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Scholar who walked out of a convent to study in the US

By ABENEA NDAGO | Published Sat, May 24th 2014 at 00:00, Updated May 23rd 2014 at 18:59 GMT +3

When Prof Agnes Wanjiku Kabira looks at you, her face betrays no emotion. She fits the Luo saying: ‘Jochame joyue dhogi joling’ ka matuo’ (literally: ‘those who ate it wiped their mouth and became calm and innocent like patients’). And yet she did something drastic sometime in 1979.

She currently chairs the University of Nairobi’s Department of Literature.

“Well, I found a different calling.” That is the way she describes what inspired her to take the said decision, and how she today relates with Loreto Girls High School, Msongari, where she did her A-Levels from 1973 –1974.

Her journey with literature began in 1965 when she wrote and recited a poem called Virus. She was then a Form One student at Loreto Girls, Limuru, a school then ran by Irish missionaries. She had just come from Githirioni Primary School in Lari.

 “For the first time, I felt the magic of being a “creator”, and the experience of performance in the oral literature sense,” she recalls. At the school, she would later read Shakespeare, James Joyce, and DH Lawrence.

Taught by Okot p’Bitek
Yet, her real contact with literature happened at the University of Nairobi’s Department of Literature, which she joined in 1976, and left in 1978. She was taught by David Rubadiri, Taban Lo Liyong’, Kimani Gecau, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Micere Mugo, and Okot p’Bitek.

“I am in oral literature because Okot made the biggest mark on me,” says the writer of The Oral Artist, and A Time for Harvest.

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“Unlike today’s academics, Okot taught us to question everything under the sun. He insisted on your opinion. He did not want to hear a student quoting from sources without holding a position as happens today. He would say: “Well, that is what all those others say; but what do you say?”

She observes that Okot was intellectual to the point of being humorous, and yet he meant it. His knowledge cut across oral literature, sociology, and law. At one time, after Kabira and her fellow students finished their oral literature dissertations, Okot stressed the difference between written literature and oral literature by refusing to enter the students’ marks on the mark sheet.

“He simply told the examination people: “Oral Literature cannot be written; it is oral. So I am telling you orally that I listened to all the students’ oral dissertations, and they all passed. But their passing cannot be recorded on the mark sheet because it is oral. It is impossible for me to write it down. You can record whatever you want on that mark sheet, but know I have told you that all the students passed.’”

If Kabira wears a calm persona, then it belies the militant in her, which may be a carry-over from Okot. The strain is identifiable in her work as a champion for women’s rights, and in her fight for all Kenyan literature – whether oral or written – to be relevant to the Kenyan society. In 1979, while teaching at Loreto Girls, in Kiambu, the Government banned her play What a World, My People!

Her work with women saw the founding of the African Women Studies Centre at the University of Nairobi in June, 2011, and in her tireless work with the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission. Her book, A Time for Harvest, traces the women’s journey in the struggle for a new constitution in the past 20 years, beginning from 1992 to 2012. She reminds the 16 women MPs of 290 that their mere presence in Parliament will be fruitless if it is not properly utilised.  

She says, “It disappoints me that, with a new constitution in 2014, it is still possible to read that 7.1 million Kenyans still often go to bed hungry, as if these people are mere statistics. With devolution, how can it be possible for the Government not to know these people, each by name, and give them food? It is unacceptable for people to be dying of hunger in Baringo and Turkana under a new constitution. Even worse than that is the fact that pioneer singers like Joseph Kamaru live in grinding poverty. If piracy is the problem, then why is it impossible for the Government to subsidise their CDs so they can earn?”

Waste of time
At the University of Nairobi’s Department of Literature, she says there is a new dimension to women in literature. It is now possible to do postgraduate studies in any of four areas: African Literature of the Global South; African Literature of the Global North; European Literature; and Theatre and Film Studies. The department has also liaised with the Ministry of Education to found the Teachers Film Association, which sensitises teachers on how best to enrich the National Drama Festival.

“This is an attempt to make literature relevant to the Kenyan society,” she stresses.

“The people who tried to kill Kenyan literature by merging it with English were KIE and the Ministry of Education. You can never teach English through Oral Literature simply because you will never translate the two Dholuo words ‘Thu Tinda’ into English. Even though there is a lot of writing going on, the so-called writers waste time on extremely petty issues, mainly individualistic. It is as if there is nothing happening in the wider Kenyan society. Ngugi, Okot, Taban and the rest were able to capture the national imagination by holding opinion on daily national issues; not private ones.”

Nothing horrifies Prof Kabira more than the contemporary Kenyan writer’s inability to criticise his/her own tribe.

It is what she calls ‘ethnic self-censorship,’ and she says it is an exceptional mark of spinelessness and cowardice. That is what she lacked in 1979, when she walked out of the convent, to pursue further studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, USA.

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