Don’s tantalising memoir could have yielded more

Kibabii University Council Chairman Dr Ernest Mwangi Njoroge (left), congratulates Cyprian Omukhwaya Sakwa, when he awarded him with a PhD in Pure Mathematics on November 23, 2018. Looking on (centre) is Prof Isaac Ipara Odero, Vice Chancellor of the institution.

What you need to know:

  • Ipara’s frazzled reflection leads him to the sad cognition that many successful or complete families are built on the pain of death, and are rewarded by the joy of new life.
  • Born in the mid-1950s, Ipara’s formative years coincided with the dying days of colonialism and the birth of Eldoret as an urban space of opportunity.

To the burgeoning scope of life writing in Kenya was recently added Ipara Odeo’s The Silent Footsteps (2020), a memoir of Kibabii University’s founding vice chancellor, whose rise to the top of Kenya’s academia is the ultimate narrative subject of the whole text.

Structured along a linear plotline that begins from cradle to apex, The Silent Footsteps – aided by Masinde Kusimba – nonetheless injects critical narrative innovations to capture some topical issues that are specific to particular time spaces, and which also reflect the personal values of the author.

Throughout the 17 chapters of the memoir, Ipara innovatively uses anecdotes, epigraphs, and understatements that reflect his deep spirituality and aspiration to being a fair-minded leader and scholar.

Despite its narrative linearity, the memoir simply but effectively communicates the writer’s key message: that one can still rise to societal apex via the traditional means of silently taking a step at a time, anticipating challenges along the way, while trusting in God all through.

Going by the desiderata in critical studies on life writing that autobiographical works are necessary reading because they deepen our knowledge of society and our histories, then in The Silent Footsteps, three critical points stand out.

One is how the traditional belief structures – faith in the occult, for instance – paired with colonial cartographies of economic reward systems to precipitate internal migrations and create ethnic cosmopolitans as far back as the 1940s.

 In the memoir, Ipara’s grandfather, who migrated from Malakisi to Eldoret owing to the inexplicable deaths of his children and wife, set the stage and pace for what would turn out to be the first step that his grandson, Ipara Odeo, made towards being vice chancellor.

Road to Kiswahili

I am reminded of Robert Frost’s oft cited poem, “The Road Not Taken”, and the world of difference that the rarely taken road made for the persona, only that in this case the road not taken leads to Ipara’s own double triumph.

Ipara takes the road to Kiswahili at a time when his contemporaries pursued more ‘lucrative’ disciplines; he then takes the other road further west to Masinde Muliro University, when it was a fledgling university college of Moi University, where his rise both in the discipline and in university administration finally take off.

The thematic value of the memoir partly lies in this message; that success in life, if we measure it this way, lies in taking the road not taken, perhaps.

The second thing that stands out in this memoir is Ipara’s adept use of understatements to express his reservations about some people, cultural practices, and social norms. It is easy for a casual reader to miss out on Ipara’s discomfort with patriarchs who, from their informal liaisons, beget children out of their families. Although these are mentioned as members of the larger clans, the reader is tasked with prising open kernels of innuendo and fleeting mentions.

This subject is especially troublesome for Ipara because, as one reads on, the memoir raises the twin problem of individual desire for parenthood as contrasted with the sad reality that for some couples, getting children can be problematic.

Subtle reflection

Through subtle reflection on the experiences of childhood and fatherhood, for himself and his ascendants, Ipara’s memoir thus teases out the emotional meanings of life and death, of gain and loss.

The birth and death of his uncles and siblings all elicit reflective pauses in the memoir, pauses that hint at how Ipara’s stoicism is both manifested and tested, because he is exposed to these loses without the buffer of sentimentality, of professional help, or of temporal distance.

 Thus, Ipara’s frazzled reflection leads him to the sad cognition that many successful or complete families are built on the pain of death, and are rewarded by the joy of new life.

The third point, which could well be the first, is the backstory of Ipara’s own being; his descendance from Ateso and Bukusu communities rendered asunder by colonial cartographies and socio-economic deprivation, and his fortuitous presence in Eldoret at a time when what is now a sprawling city in all but name was nothing much more than a meeting point for squatters in colonial farmlands.

One cannot help but draw parallels between the growth in sophistication of the city of Eldoret, whose earlier bucolic amenities received Ipara’s anxious grandfather, and Ipara’s own growth and development.

Born in the mid-1950s, Ipara’s formative years coincided with the dying days of colonialism and the birth of Eldoret as an urban space of opportunity that groomed the first generation of Africans who could dare to dream of better lives for their children, dreams that were almost always incubated in schools.

 And now, in his prime age of the 60’s, Ipara heads one of the many universities in Kenya that seek to help other dreamers to achieve their ambitions and position themselves on the paths to their destinies.

The brief social history of Eldoret, and even shorter of Malakisi, the narrative on colonial farmlands and, later, individual acquisition of property, the focus on schools including my alma mater Chesamisi, and on professional bodies such as CHAKITA, all show how formal and informal institutions contribute to the making of social and economic histories, and of individuals within them.

Moral texture

For Ipara, specifically, the moral texture of these places and their institutions, in his childhood and adult life, bore a huge influence on his character as a spiritual academic who is blessed with a soul of gratitude for his many blessings.

And yet, in enumerating these blessings, it seems that the memoir is divided into two sections. The earlier part where Ipara traces his genealogy from the confluence the Ateso and Bukusu nations is so superbly written that the reader wishes the narrative would never end.

Similarly, the section where Ipara gives the social history of Eldoret town reflects the editorial rigour that one would expect of a work of this standing.

And then work degenerates in style and substance. Some critical sections of the memoir appear truncated. Take the chapter on Ipara’s stint at Masinde Muliro University where, by his admission, he honed his skills as a university administrator.

One would expect a detailed reflection on the challenges of balancing the pains of being an ordinary academic with the pleasures of being a senior administrator.

Indeed throughout the memoir, there are numerous ellipses that deprive the reader of a chance to understand the inner workings of university administration which, as many academics in Kenya know, is ironically anti-academic.

Again, there are many grammatical and structural infelicities that betray a sloppy editorial intervention, which Masinde Kusimba and Anthony Wasena, who are credited with editorial help, ought to have cured. (Reading The Silent Footsteps – along other recent Kenyan works – I now think that editors are the weakest link in Kenya’s publishing value chain.)

Because of this outlandish editing, what would otherwise be an exciting read for a wide audience is limited to a very particular group of Kenyans who know, for instance, that HoD is an abbreviation for head of department, one that can endure unnecessary repetitions, and one that can accommodate the misuses and abuses of capitalisation.

The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi