I do not think I had ever been “hash-tagged” before. But come Thursday last week, #BukenyaForum was, I understand, trending on some social media. Reference was to the events unfolding around me at the All Africa Conference of Churches on Waiyaki Way in an unseasonably cool Nairobi. Officially, the function was billed as “Celebrating Austin Bukenya as an East African”. Well, need I say more?
I have hardly ever felt as ecstatically delighted, grateful, proud, and surprised, as I did that Thursday, August 30, 2018. When the brains behind the event, Prof Kimani Njogu of Twaweza Communications and Dr Joyce Nyairo of Santuri Communications, put the suggestion to me, they just said that my former students wanted to “celebrate” me. My first reaction was, “Really, what’s there to celebrate?”
Njogu and Nyairo, however, told me the proposed event would be “just a friendly get-together to chat and laugh over the memories of our long years of interaction.” I asked if it would be like an “indaba”, isiZulu for a family gathering, and they seemed to like that.
Incidentally, I am increasingly impressed by the large number of my former students establishing themselves, via Language and Literature, in fulltime communication.
This seems to justify my basic understanding and definition of literature as “a form of artistic communication using language as its medium”.
Anyway, I was telling you about the “indaba” at the AACC. As it turned out, the attendance included not only my former students but also a startling spectrum of my friends, colleagues, associates and acquaintances from the many fields in which I am interested. Apart from the academics, we had representatives there of publishers, performers, social activists, East African Community dignitaries, lawyers and, of course, the media. The indaba also cut across several generations, reflecting the 50-plus years I have been cutting a caper across East Africa.
It is impossible for me to name all the scholarly, creative, performing and corporate heavyweights who graced the occasion. Among the professors present, for example, I particularly noted my agemate (Bakoki) Chris Wanjala, who said movingly kind things about my literary critical writings, and my longtime KU colleagues, Ireri Mbaabu and Kitula King’ei. Prof Rayya Timammy of UoN and the ever-youthful Ken Walibora, currently at the Riara University, as well as Wanjiku Kabira, one of my first students when I came to UoN, were also at hand.
Prof Kabira, who conveyed to me Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s and Micere Mugo’s greetings, was for a long time my chair and gender trainer at the Kenya Oral Literature Association (KOLA).
Prof Inyani Simala, executive secretary of the East African Kiswahili Commission, relived with us my recent health scare in Arusha, as an example of my fanatical commitment to the promotion of the language across the region.
Talking about the EAC region, a very distinguished guest among us was the recently retired Member of the East African Legislative Assembly, Hon. Abubakar Zein, one of my former students at KU. He was also a fellow founding member of the Nairobi Theatre Academy. Indeed, he briefly reverted to his performing trade at the occasion to team up with scholar and “oraturist” Dr Mshai Mwangola to entertain us with readings and performances from my writings.
Dr Mwangola was also among other distinguished scholars that I noticed, including Drs Mary Kinyanjui and Humphrey Ojwang of UoN. Ojwang decorated me as a worthy elder. Also present were Drs Garnette Oluoch-Olunya and Wanjiku Matenjwa, my former colleague at KU. She was among the last Kenyan students I taught at Makerere before they were transferred to Nairobi, to save them from Idi Amin’s predators. She gave us an absorbing narrative of the times and the events.
I was also thrilled with the presence of my theatre friends from the roaring 1970s and 80s. These included Steenie Njoroge, Wakanyote Njuguna and my fellow elder, David Mulwa. Mulwa’s recollection of our escapades, both on and offstage, was an enthralling performance in its own right.
But we were to be regaled with more theatrical fare, with an allusive dramatization of my favourite short story, “The Mermaid of Msambweni”, elegantly performed by dramatist and theatre don, Fred Mbogo, and his undergraduate students. Going by what they gave us, I feel that the future of Kenyan theatre is in good hands.
Space does not allow me even to mention my writing, publishing and mentoring friends, like OUP’s Florence Waeni and Pasomi Mucha, One Planet’s Kithusi Mulonzya and AMKA’s Lydia Gaitirira, who is also a former colleague at KU.
Even my dear editors from the Nation Media Group were there to celebrate me! Their presence related me to Counsel Alex Kipsiror, a lawyer from Eldoret, who told us that discovering me through this column had nostalgically rekindled in him the love he had always had for literature.
The most endearing and surprising guest for me, however, was Prof Mohamed Abdulaziz, my own teacher in Dar es Salaam, back in the 1960s. The good professor has always been a keen supporter of my career. I told you of how he got me into Kiswahili literature by urging me to read Muyaka’s verse.
He was also instrumental in getting me to teach at KU in the 1970s. It was also at his prompting that I undertook a major literary study of the Kiswahili methali (proverb).
LOVE, LOVE, LOVE
If I love my students and they love me, even to the point of celebrating me, it is because I was loved by my teachers, and I loved them. Indeed, as I said at the celebrations, we were celebrating not only this old teacher. We were also, and primarily, rejoicing in our huge bouquet of love: love of ourselves and of one another, and the love of the positive things that we do, teaching, writing, performing, publishing, informing, advocating and, simply, being proactive, decent human beings.
Finally, do not worry if you did not get to this celebration. We enjoyed this one so much that I am sure we will be doing it again, soon. Keep an ear on the ground.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]