• A time to celebrate life anew is instead being marred by deaths
It is a weird irony, indeed, that we are going through a necrocentric moment in Kenya even as the rainy season continues. Death is in the atmosphere together with rain. Isn’t a mysterious malady assailing boarding schoolchildren near the Crying Stone of Kakamega? Rain, which is a metaphor of life, is here and the nemesis of life is here even as the end of the holy seasons of Islam and Christianity implore us to celebrate life anew.
Elsewhere, rising body counts are gripping the nation daily as grave after mass grave reveal their dark secrets in rural Kilifi. The media is now talking of “Shakahorror” to mean the death by hunger at Shakahola, courtesy of religion gone rogue. It is everywhere. Death is. And like the grim ripper that it is, it has now claimed the life of one of the figureheads of contemporary Kenyan literature.
Dr Eddie Ombagi is gone. He left us suddenly for good. His Instagram address, @Ombagi254, and email are now silent. The world of social media, where the young don spoke to many near and far, is silent. His voice is in that void of our everyday life.
Eddie taught the literary arts at the University of Kabianga in Kericho county. Born in 1989, he made history in 2019 by joining the Kenyans who earned their highest degree at the age of 30 and below. He graduated from the Department of African Literature at the famous University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The department is the home of high calibre Kenyan intellectuals in that country, including Prof Dan Ojwang’ and his spouse, Prof Dina Ligaga, as well as the erudite Prof Grace Musila. Over the past three decades, the department has produced many dons who now teach literature in relevant departments of both private and public universities in Kenya.
Eddie came to light in the Kenyan higher education academia as an astute researcher on gender and sexualities studies. His area of expertise was on the sociocultural experiences of African queer communities of Kenya. Contested performance and reactive negotiations of sexualities from the perspective of these communities and the spaces they occupy in their everyday experiences in Nairobi formed the bulwark of his intellectual work.
In a land where homophobia is on the rise and the LGBTQ+ debate is both euphoric and trending, Dr Ombagi’s scientific perspectives and cultural studies insights formed a rare sober voice at the nexus of sexualities, culture and social justice in Kenya.
He published widely on social media and in peer-reviewed journals of international repute, such as Journal of African Cultural Studies and Social Dynamics. His voice was sought after often in learned summits on Queer Studies in Africa, where he established himself as a sagacious and eloquent intellectual working in the apex league of Joyce Nyairo and Keguro Macharia.
Eddie died after a short illness at the outset of a career that had all the indication of greatness yet to come. Until his demise on Thursday last week, he inspired his students and colleagues, who are still processing his sudden departure at Kabianga. The university is working with the family to organise for his final resting place as news of his death spreads here and far.
I first came across Eddie in 2014. As an upcoming scholar with research interests in sexualities in African literatures, he had caught the eye of the seasoned UoN-based literary critic, Tom Odhiambo. I was organising a conference with Dr RB Shiundu, who teaches at Kaimoisi University today. Back then, he was based at Pwani University in Kilifi.
The conference was on research methodology in literature, and Eddie was one of the delegates. His insights on the need for a paradigm shift on researches on minorities in Kenya excited the audiences. He was just 25 years old but already thinking outside the box.
Mourning him, Dr Shiundu told the Star, “I came to learn that organising a very first international conference in a nascent university like Pwani in 2014 is a herculean task. You require dependable, aggressive and productive colleagues and the necessary network of writers. Eddie Ombagi was one of these networks that made it happen.”
Prof Peter Amuka of Moi University, while addressing the Kenya Literature Association caucus, eulogised Eddie as “a great debater and thinker and very pleasant character full of humour. He paid me a short visit at Moi University. Overnight we wandered from Foucault to Barthes’ death under a laundry van. Eddie had no business going so early. May his soul rest in peace.”
Highly trained at 34 years, having worked just for four years, Kenya has lost one of the thought leaders who would have been instrumental in guiding our research agenda and national policy on contentious national debates on sexualities and minority rights.
He once said, “I envision a world where everyone lives in harmony, where there will be no killer diseases or manmade fatalities, where preservation of life would be sacred to all, where upholding a person’s dignity and right is assured, where there will be no wars or conflicts, no hunger or starvation and no suffering.”
Here is a Kenyan who believed that no topic is taboo in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. A leader has fallen. May God provide solace to his girlfriend, family, students, colleagues and mbogis.