Prof Everest Standa, the man who declared himself the voice for the ‘bush’ has finally taken a bow from the stage on which he performed for decades, stringing words together in subtle critiques of the society through verse and humour.
The classic poem he penned in 1967, I Speak for the Bush, is probably his most popular and best demonstrates his humorous yet stinging style in his commentary on societal issues. Written over five decades ago, the poem is poignantly as relevant as it was at the time.
The poet who was a respected academician and rose to briefly serve as vice chancellor of Kenyatta University breathed his last on Sunday November 5, 2023. Prof Standa also served as the CEO of the Commission for Higher Education, the precursor to the Commission for University Education. However, he is more known for his poetry which millions of students have read and is still studied in schools and at university level.
I Speak for the Bush, is a juxtaposition of the world views of the persona who is from the bush, having stuck to conservative values, and his friend who has embraced liberal modernity that is amoral, individualistic, unjust, aloof and transactional.
Prof Standa’s poem Wedding Eve, aptly captures the fears and worry of a lover before making the all-important vow ‘to love till death do us part’. Its humourous rendition makes light of the decision yet brings out so vividly the risk of entering into a marriage union that many often ignore. The poem opens with the lines”
Should I / Or should I not / Take the oath to love / Forever / This person I know little about?
The ending brings out grim humour as the persona confesses the insincerity of making the vow to love forever.
We are both wise chess players / She makes a move / I make a move / And we trap each other in our secret dreams / Hoping to win against each other.
Prof Standa’s affable character endeared him to students who would occasionally request him to recite his poems, a request he would gladly honour. When he took over from George Eshiwani as the VC of KU, the differences in personality could not have been starker. Whereas Prof Eshiwani was a professor of mathematics, Prof Standa’s forte was the arts.
The former was a strict administrator whose hands-on management style made him omnipresent on the vast campus and quite often clashed with students but his successor was more laid back.
Prof Eshiwani served until the end of the rigid Kanu regime in which academic freedom was controlled by a short leash and President Daniel Arap Moi was chancellor of all public universities. The end of the Kanu regime ended Prof Eshiwani’s stay as the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) euphoria to get rid of everything associated with Kanu swept the country. There were demonstrations in KU calling for the sacking of the VC.
Prof Standa joined KU in 2003 from Moi University just after Mwai Kibaki became President and ushered in a new era in which other persons would be appointed chancellors of public universities. Unlike other VCs who are hired on 5-year contracts, he was given one for three years.
“He brought an air of friendliness in the running of the university. There were no more threats of sackings when Eshiwani was in charge and staff used to avoid meeting him because he would always find some fault in you,” said a senior staffer who served under the three VCs.
In 2006, Prof Standa’s stint at KU came to an end. When the vacancy was advertised, he applied but came second to his deputy vice chancellor (Finance, Planning and Development) Prof Olive Mugenda who upstaged him during the interview. Prof Mugenda presented an ambitious strategic plan for the university during the interview. That convinced the university council to hire her.
Prof Standa was later appointed to head the Commission for Higher Education at a time when universities enjoyed more academic freedom and university education expanded exponentially. The commission he headed was in charge of accrediting academic programmes and also making sure that the new universities and university colleges adhered to requirements before being granted authority to operate in the country.
After his remains are interred in Mahanda Village, Prof Standa will remain immortalised in his evergreen poetry. Written decades ago, A Pregnant School Girl, relates well with the current ‘sponsor’ culture that is so rampant in the country. The sad mood of the poem has engulfed the village he grew up in. The ‘bush’ has lost its most vocal son.
Preparations for the internment of the preeminent professor are in top gear and meetings are being held at the Friends Church, Ngong Road. There will be a fundraiser on Wednesday November 15 2023 at 5.30 pm at United Kenya Club. A funeral service will be held on Saturday 18 2023 at Mahanga Village, Webuye where his remains will also be interred.