I am celebrating youth and wisdom this week. I feel inspired and elated by the diligence and intellectual prowess of a young woman who recently graduated from Strathmore University. You may wonder why, at exactly 74 years and five months old, I should be indulging in youthful fancies.
Maybe it is because the lady in question unintentionally triggered in me a flood of fond memories, characteristic of the dodderers of my age.
In any case, it is no cliché to say that one of the strongest causes of contentment and reassurance among us ageing and retiring people is the expectation that there are enough serious, strong and intelligent people capable of running the world when we finally retire.
The lady in question is Dr Purity Ngina, the 28-year old Nyeri woman who has just graduated with a PhD in Biomathematics. Truth to tell, I am yet to get my head around the basics of this fascinating specialisation. But those who know my inclinations would, naturally, expect me to be excited about the achievements of a sister that close to home.
I, however, found Dr Ngina’s story particularly heart-warming for a number of reasons, varying from trivial to ideological. Do not laugh when I tell you that Njambi and Ngina (not the Dr but a namesake) were my children’s playmates when we came to Kenya. Then, as it happened, Nyeri was the second “upcountry” region with which I got acquainted, after Machakos, when Kenyatta University sent me there on teaching practice supervision in 1979.
My first revelation was that Nyeri was not just a town but a vast expanse of Kenya, stretching all the way from Othaya through Karatina and north through Nyeri itself to Kiganjo. I am not quite sure now whether it was between Karatina and Kiganjo that I first had my close-up view of the legendary Mount Kenya. Nor, even today, am I intelligently clear about the significance of what was then called divisions, like Tetu. Nyeri itself or Mathira.
But many of the names and places already rang bells in my mind. The Mountain, for example, immediately concretised for me Jomo Kenyatta’s eloquent text, Facing Mount Kenya, that was necessary fare for all of us education students in East Africa. Then, a visit to Tumutumu Girls, Dr Ngina’s alma mater, reminded me of my Dar es Salaam classmate, Miriam, who was one of the early African heads of that august institution. Similarly, I realised that out beyond Nyeri Boys, where the mercurial Father Hillary Wambugu long held sway, was Dedan Kimathi’s home.
But such memories are interminable. I was telling one of my readers recently that one of the first things I fell in love with in Nyeri, where he comes from, was the refined highland green that dominated the hills and valleys of the region. Uganda is famously green, of course, but its greenery tends more towards a saucy, rebellious exuberance that often scares more than it attracts.
Talking about Nyeri green, my long visit was based at the then-brand new and state-of-the-art Greenhills Hotel, itself poised on one of the knolls overlooking downtown Nyeri. I was to revisit the establishment on various assignments and personal calls later, but I have not been now for a few decades. I imagine it has now mellowed into graceful middle age.
But we were talking about youth, and the brilliant lady who has brought profound wisdom to her youthful age. For “PhD” is short for “philosophiae doctor”, which is Latin for “a teacher of the love of wisdom”. We normally associate wisdom with advanced age, but in every age there are people who subvert traditions and rewrite the conventional books.
Dr Ngina appears to be one such person. If age will not come to her with its wisdom, she has brought the wisdom (sophia) to her youth with her scholarly diligence. But I suppose what most closely connected Dr Ngina’s story with Nyeri, for me, were the echoes of Wangari Maathai, another Nyeri woman, that I heard in the young scholar’s story. The story of the 28-year old PhD walking barefoot to school, in her childhood, and drawing water from a stream was reminiscent of the Nobel heroine’s Tetu stream, from which the tadpoles of her childhood memories have vanished.
Professor Maathai’s PhD was a first of its kind, one of her many firsts. Dr Ngina’s doctorate is also a first of its kind in its own way. All we can wish her is that she will go on to score as many firsts as her illustrious predecessor, minus, we hope, the trials and tribulations that accompanied our elder sister’s struggle.
In the empowerment adventure, Dr Ngina and her other high-achieving colleagues delight the heart by marking a transition from the hypothetical insistence on the “potential” of the Kenyan and African woman to a concrete and practical illustration and proof of her ability. I noted from Dr Ngina’s remarks, reported in the Nation, that she intends to encourage girls to actively and seriously pursue science subjects and disciplines. I think that her being there is already great encouragement.
But, as we say, the struggle continues. In revolution, every arrival is only a preparation for a better and higher departure. While we felicitate and congratulate Dr Ngina and her fellow outstanding achievers, our plea to them is “shime dada zetu” (put in more effort, our sisters). The sky is not the limit. We can go higher.
Incidentally, I am just realising that a surprisingly large number of my Nairobi lady friends, including my late stage and screen partner, Anne Wanjugu, are originally from Nyeri. But I will not mention any more names, as it would be rather invidious. I have not even met Dr Ngina yet, to talk Biomathematics.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]