Africanism that brought together people from different regions and communities to dream of a bigger community.
The splitting of Makerere into constituent colleges in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam made it even easier for artists and academics to cross borders, settle in ‘new’ homes and form new relationships and communities. Individuals like Elimo Njau and Jak Katarikawe settled in Kenya permanently, and completely changed the art landscape here.
Many of these African travelling intellectuals and artists had been forced by circumstances to leave home. Several Ugandans settled in Kenya as their country had become inhabitable.
The oppression and violence of the Obote and Amin regimes, which had led to the imprisonment and killing of a number of artists and academics, meant that many of them relocated to other African countries, Europe or America.
Kenya benefited a lot from this forced migration, with several academics contributing significantly to the education sector, especially in high schools and at the University of Nairobi and the then Kenyatta University College.
Someone like David Rubadiri was a forced traveller for different reasons. He studied at King’s College, Budo, Uganda; Makerere University; King’s College, Cambridge; and Bristol University.
One can say that this was a child of the Empire — forced by circumstances to seek education beyond his homeland. He would subsequently go back to teach in Makerere but Amin’s regime would make it difficult for him.
When he relocated to Nairobi, he taught literature but was also actively involved in theatre, especially at the Kenya National Theatre. He would subsequently relocate to the University of Ibadan, Nigeria; then, University of Botswana; and go back to Malawi after the end of Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s regime.
Rubadiri stands tall among his generation of artists and intellectuals, a generation that in a very practical way saw Africa as ‘home’, and remained committed to making the continent successful.
So, there is a sense in which the life of Rubadiri should teach those he has left behind some lessons about Africa.
As a celebration of his life, we should revisit his essays, novel, play and poems to understand what kind of African he was; what type of Africa did he dream of, especially in relation to Africanism; what legacy he wished to leave to us, beyond the borders of his native Malawi.