Scholar's quest to raise the stature of children's literature

Dr Ezekiel Alembi

Another teacher?’’ his father thundered, disappointed that young Ezekiel Alembi had been admitted to the university for a degree in education.

Dr Ezekiel Alembi

His ailing father, the late Mzee Musa Alembi Otwelo, had asked him what degree course he had been enrolled for.

According to Alembi, his father didn’t like the idea of his choice to be a teacher and this bothered him.

Growing up, Alembi had always wanted to become a lawyer. At Kangaru High School, he scored 13 points, missing the cut-off mark by one mark. 

“I wanted to be a lawyer because of peer influence. My classmates at Kakamega High School and at Kangaru School talked highly of law as a profession. I got sucked into this and believed that life began and ended with law. Secondly, I liked debates and enjoyed discussions during my literature, history and CRE classes. I was convinced that law would give me the opportunity to do more of this,” he says.

His first year at the university was a disaster since he had not fully accepted teaching as a profession. He almost failed during that initial year. However, he worked hard at getting good grades and the effort bore fruit. 

While at the university, Alembi worked with the likes of Mumbi wa Maina, David Mulwa, Joshua Teyie and Prof Francis Imbuga. This marked the beginning of his interest in theatre arts.

In 1986, while still at the university, he came across an announcement in Step magazine inviting entries in a writing competition. He submitted an entry and emerged a winner. Then Keswick bookshop announced a writing competition in 1989 which he once again participated in and won. His story performed quite well. 

Scholarship to study

Gradually, he began to fall in love with children’s stories and got deeply engrossed in that genre of writing. In 1988, he won a scholarship to study a short course in creative writing and theatre studies in Sydney.

When he came back from Australia at the end of 1988, he briefly taught at John Osogo boys’ secondary school in Port Victoria, Busia, and then was later invited to teach children’s literature at Kenyatta University . 

As a result of his studies in Australia, he was appointed the African representative of World Interplay. Interplay is the single largest festival of young playwrights in the world. It is a biannual event that brings together young playwrights aged 15 to 26 from all over the world to work for two weeks on script development, acting and stage craft. The festival was started in 1985 by Errol Bray and has representatives from all over the world.

As Africa’s representative, Alembi selects playwrights from Africa to attend the festival. He also selects tutors who are respected artistes to attend as tutor delegates.

He became a graduate assistant at Kenyatta University and later enrolled for his masters degree programme.

It was becoming clear to Alembi that his life was heading towards theatre. In 1991, he was invited to Australia and New Zealand to deliver a series of lectures and hold workshops. Two years later, he organised the first-ever African regional playwrights’ workshop that brought together writers from across Africa.

Running workshops

While teaching at Kenyatta University in 1993, he once again got an invitation to run workshops and teach in Australia. 

He later gave lectures at Western Sydney University, Perth, Murdorch University, Edith Cowan University, Swan Theatre Company, Aboriginal and Islanders College, and Curtin University.

“What fascinated me about these places is the level of organisation and the facilities. Even in small countries such as Iceland and Estonia, they have an amazing amount of books and journals both in paper and electronic form.

It is easy to do research in these countries as, besides books and journals, students and scholars have easy access to computers, internet, telephone, fax, travel and research grants.

‘‘Scholars who cannot do research have no chance for survival.

‘‘The amount of contribution to research and successful teaching are key in the renewal of contracts. Folklore is a respected discipline and very successful research is going on all over the world especially in the Nordic countries,” he affirms.

Born on December 12, 1960 in Ziwani, Taita Taveta, Alembi had a humble childhood. He would fight a lot, play a lot and dream a lot. He dreamt of driving big cars and making aircraft. When in Standard Three, his father moved from Taita Taveta back to Bunyore. 

Alembi attended Kakamega High and Kangaru School for his ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels where he was an outstanding student, before proceeding to Kenyatta University 

The scholar, who once considered making Australia his second home, is married to Patricia, an accountant, and the couple has three children. 

He reveals: “My family is a great source of inspiration. On many occasions, my wife has had to stay on the table with me up to three in the morning. On such occasions, she prepares tea as I take a lot of it when working overnight. My children provide a lot of support. In fact I have used their names in some of my titles. 

‘‘I try my best to give my family quality time. I find time also to go on holiday and they all enjoy when this happens. I take my children to the drama festival. This way I am able to get more quality time for them.”

He was recently appointed to chair the Literature Department at Kenyatta University and is the current national chairman of the Kenya schools and colleges drama festivals.

Looking back and recalling his father’s statement of “another teacher”, Alembi thinks that his father might have insinuated that he becomes a different teacher and stand out. 

Series of lectures

While attending a folklore conference in 1995 at the University of Maysore in Southern India, Alembi was surprised but excited to find his name on the screen, having been chosen to give a series of lectures at Trichur University, Kerala, together with an Iranian scholar, Bagheri Merry, who teaches at Tabriz University in Iran. 

Folklore was slowly becoming his forte, and he became even more captivated by it. He travelled to Helsinki in Finland to present a proposal for a PhD at the University of Helsinki, folklore department. 

His proposal was accepted and in 1998, he was on his way to the University of Goenttingen in Germany for a conference en route to Finland for more on his PhD studies.

Alembi was elected vice-president, International Society for Folklore Narrative Research in Change of Africa while in Germany in 1998 and brought scholars to Africa at a meeting held at Kenyatta University in 2000.

Alembi travelled back to Finland to finalise his doctoral studies in 2002. But prior to that in 2001, he defended his thesis at a public gathering in Bunyore, where his findings were discussed in the open.

His thesis was on the construction of Abanyore perception of Death Through Oral Funeral Poetry. 

Why study on death?

Asked why he chose to study death for his doctoral work, Alembi says: “Death affects everything human beings do. For example, we name our children after dead relatives for continuity. People marry to procreate and fill the gap left when others die.”

It was in 2003, just a year after the General Election, that Alembi got an invitation to Visby University, Sweden, to present a paper on songs sang in the 2002 General Election in Kenya.

“Investigation of poetry, song and dance shapes minds and influences outcome. Politicians understand that song and dance are powerful tools in elections,” says Alembi.

The scholar has been conspicuous and prominent in organising the Abanyore cultural festivals and, when asked if he is an ambassador for the Abanyore people, cheerfully answers: Since 2001, I’ve been organising the Abanyore Cultural Forum. It gives me pleasure that I’ve been able to make this small contribution. I can’t say I have achieved the whole world but I’m happy that many people from Bunyore talk about it.

‘‘The forum is held every December. I meet many people and they tell me how wonderful the sharing of knowledge was. 

‘‘One young man complained saying that we should hold it every month. This tells me that it goes down well with many. One thing is certain, I will continue investing a lot in the forum. It is the best thing I ever did in this world.”

Alembi leads a humble life despite his globe-trotting and the academic recognition he has received from various universities from around the world. 

His books are studied in the children’s literature courses at Kenyatta University.

Alembi has over 30 titles for children in his name, and has published material for secondary school literature students.