What you need to know:
- One of the most touching moments for me was Sports Ministry Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed’s press conference, on the first day of the Games, July 24.
- One of the CS’s wishes that particularly caught my attention was that we should have Japanese professors coming to Kenya to teach Japanese, and Kenyans going to Japan to teach Kiswahili.
In Literature, we dwell a lot on the concepts of cause, consequence and coincidence. The ability to establish or identify such relationships, or patterns, gives significance or meaning to the flood of happenings and events around us. The famous English novelist, E.M. Forster framed the skill with concise artistry in his iconic work, A Passage to India. “Only connect,” he wrote.
So it was that I have been trying to connect the events around me to the super-event of the fortnight, the “2020” Tokyo Olympics, now rolling towards its finale, a year late because of the coronavirus pandemic. The fascinating, and maybe a little frightening, reality about connecting, however, is that it is borderless and limitless. Once you start connecting, or “free associating”, you may be heading towards infinity.
With the Olympics, for example, on Wednesday, Peruth (Persis) Chemutai won her (and Uganda’s) gold medal in the women’s 3000 metres steeplechase. The same day, I heard news that some 10 Ugandan girls from Amudat District (read County) had crossed into Kenya to escape the threat of circumcision (female genital mutilation). Twenty-two-year-old Chemutai comes from neighbouring Bukwo District, in the Sabiny region of Mount Elgon, where FGM is also widely practised.
My reaction was, how great it is to send our girls to school and to the racing track instead of forcing them down to the ngariba’s (circumciser) mat and knife, in the name of customs, traditions and the entire rap! Chemutai’s triumph (which, in my East African mind, I claim for both Kenya and Uganda), and the Amudat girls’ daring dash to freedom, reminded me of the lovely anti-FGM novel, The Switch, by my friend and former Makerere colleague, Hon Mary Karooro Okurut.
The young women’s crossing into Kenya, the same day some other travellers were having problems flying to Entebbe also reminded me of the sad ambivalence of the new East African Community. When will the free movement of people and goods in our region become a reality, again, as it used to be? But there is always more to these things than first meets the eye, and we will spare that chat for another day.
Nurturing of human contacts
Back to the Olympics, one of the most touching moments for me was Sports Ministry Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed’s press conference, on the first day of the Games, July 24. This was at the Kenyan Embassy in Tokyo, where she met business leaders from Kurume City, Fukuoka Prefecture, the hosts of the Kenya Olympic team.
When Ambassador Mohamed narrowly but gracefully ceded the WTO top post to her elder sister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iewala last October, I predicted that she would concentrate on leading Kenya’s team to the Tokyo Olympics. She was in her best element doing just that at the conference. She elicited from the Kurume hosts not only assurances of warm hospitality for Team Kenya but also full support through the Games and beyond.
Most importantly, the Japanese hosts sounded convinced that the contacts and cooperation established during and through the Olympics would be extended to other areas of culture, and business. This, I think, is the essence of what the Olympics are about, the nurturing of human contacts and relationships through participation in creative endeavours.
It was sad that Dr Mohamed’s mission was shockingly interrupted by her bereavement. You would have heard that she lost her husband just a few days into the Games. But she had made her point. One of the CS’s wishes that particularly caught my attention was that we should have Japanese professors coming to Kenya to teach Japanese, and Kenyans going to Japan to teach Kiswahili. I could not agree more.
Indeed, I remember that we had some such arrangements in the past, especially with UoN’s Literature Department. Our dear departed Professor Chris Wanjala was closely associated with the programmes, but I did not follow them closely and I do not know how they developed. I am sure our colleagues at UoN will bring us up to date.
Cultural and academic exchanges
I also know of several other East Africans who have handled Kiswahili in Japan, among them one al Attas, who worked for many years for the Swahili Service of Radio Japan, and my friend Said Ahmed Mohamed, who taught Kiswahili at a university there for a couple of years. On the wider Asian (Far Eastern) scene, our colleague Prof Kineene wa Mutiso spent several years of study and work in South Korea and even collaborated on a few publications, including a Korean-Swahili dictionary.
China’s cooperation in our study and academic programmes is obvious, with such organs as the Confucius Institutes on many of our campuses. The one at KU was for some years directed by my friend and colleague, Prof Martin Njoroge, currently Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic at the USIU-A. Another friend of mine, Prof Oswald Ndoleriire, started the Makerere one.
I remember once (in 2014) gently declining a “feeler” (as the academics call a tentative invitation) for a teaching spell at Beijing University. This was after I delivered my keynote address, “My Post-Post Everything”, at a conference at the Pwani University in Kilifi, and apparently impressing some attending Chinese scholars. My decision not to take up the offer was not for lack of interest, but rather out of a feeling that I did not have the energy (at the time) to perform at the expected level in such an assignment.
Ambassador Amina Mohamed’s call, however, underlines the importance of cultural and academic exchanges. In these days of “us-first” and “donor-fatigue” fashions, offers are not as frequent or as generous as they used to be. We have to seek them proactively, and follow them up with concrete performance, especially in research and publication. We should not be recipients of the exchange programmes but active and innovative partners in the programmes we propose or accept from international institutions.
On a lighter note, and without mentioning names, did you know how strong a fashion statement a “Maasai” bead headband could be?
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature. [email protected]