What you need to know:
- Mwalimu Bukenya, as those close to him fondly refer to him, was my literature lecturer during my undergraduate studies at Kenyatta University in the late 1980s.
- His course on literary stylistics was a fascinating journey for upcoming writers.
Mwalimu Austin Bukenya stoked my literary instincts last week with his response to an article I wrote in the Daily Nation’s recently launched Higher Education magazine.
I was pleasantly surprised when he picked on the article as illustration of a “good read” and he went on to illustrate what makes any piece of writing qualify for that description.
The article was about Kenyatta University’s Prof Stephen Runo who had won British Royal Africa Society Prize through research on the innovative way of killing the deadly weed, striga. According to Mwalimu Bukenya, among other things, the article was refreshing as it celebrated research, an area generally shunned by the general public, and the media too.
But confessions first. Mwalimu Bukenya, as those close to him fondly refer to him, was my literature lecturer during my undergraduate studies at Kenyatta University in the late 1980s.
He was an all-rounder literary scholar, enchanting us with poetry and taking us through East African prose to European theatre. His favourites, among others, were French dramatist popularly known as Moliere, but whose real name was Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, George Bernard Shaw and of course Shakespeare.
Mwalimu Bukenya’s fascination with various genres from Caribbean and particularly the revolutionaries such as V.S. Naipaul, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, George Lamming, was breath-taking. His course on literary stylistics was a fascinating journey for upcoming writers.
Over the years, a number of us, his former students, have kept constant touch with Mwalimu especially through literary events. The latest interaction was late last year, before coronavirus struck.
One of our classmates, Simon Sossion, who went into publishing, hosted us during the 10th anniversary celebration of his publishing firm, Spotlight, at Sarit Centre, Nairobi. Classmates in attendance were Dr Evans Mugarizi, a literature lecturer at Moi University and Muthuri Nyamu, former KBC Deputy Managing Director and currently, media consultant. It was a reunion of sorts, full of classroom nostalgia.
In class, Mwalimu Bukenya had a way with words and that he has consistently demonstrated in his weekly column in these pages. His distinctive charge was that writing must be simple, easy and flowing.
Not surprisingly, he was at it last week when he made reference to my article and another by Dr Tom Odhiambo of the University Nairobi. Dr Odhiambo’s article was a book review of editor Saida Yahya-Othman’s Nyerere: The Making of a Philosopher.
Art of good writing
I was humbled by Mwalimu Bukenya’s appreciation of our write-ups. It was a thumbs up from venerable Mwalimu. He used our stories to pronounce himself on the art of good writing.
His pitch was that a “good read” is identified by the twin catchphrase of “facility and felicity”. He went on to explain facility to mean fluency and ease of reading while felicity is about elegance.
Mwalimu always insisted on short and simple sentences and had aversion for verbosity and pomposity. He had a sneaky way of putting his view on simplicity, charging that; “a long sentence is the rope with which you hang your neck”. Not that long sentences are bad. But one has to be careful when using them because often times, many writers end up confusing syntactic rules and confusing readers. Another addition to good writing, he would say, was colour, perhaps, humour, but only in proper context. Those have stood out as the true North for his charges.
Those of us who went on to pursue higher degrees and make a career out of writing, editing and publishing stuck to Mwalimu Bukenya’s edict. We are reminded of the works of Chinua Achebe, who though makes use of his vernacular, Igbo, and pidgin, in his English texts, is easily accessible because of simplicity and ease with which he weaves his narratives.
The reason Mwalimu Bukenya’s verdict was fascinating was that he is no placatory reader. He is a seasoned literary critique; plain and forthright. He tells it as it, tearing any piece of work from the morpheme to syntax, paragraph to the full text.
Another trait we learnt from him is the art of reading. He always insisted that any literary scholar has to read at least one novel, a play and two poems every week. Reading is the salt of the soul, nourishing the mind and opening vistas to new knowledge. The advice has never failed.
Mwalimu Bukenya has reason to walk with his head high up because his students have kept the faith.