By Silas Gisiora Nyanchwani
Kenya has had her fair share of intellectual giants. From sciences to arts.
Kenyans have played critical roles at a global stage but there contributions are never felt at home. Abroad, their contributions are either minimised or erased for the you-know-who to take credit and at home they are spurned altogether.
In Kenya, the government and the citizens have a complicated relationship with some of our best brains. Often, we are ignorant, indifferent or sickly apathetic.
But even when we know, like in biblical times, we never honour our prophets. At least, not in good time.
From Ngugi wa Thiong’o to Calestous Juma, to Binyavanga Wainaina to Wangari Maathai, Odero Jowi, Ali Mazrui, we rarely appreciate them enough to erect a monument, or to tap into their ideas in good time.
When they die, of course our leaders will shamelessly cobble up some empty platitudes, and the media will give them a platform to ‘mourn’ them. If their profile is big enough, some fake ass state sponsorship towards their funeral will be granted and some boring CS will be sent by the powers-that-be with a soporific speech and that will be it.
In the meantime, our sons and daughters are giving their brains away, in Europe and North America but they can’t get even a semester to teach and engage with students locally because, maybe, they don’t have a Ph.D according to some rules set by CUE.
Why don’t we love our best brains?
The number one culprit is ethnicity.
We keep asking ‘where are experts for ABCD?’.
Guys, I have news for you. You may think that our universities are useless, but Maina, let me tell you, I went to a Kenyan University. They are not perfect and while there, I met some of the most brilliant minds with groundbreaking research and expertise in their resume.
The first problem you face as an expert in the country when the a certain ministry needs some expertise, often, they don’t go for the best. If the minister comes from a certain tribe, he will look for a professor of his tribe, however mediocre (given some buy papers) and give him(mostly him) the job. Or an old colleague. In short, there is no meritocracy.
Ethnicity affects promotions, career growth and everything in between. Most bosses in colleges are professional gate keepers.
Secondly, most lecturers are frustrated. There is no room for career growth, and the last six years with Jubilee in power have been wasteful. Extremely. Underfunded(you will laugh if you checked the amounts university allocate for research), underpaid, frustrated, humiliated, most lecturers have no reason to be patriotic.
Thirdly, the state, i.e the government has always had an uneasy relationship with our teachers. No respect whatsoever. Because our politics attract the Waititus and the Sonkos of this world, you can see why they always have extreme contempt towards higher education. If a university wants a favour from the government, they have to grovel, come up with some fishy honorary degree in order to get some funding so as to put the name of the giver in some ugly building, built like a block in a provincial high school.
Since Moi started this contempt towards lecturers, it has never stopped. Partly because, some lecturers(probably out of hunger) became rent seekers. I can’t begrudge them. It is not uncommon to see a university professor( real professor) argue with so much idiocy to support his political benefactor. Rent seeking. That is why some are humiliated. I once saw Prof. Mbithi the former VC of UoN at State House with Kamba elders and I cried the whole day.
I can go on.
But the first point is what frustrates me. Ethnicity is the worst and hardest cancer to fix.
Ethnicity demands that for one to be appreciated, he or she had to be 100 percent perfect. If I say, the University of Nairobi need to rename one of its theatres to Ngugi wa Thiong’o, there will be a million arguments, mostly from envious folk arguing why it is not a good idea.
It is safe to say that if Lupita Nyong’o was an actor in a local program, maybe she may never have won anything worthwhile locally… And if she did, it would have been politicised.
We honoured Wangari Maathai with insults and slurs until the Nobel Committee threw her some morsel back in the day.
You know where this is headed.
Yesterday’s we learnt about the death of our foremost Swahili novelist. What a prodigy! I can’t stress enough the impact Siku Njema had on a generation. And that is how literature should be. Enjoyable.
Ken Walibora was a local hero. Born here and educated here in Kenya. And at the age 33-35, he penned the greatest Swahili novel of recent times.
I doubt if he ever won a Presidential medal. Dennis Itumbi has one. Githeri man has another.
Walibora was the foremost defender of the Swahili language, which is a worthy cause. He was probably the most celebrated living author, which is ironic because he wrote in Swahili, a language that frankly we don’t give a damn about.
One last thing. I have noticed that public universities have in recent times closed doors to outside voices. Last time I tried to have Literature Symposium at two public universities it proved a bureaucratic nightmare.
But private universities are doing well and lately home of the better debates from outsiders. From USIU, to Daystar to Riara, that is where all the action is taking place.
I really hope, public universities can open doors to talent, loosen their unnecessarily strident rules and let great minds to teach. This fear of radicals, gay intellectuals, feminists and ‘out-of-the-box thinkers is robbing students great talent and that is why we may end up with young men who don’t question things.
Dr. Walibora was a colleague at Riara University and I hope the University can honour him with a befitting monument.