Tribute to Muigai wa Gachanja

The guru of orature and verbal arts left a legacy that will last

In Summary

• He was key in establishing the beacons of orature research in Kenya 

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Just last week, I talked about the centrality of cultural centres to the teaching of orature in our schools in the context of the new curriculum. Little did I know that the departure of the man who taught me orature and folklore as a postgraduate student was at hand.

Now, in the quiet hush of our sorrow, as the sun sets on the life of a beloved mentor, we are reminded of an old Kenyan aphorism: “In the midst of life, we are in death.” These words echo through the chambers of our hearts, along the corridors of literature in Kenya, as we continue to process the news of the passing away of Prof Muigai wa Gachanja, formerly of Kenyatta University, a luminary in African orature and folklore scholarship.

On January 15, 2024, a great tree in the forest of knowledge fell, leaving behind echoes that will clap for generations. The soft-spoken sage was born on May 21, 1949 in Gatanga, Muranga, where we gathered with his loving wife Mama Florence Gachanja and family to bury him this Tuesday after a long illness he bore bravely to the end.

His early seminarian years foreshadowed the remarkable service he would make to academia, as evidenced by the two prominent professors in Kenyan literature today, directly nurtured under his guidance: Prof Egara Kabaji, the president of the Creative Writers Association of Kenya (CWaK), and Prof JJ Mugubi, a doyen of film studies in Kenya. One of the presidential candidates in 2017, Prof Michael Wainaina, also emerged from his mentorship.

A prodigious teacher and mentor, Gachanja collaborated with stalwart colleagues like Jane Nandwa and Prof Austin Bukenya at Kenyatta University, becoming instrumental in establishing the beacons of orature research in Kenya during the intellectually lean 1980s and 1990s.

In the trenches of what Ngugi calls the decolonisation of the mind, Gachanja exemplified resilience. Even after taking early retirement in his late sixties, he left behind a phalanx of fiery offspring, myself included, carrying forth the torch of intellectual enlightenment. His wisdom echoed in KU lecture theatres, where he trained and supervised many during the volatile decades of the 1980s and 1990s, laying the foundations for numerous literature scholars serving all over Kenya, from Moi to MKU to UoN and beyond.

Reflecting on my memorable encounter with the sage, I recall a poignant moment during my MA studies in 2002. In my first semester exams, he awarded me a B in his orature paper. When I, filled with the fire of youth, demanded it be an A, for study deeply we had with him as our guide, he simply smiled and uttered, “Makokha, cherish it. The B knowledge you will teach for years to others in your lifetime.”

This January semester, as is the case each January for the past dozen years, I shall teach orature to more than 200 students. It is the same unit my teacher taught for decades with devotion and passion before he hanged his boots.

From his humble beginnings with a BEd Hons from the University of Nairobi in 1976 to obtaining a PhD in literature and religion from Emory University, USA, in 1987, his academic journey was marked by continuous learning and exploration.

His teaching experience, starting as a graduate teaching assistant at Emory University to becoming an associate professor at Kenyatta University, showcased his commitment to nurturing young minds.

His scholarly pursuits, including a senior visiting Fulbright scholar at the University of Pennsylvania and numerous publications, added layers to the rich mark of his academic contributions.

Professor contributed significantly to a diverse array of research areas, leaving an indelible mark on our intellectual landscape. His publications and scholarly presentations reveal a keen interest in exploring the intersections of culture, literature and folklore in the African context.

One notable thematic thread is his exploration of the rich oral traditions in Kenya, evident in works like “Images of Women in Kenya Oral Narratives”, was published in Fabula: Journal of Folklore Studies. This research delves into our national oral narratives heritage, shedding light on the cultural representation of women, a theme that resonates throughout his career aligned towards gender-mainstreaming.

Another strand of Gachanja’s intellectual contributions extends into the exploration of social issues, such as the impact of polygamy on the family in Kenya. His seminal article, “Polygamy: Its Social and Economic Impact on the Family in Kenya” in Contesting Social Death: Essays on Gender and Culture reflects a deep engagement with societal norms and structures. Through a lens that combines literature, sociology and cultural studies, he dissected the complexities of polygamous relationships, contributing to the broader discourse on gender and family dynamics.

His intellectual pursuits are further illuminated by the diverse courses he taught throughout his career. The range of courses, from “Theory and method in oral literature”, to various courses in Americana literatures, highlight his engagement with literary arts that juxtaposed global literary perspectives with local traditions, demonstrating a commitment to broadening the intellectual horizons of his students in a fast-changing world of globalisation.

His involvement in research methodology courses, which he helped design in the humanities, both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, for decades, in the last century, when experts of such matters few were, underscores to us all his passion for equipping the next generation with the tools necessary for academic inquiry.

In essence, Muigai wa Gachanja’s courses form a triad of intellectual interests: oral literature and folklore studies, cultural and sociological analyses, and a global exploration of literature. This trinity reflects the breadth and depth of his intellectual legacy, transcending disciplinary boundaries and enriching us Kenyans.

As we bid farewell to this grand man of letters, we remember the words he once shared at his early retirement tea party a decade ago: “One tree falls, another springs forth from its cut trunk. Behold. Mentor. Mentor. Mentor.” His teachings and influence will continue to echo through the corridors of academia in KU and beyond, guiding generations towards the light of knowledge.

In this moment of grief, let us celebrate the life of a scholar, a mentor and a beacon of wisdom. May Muigai wa Gachanja find eternal peace, and may his legacy endure through the minds he shaped and the knowledge he bestowed upon us, to be passed on to others with and after us.

Farewell, Son of Gachanja. Thayu. Thayu.

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