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Tribute to art guru Gachanja wa Kiai

Champion of social justice, Pan-Africanism, African culture and dignity.

In Summary
  • He studied in the University of Nairobi in the golden era of the early eighties.
  • Through their lectures and literary works, he raised his own commitment to Black Aesthetics.
Gachanja Kiai.
Gachanja Kiai.

This week a prominent don of Literature who taught at Kenyatta University and United States International University - Africa for many years died. Mwalimu Gachanja Kiai, or Dr G, died on Saturday but his legacy as a great master of Black Aesthetics lives on. Just like his brothers Maina Kiai and Mugambi Kiai, prominent human rights activists in Kenya, the late lecturer was a champion of social justice and Pan-Africanism.

He will be remembered by many of his students and colleagues as a great champion of African culture and dignity. He studied in the University of Nairobi in the golden era of the early eighties. There he was nourished by the decolonial ideologies planted by Ngugi of Kenya, Okot of Uganda and Taban of Southern Sudan. Through their lectures and literary works, he raised his own commitment to Black Aesthetics.

For many years, he would expound on this social agenda that seeks to re-find the centres of excellence of Black cultural heritage. His interests ranged from the cultural ideologies of Black writers of Africa to the ones in the American diaspora.

 

I first met him at the end of the last century as his first-year student in a class at Kenyatta University. The second millennium was coming to an end and a new millennium and century stood right before us. It was about the same time that he discovered the literary talent of Kinyanjui Kombani, my contemporary, and by mentoring him did give Kenyans one of their finest novelists today.

He sauntered into the lecture theatre in blue jeans, kitenge shirt and an Afro peppered with grey molecules. It is in this manner that he introduced to us the jazzy inflexions of African American literature of the Harlem Renaissance.

Drawing instances from the poetry of Keorapetse Kgositsile of South Africa, he dazzled our new minds with the impact of Black Aesthetics on both sides of the Atlantic. He would introduce us later to Okot’s Song of Lawino and the theatre of Wole Soyinka as well as the psychological realism of ill-fated Bessie Head.

A decade later I returned to Kenya and became his colleague in the same department. He told me once over a cup of black tea on the bonnet of his red car, "My son, there are two reasons why we teach literature especially to the youth. We teach literature because of its beauty as a pathway to the higher knowledges of man commonly called emotions. As an art it humanises us and as a craft it cultivates the emotional being at the core of our beingness as humans. We also teach literature because of morality.

"A youth and a child are both at the most impressionable apogee of their human development course. At this level, we use humanities and literature to inculcate a sense of morality and ethics in their minds. When they achieve the empathetic dimension of beingness as a result of associating with the good and moral in their readings, we must call it a day."

We are far from that goal, he said, and therefore the teaching of the Arts should continue unhindered. He closed our little tea and talk moment with a call for the humanities to be placed at the centre of the new curriculum for that was the dream of the first decade of Kenya's independence and its ideologues.

As he took a corner near the department and faded away, I sauntered to my new office with two things in mind. Black and Aesthetics. We teach Black literatures because they empower us to appreciate the beauty of life even in the face of death or a pandemic.

 

We teach literatures of Africa because in them we learn the idea of right and wrong or true and false. We become better humans and citizens when we learn morality. When we learn it from those whose passion is a flame that lights others without dying then it is a blessing.

Now that the flame which was Mwalimu Gachanja Kiai is out, let the candles he lit with his teachings and wisdom for decades, flare as a literary beacon on at the height of Mount Kenya, where his roots lie in Nyeri. Hail and farewell Mwalimu Gachanja Kiai.

ELEGY TO THE LATE

By Wanjohi wa Makokha

He wanted to be read poetry

He woke up not and it was so

He wished to walk to the sky

Then he slept as it called him

A void stands here near where

His voice anchored his essence

We recall his tutelage to youth

We who sipped his wit with mirth!

Memories ride the reddening sky

In gyres widening with our cries:

Oh dying sun setting in the West!

Remind us all of the eternal rest