Tribute to 'Muthuuri Mwega', one of disappearing breed of historians

The late Henry Mwaniki Kabeca [Antony Gitonga, Standard]

Henry Stanley Mwaniki Kabeca, a rare breed of post-colonial historians, is dead which depletes the number of path breakers in the craft of history. At least four of them are still around but quiet in their twilight years. Those remaining include Bethwell Ogot, the authority and creator of Luo history, Godfrey Muriuki, the re-constructor of pre-colonial Agikuyu and revered reference point in resurgent search for identity, Idha Salim, the narrator of the Waswahili, and Maina Kinyatti, the Mau Mau crusader. Mwaniki joined them, writing about the Aembu.

The breed constitutes post-colonial intellectual giants, Africanising history. They, like Walter Rodney in his How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, were radical in decolonising history. With desire to tell pre-colonial stories of how their particular people came to be differently, they reconstructed knowledge. Ogot, although not the first African historian at Nairobi, was first in post-colonial Kenya. Josphat Karanja, Princeton doctorate, was the first but he had little impact on the history discipline.

Ogot, however, made waves the same way that Ali Mazrui popularised political science at Makerere. The two flew in the same plane to England, obtained their respective doctorates in 1965, were quickly appointed professors and heads of department, and seemed to compete for intellectual prowess; Mazrui had a slight edge.

Gideon Were, closely behind Ogot at Nairobi, created the Luhya by lumping 'Mulembe' people into one ethnic basket. Then there came Muriuki and Salim, straight from London, explaining the Kikuyu and the Waswahili in fresh ways. Mwaniki, one of Ogot's students, was next to those giants, studying the Embu people. To the Embu, Mwaniki used to say, the Kikuyu are children.

Guided by Ogot to use oral traditions to reconstruct the history of particular peoples, Mwaniki had attracted Jomo Kenyatta's scholarly attention. He was passionate about documenting and collecting documents on Embu history and cultural experience, and he had Embu political titan Jeremiah Nyaga's endorsement.

"Muthuuri Mwega," was his form of greeting before getting into the substance of the occasion ranging from university administrative challenges to his latest research endeavour. To those that he trusted, he could talk about his youthful days in the Mau Mau War.

He willingly participated in the Recasting Mau Mau project after which he sounded like a cross between veterans and survivors. Although he could also get agitated against those who distort Mau Mau history, and even name them, he did not get into many controversies.

He thus appeared safe and was not perceived as threat to the establishment. In the process, he kept out of the raging debates in the 1980s, in which intellectual Home Guards ensured that intellectual Mau Maus went for 're-education' in the basement of a tall building or in Kamiti to eradicate post-colonial Mau Mauism. The prevailing fear, so argued, Casper Odegi Awuondo, made academics struggle to keep safe distance from Kamiti.

Mwaniki was an administrator. He chaired Kenyatta University History Department and, during the first university double intake crisis, would recruit emergency lecturers. When he moved to Egerton University's new Laikipia campus as the Dean, he was virtually alone trying to keep the campus running. He used to commute from Nyahururu to Njoro and back to answer questions to his bosses in Njoro.

Political dynamics

He also made effort to recruit lecturers to move from the intellectual comfort of Nairobi to the rural serenity of Nyahururu and he was not always successful. University political dynamics in Njoro where all the decisions were made, he admitted, sometimes made it difficult for him to recruit or get things done. It was, however, his Laikipia.

Mwaniki was one of the new breed of historians in post-colonial Kenya. With Ogot's advice, after the encounter with Kenyatta, Mwaniki avoided controversy as he continued to make Embu make sense to others. He remained humble in his Mutunduri home, as Muthuuri Mwega, doing research on the Embu and related peoples.

Prof Munene is a senior associate, Horn International Institute for Strategic Studies