Priest-philosopher left deep imprint on education

Sunday March 5 2017

Joseph Donders

Joseph Donders was a professor of philosophy at the University of Nairobi. FILE PHOTO 

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This year marks four years since the death of Father Joseph G Donders, the legendary professor of philosophy at the University of Nairobi, who, for 15 years, made a deep imprint on Kenyan society and its education system.

Prof Donders retired to his native Netherlands having electrified audiences with his oratorical prowess from 1970 to 1984.

But years after his voice fell silent in lecture halls and St Paul’s Chapel of the University of Nairobi, the don’s impact is still felt.

He was an inspirational speaker and counsellor sought after by many education institutions.

Long before “trainer of trainers” (ToTs) became standard practice, Prof Donders was conducting workshops at high schools and colleges using the concept.

One of its merits is that student leaders who have appropriated a set of skills and values train others and the process becomes sustainable and thrives.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Donders was a major contributor to policy formulation in the local education sector.

Together with Prof Judith M Bahemuka and Prof Shem Migot-Adholla, they produced a policy document whose key recommendation was that Kenya’s education system needed to be strengthened in its normative or values objective.

Besides technical and vocational training, it was imperative to form students in a way that certain virtues and values became part of their being and action.

The priest-philosopher was not only a contributor to education policy but trained undergraduate and graduate students to learn skills demanded by school and university curriculums.


Students who worked with Donders found themselves going beyond the acquisition of practical skills to the quest of norms and standards that are meaningful in individual and societal life.

By dint of his knowledge, charisma and power of personality, Donders had great influence on those he taught or preached to or with whom he worked.

He respected people and their views and was admired for his quick wit and sense of humour.

Recently, a couple whose marriage he solemnised 35 years ago recounted to a gathering how Fr Donders asked them to consider where they would land after falling in love.

Popular and likable, his students, colleagues and congregation fondly called him “Father Sjef” — a form of his first name, Joseph.

Fr Sjef helped students at the University of Nairobi and at St Thomas Aquinas Seminary, without patronising them.

Many remember how he ordered textbooks from Europe using his own funds to enable them sit the A-Level examinations.

This was on condition that they would pay back the cost by instalment from their seminary allowances.

Fr Sjef’s students remember him because he inspired them to pursue and love life-long learning before the expression entered common use.

He encouraged disciplined and free thought. His delightful book, How to Study, captures many of these insights and remains relevant 40 years later.

As the country transits from the examination-burdened 8-4-4 system to the learner-centred 2-6-3-3-3 and implements education reforms, let us not forget some of the insights articulated by able educationists such as Prof Donders.

This country owes Sjef Donders a great debt of gratitude because, through education, he is one of the makers of this nation.

Fr Njoroge is a professor of development studies and ethics at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKuat), where he is also the Catholic chaplain. [email protected]