We were only at the end of our second week as freshmen at the University of Nairobi in October 1979 when they sent us home.
The previous week had been spent on registration amidst the excitement of orientation.
We had immensely enjoyed listening to Prof Joseph Donders who walked us through the motions of a rewarding life at the university. The Christian Union organized a week of coffee activities called ‘Nyam Nyams.’ Freedom was in the air.
Prof Donders taught us how to read a 600 page book in one hour and how to enjoy the nightspots of Nairobi.
He told us about such hideouts as Sabina Joy (Karumaindo), Hallians, Club 1900, Grosvenor, Starlight, Inn on the Park, The Garden Square, The Pub, Eclipse, Fransae, Hole in the Wall and Imani Day and Night Club.
It was imperative, he said, that all students visited these places, at least once in their university life. This was not, however, to say that we partook of the activities therein.
Together with my roommate and a couple of other varsity lads, we visited half of these places within ten days. We were overwhelmed by the sale and stench of love at Imani. Yes, it was a place to be visited only once, and a shocking eye opener to the seedy side of the city.
But this Saturday was the big day we had been keenly waiting for. We would enjoy our first Kamukunji at the university and march gallantly through city streets.
A notice had swiftly gone up on virtually all open notice boards that there would be a Kamukunji at the quadrangle in the Box. This was the place where a majority of the women lived, with a few in Hall 12. Mary’s Hall would come later.
The choice of location was because female students were getting tired of the Kamukunjis.
But if the Boxers would not come to the Kamukunjis, the student leaders would take the Kamukunji to the Boxers.
On the agenda were two items. First, the Kanu government had determined that Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and all former Kenya African Union (KPU) Party members would not be allowed to run in the general election slated for December. Second was the question of academic freedom.
Thrown in the elections mix was Kitutu Masaba MP George Anyona, at this time a former detainee, alongside other members of Kenya’s fiery and dignified Third Parliament like Butere MP Martin Shikuku and Jean Marie Seroney, Tinderet MP and Deputy Speaker. While Shikuku and Seroney, who had accused Kanu of being dead, were cleared for the elections Anyona was thought to be far too hot to be allowed a new lease of political life. And so the headline on the front page of a leading daily paper read, ‘Anyona and ex-KPU barred.’ We said no!
Rumba Kinuthia, Gerald Otieno Kajwang’, Mukhisa Kituyi and a couple of others led us into the streets to announce our protest. We agitated for democracy and for academic freedom. The Jomo Kenyatta government had detained author Ngugi wa Thiong’o two years earlier. Although the new President, Daniel arap Moi, had released him alongside all other detainees on Jamhuri Day in 1978, Ngugi was not allowed to take back his job at the University of Nairobi. He had gone in for organizing community theatre in his native Kamirithu Village in Limuru.
The government was concerned that Ngugi was opening up the eyes of ordinary folk in the countryside to the true anatomy of the origins of their misery. Whatever the case, he was now a free man. Yet, he was not allowed back to teach. We wanted him back.
The government closed the university the following day. They said that we should go back home to participate in the elections – which were still two months away – and to enjoy an early Christmas. They even gave us money, saying it was a refund of our capitation fees for what remained of the term. Never mind that we did not pay fees and that the government gave us an allowance that we called ‘boom,’ after the illicit (Chepkube) coffee boom of the 1970s.
We went home. We enjoyed the boom, the politics and the early Christmas. Some of us thronged to Mathare Constituency. We registered and voted for Dr Munyua Waiyaki, a darling of the university student community. We loved his charisma and courage. Had he not told off the redoubtable Attorney General Charles Njonjo over the thought of Kenya establishing diplomatic ties with apartheid South Africa?
The protest of October 1979 marked the beginning of unending confrontation that would see us lose a cumulative full academic year. Numerous issues in the country and beyond called for our voice and action. Each time we acted, the government reacted. The only solution in their bag was to close the university. And so we went home over the assassination of Prof Walter Rodney in Georgetown Guyana and he who published How Europe Underdeveloped Africa in 1972.
We paid for remembering the murders of Steve Biko and J. M. Kariuki. We were punished for calling for peace in Angola and Mozambique and for the independence of Southwest Africa, now Namibia.
On other occasions, we were sent away for marking the fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty in Iran, the introduction of the one party in Kenya and detention of our teachers. They came for Willy Mutunga, Shadrack Gutto, Mukaru Ng’ang’a, Anyang’ Nyong’o, Micere Mugo, Kimani Gecau and Katama Mkangi. In the end, they sent us home for eight months to one year after the abortive coup of August 1, 1982.
Barrack Muluka is a publishing editor and social and political commentator.