Departed East African colossi leave me gasping with respect

First woman MP in Kenya Grace Onyango. 

Photo credit: File I Nation Media Group

The colossi, or giants, I am talking about are Grace Akech Onyango Nya’Bungu and John Mwesigwa Robin Nagenda. Mama Grace Onyango of Kisumu needs no introduction to educated Kenyans who care about their history. She was the first female Mayor of Kisumu, and later the first elected female Member of the Kenyan Parliament, at one time acting as its Speaker.

John Nagenda is not very well-known to present-day Kenyans, although he lived and worked in Nairobi in the late 1960s and early 1970s as an editor with the Oxford University Press. But this Ugandan, born in Rwanda and raised both there and in Uganda and later domiciled in the West, mostly in England, was internationally known and highly respected as a sportsman, a literary creator and a topflight journalist.

Let me start with a brief and humble farewell to Mama Grace Onyango. When my friends, Obat Masira and Omar Nasser, sent me their poem, ‘Song of an Iconic Legend’, which is about Grace Onyango, I thought it was in connection with the flurry of activities we have been having at the Mama Grace Onyango Social Centre in Kisumu.

Only on getting to Nairobi on Thursday, and being hit by the news of the departure of the grand old lady, did I realise that my friends were sending me a coded message. I will not say much about Nya’Bungu (daughter of the bush), for two reasons. First, I was not personally acquainted with her. Secondly, and more importantly, more knowledgeable and qualified people are giving us insights into the life of this icon of Kenyan female empowerment and its significance to us and future generations.

Suffice it for me to rehearse briefly what I said two years ago. I was honoured with an invitation to share with my friends, Dr Jeremiah Humphrey Ojwang and Prof Francis Otieno Rew, a discussion that was intended to revive intellectual debates at the then-newly renamed Mama Grace Onyango Social Centre. The theme of my contribution to the conversation was a prediction that, inspired by the life and work of Mama Grace Onyango, we could be on the way to inaugurating a genuine feminist revolution from the lakeside city.

Firm voice

The final departure of Nya’Bungu on the evening of March 8, just as we were concluding our main celebrations of International Women’s Day, was certainly coincidence. But we cannot help reading a strong symbolic significance into it. She seems to be challenging us in a humble but firm voice: “I lived my life. I did my best for Kenya and for the African woman. What are you doing for Kenya, for the Kenyan woman and the African woman?”

By all evidence and all accounts, Mama Grace Onyango was a woman of high intelligence, courage, determination and decisive action. I think, as the excellent professional teacher that she was, she would be most satisfied with our serious study of her approaches and practices and our emulation of them in the emancipation and empowerment of the Kenyan woman.

We should also remember that feminism, the systematic struggle to free the woman and enable her to play her rightful role in every aspect of human endeavour, is not an exclusively “women’s business”. It is the business of us all, and it inevitably implies and necessitates male emancipation and empowerment. Toxic “macho” masculinity and patriarchal chauvinism (“only the man matters”), are the two root causes of the woman’s disenfranchisement and oppression.

They are due mainly to the unemancipated man’s sense of insecurity, fear and even hatred of the liberated and potentially empowered woman. On the other hand, sensitised and emancipated men contribute significantly to the empowerment of their female partners, as we see in the examples of the Lake husbands, the late Onyango Baridi of Mama Grace Onyango, my academic son, Dr Charles Oduol of Hon. Prof Jacqueline Oduol, and Japuonj Prof Bethwell Ogot of the late Hon Grace Ogot.

Back to John Nagenda, the sportsman, journalist, novelist and political activist, who passed away in Kampala a week ago, the easiest way to locate him is through the long line of famous people who went through the two iconic institutions of East African pre-independence elite education, both located in Uganda. Like the late Charles Njonjo of Kenya and our beloved David Rubadiri of Malawi, Nagenda was an alumnus of King’s College Budo. Then it was Makerere, in the footsteps of Nyerere, Mkapa, Kibaki and all those legendary others.

At Makerere’s famed English Department, Nagenda, apart from taking his English Honours, was editor of the now legendary Penpoint Literary Journal, in which Ngugi wa Thiong’o launched his stellar career. Nagenda predates by some years, I believe, our own late Jonathan Kariara, the Penpoint editor who published Ngugi’s first short story. Good material there for our literary historians. Kariara knew Nagenda well, and I think they worked together during the latter’s stint at the Oxford University Press.


At the OUP, Nagenda was also responsible for the publication of my first book in 1971, a brief treatise on public speaking, in Luganda, my home language. Apparently, we were following Ngugi’s advice to write in our home languages, many years before the maestro formulated it. For his interest in my writing I paid Nagenda back by analysing his novel, The Seasons of Thomas Tebo, a biting satire of Uganda’s political follies, in my forthcoming An Idiom of Blood: the Pragmatics of Terror in the Uganda Novel.

But among most media followers, Nagenda was revered for his awesome yet effortless command of language. For 25 years he wrote a column, ‘One Man’s Week’ in Uganda’s New Vision paper, and each piece there was, apart from the wisdom it dispensed, a “marking scheme” for good journalistic writing.

Maybe it was this unique way with words, and his fearless readiness to speak truth to power, that enabled him to remain the Senior Presidential Adviser on the media for these many years, lending some credence to Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that the medium is the message.

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