In memory of the former Department of Literature

It is a casualty of ongoing reforms that subsume it to 'humanities'

In Summary

• I saluted this place with my thesis, so it means a lot to me to see it become history


A decade and a half ago, I completed a major phase of my life. At 26 years of age, I completed my first postgraduate degree at Kenyatta University.

I had enrolled in a Master of Arts degree (Literature) in 2002, immediately after graduating in the same year as a teacher of English and Literature.

Kenyan universities back then were undergoing a massive transformation as the new century brought with it new challenges and opportunities.

In that era, the number of people interested in postgraduate education was markedly smaller than that of today. For example, my class intake had five students only.

Today, we have more than 50 self-sponsored postgraduate students conducting research in various domains of literature in the same department! Most are part-time students juggling studies, work break and family life to devote their lives to the study of literature.

Of the five of my class, all were regular students. One dropped out. One earned a green card and crossed the Atlantic to become an American. Three of us remained. We completed at diverse times.

Partial scholarships existed within universities those days, I remember. Most were aimed at staff development. They were mostly awarded to students on grounds of merit, based on academic excellence and scholarly potential. I was a beneficiary of both a part-time scholarship and a one-year church-based one.

The day I finished my corrections after an oral defence of my thesis, I bound several copies. I gave copies of my research on a major East African Asian writer to my department, university and supervisors as per the policy.

The next day, I took three copies to Nairobi. The Thika Superhighway did not exist back then. I was stuck in the snarl-up on the old Thika Road for two hours. It was common to do so.

I gave a copy to the Kenya National Archives for, two years earlier, I had written two chapters of the thesis here. I had used rare texts in the library upstairs in this old oft-ignored building by the statue in memory of Tom Mboya.

To donate a copy here for posterity was my best way to show appreciation to Mr Azangu and other helpful staff of that time. Years have passed and my students year in, year out report to me the well-thumbed, dog-eared memorial copy still exists at KNA.

Students at the University of Nairobi
Students at the University of Nairobi
Image: UoN

The remaining two copies of my literature thesis, I took up the Moi Avenue till I crossed the road near Lillian Towers, not far from where Stella Muka, Kenya’s finest actress, met her death in 1984.

A falling object from a construction site smashed this brilliant engineering student with a knack for poetry, drama. A hostel named in her memory exists at the University of Nairobi.

I did a sign of the cross for her and crossed the road. I entered the University of Nairobi near the wing named in memory of the Mahatma Gandhi. The University of Nairobi is a shrine to our national memory.

I crossed the Great Court and entered the building that housed our motherland’s pioneer and globally famous Department of Literature. Haven’t books been written about this department even abroad?

At this iconic department of our national culture, literature included, I left a copy of my black and gold thesis with the first Kenyan man to earn a PhD in literature locally, the late Prof Christopher Wanjala.

The late Prof Chris Wanjala and the writer at the now-defunct department
The late Prof Chris Wanjala and the writer at the now-defunct department

The last copy, I donated to the then chairman of the Department, thanking him for having allowed me to use their hallowed Literature Resource Room.

Back then, one could conduct research in sister universities without a problem. As a thesis-writing student from KU, this is how I made the acquaintance of my UoN peers Dr Larry Ndivo and Dr Jennifer Muchiri.

Today, the former is the chairman of literary studies at Machakos University. Up till the other day, the latter has been the head of the same at University of Nairobi. In spite of our university affiliations, literature as a humanistic discipline bound us each to the other and all to the motherland.

Isn’t the fundamental reason why literature exists in Kenya one of fostering our national goals of education, including national unity and identity?

Now new news is that the pioneer department is no more. The Department of Literature that gave Kenya Dr Eddah Gachukia, the first Kenyan woman to earn a PhD in literature locally, is no more.

The same department that housed another famous woman of Kenya, Prof Micere Mugo, for decades is no more. Who will remember that she was the first Kenyan woman to become a professor of literature? Are the cultural memories of Kenya important?

Is this not the same department that reinstated our folklores as invaluable assets of our national education at tertiary and secondary levels of learning, after the harsh colonial season of cultural brainwashing, in our national efforts to decolonise Kenyan minds?

Behold the intellectual home of Kenya’s most popular intellectual and author globally, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, has lost its iconic name.

The department is a casualty of the ongoing reforms at the university, it is said. In its place is a new merged department devoted to linguistics, languages and literature as sub-sets of the humanities. The memorial and globally reified name is gone.

Say it at least for the last time: “Department of Literature, University of Nairobi, Kenya.”

I saluted this place with my thesis…

Edited by T Jalio

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