Black History at USIU-Africa and my new life beginning at 80

Black History Month

In this file photo, the USIU hold an opening ceremony for the Black History Month celebrations. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

As you read this, I will probably be back at my beloved and longest-holding alma mater, Kenyatta University, celebrating my birthday. Maybe I should more appropriately say I am being “celebrated” by a cross-section of my friends, former students, colleagues and associates from academia, the media, theatre and publishing. I am a little bemused at it all, as I do not know exactly how I got here.

I am even a little scared, as I am not sure what my close (not to say “intimate”) friends who come to congratulate me will reveal about me. Reassuringly, I note that no one is lined up to talk about my love life or, disappointingly, my sporting life, of which I am inordinately proud. I mean the latter, playing and coaching tennis. Anyway, I am truly glad and immensely grateful that my acquaintances and friends at Kenyatta University, and in Kenya, have chosen to honour me in this way, reflecting on what has kept this loquacious little man going for all of eighty years, and showing no signs of slowing down.

I will be listening keenly to what they say, ready to pick up any hints at what might keep me going, even stronger, for the next two decades and beyond. Whatever my friends say, however, I am convinced that, apart from the grace of God (which I dearly value as a believer), the one thing that has consistently sustained me through these many years is passion. Passion simply means a powerful love, a strong commitment to and engagement with yourself, with people and with what you do.

I will not talk too loudly about myself. But what I know, thanks to the teachings of my late mother, Maria Salome, is that I matter. I am a human being, and there are things that I have to do and things that I have to avoid, because I am a human being. That is what ethics is about. Next to that is a passion about people, the conviction that every human being, regardless of their origins, status or class, matters. Your positive engagement with them at every opportunity improves not only their quality of life but also yours.

This brings me to the root passion of my activities. This is communication. I believe that the human being lives in order to communicate, and we communicate in order to live. Communication is the ability to reach out to one another and share our experiences. Whenever that ability is damaged or destroyed, human beings suffer or die. That is what war is about. People who cannot communicate about their differences end up killing one another.

Anyway, my initially subconscious attraction to communication led me to a fascination with language and languages. I grew up, and I have always lived, in richly multilingual environments. In my childhood village we had communities of speakers of Luganda, Luo (Acholi and Dhopadola), Ateso, Icirundi/Kinyarwanda and Runyankore/Rukiga. There was also the Kiswahili of the disciplined forces, the Latin and Arabic of the worship houses and the imperious English of the colonisers. My choice of language as a hobby, a career and a passion arose from these early exposures.

But the best you can do with a language is mastering it to the highest standards and then teaching it to others. This brings us to the third link in the chain of my passion. This is teaching, for which I believe most of those celebrating with me remember and acknowledge me. That, as you can see, is the chain, communication, language and teaching, that has bound me to life and makes sense of my thorough enjoyment of the eighty years of my life history, so far.

A positive history is, indeed, the proper blending of people, time and opportunity to transform humankind. Many of those celebrating me today were ingenuous, eager-faced young people when they came to my undergraduate classes. Today, most of them are ingenious and experienced topflight executives managing some of the most important institutions in the country and on the international scene. Our combination of people, participation and passion is shaping the history of Africa.

Indeed, I feel flattered that my birthday falls in this season that the African Diaspora in America and many other countries mark as Black History Month. It is a period of intensive commemoration of the passionate struggle of African people everywhere against the challenges that have faced, and still face, them, like slavery, colonisation, discrimination and exploitation. The month also celebrates the many spectacular achievements of Black people all over the world.

I joined the students and faculty of the United States International University, Africa Campus (USIU-A) at Kasarani in Nairobi, on Tuesday February 6, to kick off the month-long programme of activities to reflect on and celebrate our experiences through the centuries. I had been invited to the event by the Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at USIU-A, Prof Martin Njoroge, a long-time friend and colleague, with whom I have worked on several pedagogic projects.

I listened with fascination to the accounts of the resounding triumphs of our people, ranging from the Obamas to the three African American women mathematicians who made the calculations that landed humans on the moon. Through it all, I felt that the common factor among these topflight achievers was that intense commitment to what they set out to do. So, whether it is landing on Mars or simply longevity, going about it with passion helps.

Speaking of passion, the strong commitment of the founders of the USIU-A to private, secular tertiary education is commendable. It has seen it grow from the modest outfit in inner Nairobi, where we then-young academics part-timed in the 1970s and 80s, to the magnificent establishment that it now is. The pivotal role in this development of two African American women, Dr Lilian Beam and Prof Freda Brown, its early directors, deserves respectful mention.

You will wish me a happy 80th birthday, won’t you?

- Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]