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The life and marks of Tr Wanjiku Matenjwa

She emerged during the golden era of Kenyan literary scholarship in the 1970s and early '80s

In Summary

• She didn't just teach; she inspired youth to greatness and the audacity of hope 

Wanjiku Matenjwa
Wanjiku Matenjwa
Image: FLORENCE SIPALLA

Mwalimu Wanjiku Matenjwa (1955-2020) died on May 14 and was buried last Friday in Lang’ata.

She was one of the pioneer female university lecturers of literature in Kenya after independence. For four decades, she taught literature across many secondary schools and at Kenyatta University. Wanjiku started her literary don career in September 1980 at the then Kenyatta University College of the University of Nairobi at age 25!

Pundits refer to the 1970s and early '80s as the golden era of Kenyan literary scholarship. Wanjiku entered this vibrant intellectual life of the capital city and the University of Nairobi from Makerere University, which she joined after emerging as a top student of English at both her O-levels and A-levels examinations in Kenya.

 
 

She was among Kenyan exchange varsity students who fled Amin’s Uganda after the sinister disappearance of one of their comrades in 1975. She graduated a year later from the UoN.

Prof Austin Bukenya and Malawian Prof David Rubadiri mentored her while with the Makerere University Travelling Theatre in 1975. Her dramaturgy includes the play “Little Muya and Big Muya” in The Cooking Pan and Other Plays, a 1979 anthology edited by Margaret Macpherson. She also penned a cornucopia of drama reviews for Kenyan print media, such as Ufahamu, Dhana, Viva, Mwihoko, Joe Magazine, The Standard and The Nation.

Wanjiku left the UoN for Canada for a year and completed a Master’s degree. Her early lecturing career at Kenyatta University was after returning from abroad. In KU, she would later teach with her Ugandan teacher Bukenya in our department. He, too, had fled Amin’s deteriorating Uganda to Kenya.

Her last major public event was a 2018 literary indaba in Bukenya’s honour, convened by Wanjiku’s own student at KU, Prof Kimani Njogu of Twaweza Communications. Prof Wangari Mwai, the Dean of Students at USIU-Africa, and Prof Catherine Ndungo, the first director of the Institute of African Studies at Kenyatta University, are among her other notable students.

As a young female don in Kenyan literature, she was inspired by her teacher Prof Micere Mugo, who guided her to join the University of New Brunswick in Canada for graduate studies. From the same varsity, Micere is the first woman in Kenya to hold a doctorate degree in Literature. It is under Micere and Ngugi wa Thiong’o at UoN that Wanjiku underwent her literary baptism of fire.

She emerged as a strident proponent of literary commitment and disciple of Ngugi’s ideological school against neocolonialism. Her fecundity made her stand out across the gender divide.

On May 23, 1982, she was among top African feminists in Mainz, Germany, who were convened on merit to adumbrate women writings from Africa at the 4th International Janheinz Jahn Symposium. She publicly called out Global Feminism to be deconstructed. 

 
 

Her passion for gender rights led her to pursue a Postgraduate Diploma in Education at KU in 1987 to gain in-depth knowledge in Literature Methods of Pedagogy. She then committed the rest of her work life to teaching in various high schools in Nairobi and later upcountry in the then Uasin Gishu district.

She nurtured a generation of A-level students of Literature in several schools, including Loreto Girls' Convent Secondary School-Matunda, for years.

Upon retirement in the mid-1990s, Wanjiku joined other women, like her elder sibling the late Dr Wanjiru Matenjwa Kihoro, in the documentation of the movement towards the Second Liberation. The latter is the late wife of ex-Nyeri MP Wanyiri Kihoro, who penned Never Say Die: The Chronicle of a Political Prisoner (1998).

In the same vein, Wanjiku and George Morara in 2004 edited and published The Other Side of Prison: The Role of the Women Left Behind. A keen voice of conscience, she also compiled the research published by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and Citizens for Justice in 2003 as We Lived to Tell: The Nyayo House Story. It is a statue to survivors of the infamous Nyayo House Torture Chambers.

From the turn of the century, her early flowerings in cultural activism and quests for gender rights evident in the 1980s stirred her to set up the Amka NGO.

She co-founded it with her namesake Prof Wanjiku Kabira, her contemporary at UoN, and curator of African Women’s Studies Centre (AWSC) as an important milestone in Kenyan feminism. As programme manager, she fruitfully did promote women’s literary culture and talent-cultivation.

The end of such an iconic life as Mwalimu’s should not offer us dismay but sound the clarion call for a celebration of the departed humanities educator, literary mentor and sapient role model to the youth of today.

Wanjiku Matenjwa’s is a testimonial life that summarises itself in one statement. A teacher teaches but a good teacher inspires youth to greatness and the audacity of hope.  

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Dr Makokha teaches Literature and Theatre at Kenyatta University