Eulogy to an artist and educator of children and the youth

He imparted soft life skills that many children today do not find out of the classroom syllabus and contemporary society

In Summary

• He taught and mentored children in eastern and central Kenya since 1970s

Dr Wallace Kamau Mbugua, 1947-2019
Dr Wallace Kamau Mbugua, 1947-2019

The World Children’s Day is celebrated on the twentieth day of each November annually. It is a day set aside to promote the rights and well-being of children.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is the most ratified treaty across the continent of Africa and the world at large.

Sadly, here in Kenya, the day has coincided with the burial of a great educator, cultural theorist and don of Children’s Literature, the late Dr Wallace Mbugua (1947-2019). Until his demise, Mwalimu Mbugua was a senior member of staff at Kenyatta University. He was the long-serving chairman of the departmental board of postgraduate studies in the literature section.

His fame across education circles in Kenya arose from abiding devotion to the teaching of the arts, schools drama festival and girl child education. He was the proprietor of two private schools for girls in Thika and Banana Hill. As a cultural artist and researcher, his contribution has been iconic.

His ethnopoetic fieldwork research on the children folklore performances in central Kenya remains a much-cited study by his peers like Pamela Ngugi. Dr Mbugua’s folklore research in 2002-06 was the basis of the award of his doctorate degree in 2007 and is reported in a dissertation entitled: A Critical Analysis of Conformity and Subversion in Gikuyu Children’s Oral Poetry. Ngugi acknowledges the centrality of Mbugua’s contribution to research in her recent survey entitled, Children’s Literature Research in Kenyan Universities: Where Are We Now?

I have known Mwalimu for 17 years. I knew him from my years as a Master of Arts student. Actually we were postgraduate students at the same time. I was a young Master's student recently admitted to the Literature Department in 2002, and he was enlisting as a PhD student then, albeit at an advanced age.

For many years, Dr Mbugua had been a senior principal of several high schools and a leader of his peers in the secondary education associations, until his honourable retirement at the beginning of this century. He opted to use this later phase of his life to pursue his dream once deferred: higher education at postgraduate level. 

We met when he was refinding his axis in university research after the decades he had devoted to teach and mentor children in eastern and central Kenya since the 1970s. Mwalimu Mbugua was one of the pioneer students of Kenyatta University just after it had been inaugurated as a teacher training college of UoN.

The travails of postgraduate work are well known to many research scholars. We found unity of purpose and I came to know him personally. A sage to the youth, he shared with me a whole gamut of values, such as patience, time management, determination and focus.

These are soft life skills that many children today do not find out of the classroom syllabus and contemporary society. Dr Mbugua would later share the same with hundreds if not thousands of other students he mentored since he completed his PhD. 

So, this week, I celebrate this illustrious father figure and youth mentor who, after a short illness, admission at The Nairobi Hospital and untimely demise, has caused consternation in literary and educational circuits this week. He was buried at his Maguguini Farm in Thika East on Wednesday as the rest of the world marked this year’s World Children’s Day.

His mentees range from those in public and private universities to those in the leadership of secondary schools across the country, and even at the Teachers Service Commission. Dr Emmanuel Shikuku of KU and Dr Charles Kebaya of Machakos University cut their teeth under the aegis of Mwalimu Mbugua as he mentored them as young students. The same applied to Dr AW Hinga of the USIU-Africa.

He gave them the pillar they needed to achieve their scholarly dreams. Each has poured accolades to their mentor upon his demise, underscoring the role of mentorship to the nurture and cultivation of our children in the challenging environment of contemporary society.

The literary fraternity in Kenya is still reeling in the shock of his sudden departure. Upon hearing the news of Dr Mbugua’s demise, the famous Kenyan novelist and winner of Jomo Kenyatta Prize of Literature, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor mourned, "What a man. What a heart. Every passer-by will exclaim: There! There indeed was a man. And how he lived. How he lived."

And as Mwalimu leaves, so does he live on. This is the view of the eminent Kenyan poet Kisa Amateshe.

His elegiac poem specially penned on the occasion of the requiem service of Dr Mbugua this past Tuesday is hereby reproduced for public consumption:

Artistes never die

We would sit by the Chania Falls, inspired by the silvery waters, amazed by the Wonders of Nature as we refreshed our Knowledge and Wisdom

We have struggled together against life’s perennial torrents, holding firmly on solid faith In selfless sacrifices to humankind.

We scanned the horizons together, sheltered under the Mugumo Tree, away from the sweltering skies, as we imbibed the history of posterity.

Not long ago, in our Resource Centre, your mellowed humour would endow our hearts with boundless hopes, assured of a fruitful tomorrow…

Now, the Chania Falls are wailing! The singing birds are deadly silent while Kilimambogo sits in whimpers, saddened by the loss of a tireless Artist!

What new songs, then, shall we sing for our departed, learned Sage? What dramatized dances in His Honour? What timeless stories for Our Heritage?

We have suffered a blinding grief as we grope towards this cold casket our mentor now lies muted, distanced from our trembling touch…

But in this slow and steady procession, River Honia of our glorious dreams will continue to flow eastward, into the rich Delta of our Reunion….


Dr Makokha teaches Literature and Culture at Kenyatta University