The Star (Kenya)

Trib­ute to art guru Gachanja wa Kiai

Cham­pion of so­cial jus­tice, Pan-african­ism, African cul­ture and dig­nity

- BY JKS MAKOKHA Arts · Literature · College · Higher Education · United States of America · Africa · Kenya · Nairobi · Uganda · Sudan · South Africa · Bessie Emery Head · Kenyatta University · United States International University · University of Nairobi · South Sudan · Willie Kgositsile · Wole Soyinka · Nyeri

This week a prom­i­nent don of Lit­er­a­ture who taught at Keny­atta Univer­sity and United States In­ter­na­tional Univer­sity - Africa for many years died. Mwal­imu Gachanja Kiai, or Dr G, died on Satur­day but his legacy as a great master of Black Aes­thet­ics lives on. Just like his broth­ers Maina Kiai and Mugambi Kiai, prom­i­nent hu­man rights ac­tivists in Kenya, the late lec­turer was a cham­pion of so­cial jus­tice and Pan-african­ism.

He will be re­mem­bered by many of his stu­dents and col­leagues as a great cham­pion of African cul­ture and dig­nity. He stud­ied in the Univer­sity of Nairobi in the golden era of the early eight­ies. ere he was nour­ished by the de­colo­nial ide­olo­gies planted by Ngugi of Kenya, Okot of Uganda and Ta­ban of South­ern Su­dan. rough their lec­tures and lit­er­ary works, he raised his own com­mit­ment to Black Aes­thet­ics.

For many years, he would ex­pound on this so­cial agenda that seeks to re-find the cen­tres of ex­cel­lence of Black cul­tural her­itage. His in­ter­ests ranged from the cul­tural ide­olo­gies of Black writ­ers of Africa to the ones in the Amer­i­can di­as­pora.

I first met him at the end of the last cen­tury as his first-year stu­dent in a class at Keny­atta Univer­sity. e sec­ond mil­len­nium was com­ing to an end and a new mil­len­nium and cen­tury stood right be­fore us. It was about the same time that he dis­cov­ered the lit­er­ary tal­ent of Kinyan­jui Kom­bani, my con­tem­po­rary, and by men­tor­ing him did give Kenyans one of their finest novelists today.

He saun­tered into the lec­ture theatre in blue jeans, kitenge shirt and an Afro pep­pered with grey mol­e­cules. It is in this man­ner that he in­tro­duced to us the jazzy in­flex­ions of African Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture of the Har­lem Re­nais­sance.

Draw­ing in­stances from the po­etry of Ke­o­rapetse Kgosit­sile of South Africa, he daz­zled our new minds with the im­pact of Black Aes­thet­ics on both sides of the At­lantic. He would in­tro­duce us later to Okot’s Song of Law­ino and the theatre of Wole Soyinka as well as the psy­cho­log­i­cal re­al­ism of ill­fated Bessie Head.

A decade later I re­turned to Kenya and be­came his col­league in the same depart­ment. He told me once over a cup of black tea on the bon­net of his red car, “My son, there are two rea­sons why we teach lit­er­a­ture es­pe­cially to the youth. We teach lit­er­a­ture be­cause of its beauty as a path­way to the higher knowl­edges of man com­monly called emotions. As an art it hu­man­ises us and as a craft it cul­ti­vates the emo­tional be­ing at the core of our be­ing­ness as hu­mans. We also teach lit­er­a­ture be­cause of moral­ity.

“A youth and a child are both at the most im­pres­sion­able apogee of their hu­man de­vel­op­ment course. At this level, we use hu­man­i­ties and lit­er­a­ture to in­cul­cate a sense of moral­ity and ethics in their minds. When they achieve the em­pa­thetic di­men­sion of be­ing­ness as a re­sult of as­so­ci­at­ing with the good and moral in their read­ings, we must call it a day.”

We are far from that goal, he said, and there­fore the teach­ing of the Arts should con­tinue un­hin­dered. He closed our lit­tle tea and talk mo­ment with a call for the hu­man­i­ties to be placed at the cen­tre of the new cur­ricu­lum for that was the dream of the first decade of Kenya’s in­de­pen­dence and its ide­o­logues.

As he took a cor­ner near the depart­ment and faded away, I saun­tered to my new of­fice with two things in mind. Black and Aes­thet­ics. We teach Black lit­er­a­tures be­cause they em­power us to ap­pre­ci­ate the beauty of life even in the face of death or a pandemic.

We teach lit­er­a­tures of Africa be­cause in them we learn the idea of right and wrong or true and false. We be­come bet­ter hu­mans and cit­i­zens when we learn moral­ity. When we learn it from those whose pas­sion is a flame that lights oth­ers with­out dy­ing then it is a bless­ing.

Now that the flame which was Mwal­imu Gachanja Kiai is out, let the can­dles he lit with his teach­ings and wis­dom, flare as a lit­er­ary bea­con on at the height of Mt Kenya, where his roots lie in Ny­eri. Hail and farewell Mwal­imu. -------------Dr Makokha teaches Lit­er­a­ture and eatre at Keny­atta Univer­sity

 ?? /COURTESY ?? Gachanja Kiai
/COURTESY Gachanja Kiai
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