In days gone by scholars at Makerere, Dar-es- Salaam and Nairobi had a cross-border multidisciplinary debate that should be revived and enlarged for the age of the Internet By OWEN MCONYANGO
During their tenure, Presidents Milton Obote, Julius Nyerere and Jomo Kenyatta not only focused on nation-building, governing and cementing the East Africa union, but also recognised the role of universities. Indeed the three leaders can be accused of occasionally getting ‘too involved’ in university affairs. Be this as it may, the universities took up their roles as the reservoirs of the East African thinking seriously. Academics were indeed the movers of the social affairs in the region. With the East African Community looking set to tie the loose ends of the unification thread, it is a good time to recall the contribution of universities in the region. For instance, Taban Lo Liyong’s lamentations that East Africa had become a terrain of “literary barrenness” shook the whole of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and beyond. The debate that followed was emotive and varicoloured. Why would a damning comment on literature be received that widely and with so much feeling? Why would an indictment by Lo Liyong’ derive both vitriolic attack and relief-filled applause in many countries?
FOUNTAIN: Symbolic quenching of the thirst for knowledge at the University of Nairobi
The answer lies in the fact that Lo Liyong’ is considered an international literary voice in the region. He gained this reputation in the good old days when East African Universities and what went on in them mattered to East Africans. The launch of the East African Community’s Custom’s Union rekindles thought about the contribution that universities can make in bonding states and their peoples. In the late 1950s, 60s, 70s and earlier half of 1980s East African Universities were the hub of interactions of the region’s people. Makerere became known as the place where top minds from East Africa converged to study Medicine and Political Science. The celebrated Political Scientist Ali Mazrui was based there. The lawyers that have made a mark in the region, many who are senior judges and counsels took law courses in Dar es Salaam. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Taban Lo Liyong’, Owuor Anyumba and Okot pa’Bitek, icons in the world of creative writing and criticism, were high voltage practitioners at the University of Nairobi.
This convergence of minds not only turned East Africa into a close community of peoples struggling to piece together a dependable future, but one that went on to attract great minds from other regions on the continent and from overseas. Indeed some Africans from the Diaspora became domesticated albeit for a short period. For instance, the legendary historian, Walter Rodney, he of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, an African Guyanese, is a precious example of how Universities can solidify regional and international interaction. He was based at the University of Dar es Salaam in the seventies. That is how it became possible that the 1962 ground-breaking conference, “A Conference of African Writers of English Expression,” that courageously attempted to define “African Literature” was held in East Africa, in Uganda, at Makerere. Wa Thiongo met Achebe there for the first time. Okigbo, the celebrated poet from Nigeria also attended and is reputed to be the one that placed the undying question to the participants namely, ‘What is African Literature?’ The debate that emanated from the proceedings lingers to date.
Prof. Emmanuel Mbogo, a Tanzanian who taught Kiswahili in Kenyan Universities in the 1990s reminds us in folkloric style about the great debate in the University of Dar es Salaam in the seventies between Prof. Ali Mazrui, perceived to favour free-market economy and the late Walter Rodney, perceived to be Ujamaaleaning. The debate set the whole of East Africa on its edge. A debate between two ideological protagonists represented the two opposite sides of political leanings in East Africa, indeed the bipolar world during that epoch. Such discourse, including face to face match-ups, are only possible in universities that are run with the awareness of what institutions of learning can do to promote regional cohesion. Memories of East Africa-wide students’ associations would put to shame the small intra-universitystudents’ groupings we have today. In fact even the communities that are astride the East African boaderlines like the Iteso and the Samia of Uganda and Kenya, the Luo of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, and the Maasai and the Kuria of Kenya and Tanzania tended to form East African students’ associations. This generation of students is in their sunset years but they will surely be most pleased to see a rebirth of East African university ties strengthening the East African Community.
The writer is a Literature lecturer and Director, Public Relations, at Maseno University, Kenya.