Enjoying a Christmas party and a literary chat with Ndugu Mkapa

Former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Indeed, I was introduced to him by my own Makerere teacher and research supervisor, the late Prof Pio Zirimu, Mkapa’s former classmate in the English Department at Makerere.
  • His humanities education nurtured in him that open-minded and tolerant attitude that enabled him to receive and evaluate opinions and standpoints without prejudice.

I spent my 1976 Christmas Day evening at the residence of Ndugu Ben Mkapa in Lagos, Nigeria. This is the now late, “Hayati” His Excellency Benjamin William Mkapa, the third President of Tanzania, who was laid to rest in his home village of Lupaso in Mtwara Region last Wednesday. Mkapa was already “His Excellency” back then, but not yet President, and certainly not yet “Hayati”.

Incidentally, have you noted that “Hayati”, in current Kiswahili usage, is an honorific, a term of special, earned respect? Not every departed so-and-so is called “Hayati”, even if they were big and powerful in this life. The general term of reference to one who has left this life is “marehemu”, suggesting one who is in the mercy (rehema) of God.

I had assumed that hayati implied “living dead” (unforgettable), as indeed it has the etymological root of life (uhai). But my recently resumed online Arabic lessons revealed to me that, in that tongue, hayat is a general term of endearment and you do not necessarily have to be dead to earn it. These are the infinite intrigues and endless wonders of language. But then, Kiswahili is not Arabic, and whatever we do with the borrowings from our cousins is entirely our own business.

Back to 1976, Ndugu Ben Mkapa, who was throwing a Christmas evening party for his friends, including many of us East Africans in Lagos at the time, was “His Excellency” by virtue of being Tanzania’s High Commissioner, read Ambassador, to Nigeria. In those Ujamaa (Tanzanian socialism) days, however, the surest title for every compatriot or comrade, regardless of rank, age or gender, was “Ndugu”.

Young scholar

That is how I was introduced to our host, although I still felt obliged to murmur a “shikamoo”, as he was obviously an elder to me. Indeed, I was introduced to him by my own Makerere teacher and research supervisor, the late Prof Pio Zirimu, Mkapa’s former classmate in the English Department at Makerere. I was in Lagos to co-present with Zirimu that oft-cited paper about “oracy and orature”.

I was a promising young scholar then, not yet the “promissory nut” that I eventually turned out to be. (“Promissory nut” was Vladimir Nabokov’s distortion of “promissory note”, a kind of IOU, to suggest an idiotic man who fails to deliver, especially in matters romantic). To my surprise, Mkapa recognized me immediately when Zirimu mentioned my name. Apparently, Mkapa had read some of my writings and he shared with me a terse but perceptive comment about them.

I was both flustered and flattered. Ndugu’s comments about my scribblings were not particularly complimentary. Indeed, their implication was that he did not think it smart to satirise African leaders, as I was wont to do in those days. I stood reprimanded. On the other hand, the narcissist in me gleefully savoured the fact that this eminent man had found time to read my juvenilia and that he thought them worth a comment, however caustic.

This brings me to the main point that I wanted to share with you about Hayati Benjamin William Mkapa and his generation and that of his teachers. You know, of course, that Julius Kambarage Nyerere was, literally, Mkapa’s classroom mwalimu, at Pugu Secondary School. What I admire most about these predecessors of ours, as indeed exemplified in the first three Presidents of Tanzania, was their mastery, internalisation and application of the humanistic liberal education that they had acquired at Makerere and elsewhere.


I will not play up the Makerere card or that of the English Department there (the “Great Tradition” as the late Chris Wanjala used to call it in humorous mockery). I do not want to be accused of self-interested bias, although I keep reminding you that I am not an original Makererean, like Mwai Kibaki, Prof Ciarunji Chesaina or Mzee Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Still, I think that it is significant that Mwalimu Nyerere, Sheikh Ali Hassan Mwinyi and Benjamin Mkapa, all pursued liberal humanities courses of study.

The humanities are these days speciously and disparagingly referred to as “the arts” by many of our policymakers, in their strident clamour for the sciences and demonstrable skills. We will not go into the details of these today. But my argument is that, if we are to go by the examples of leaders like Julius Nyerere or Benjamin Mkapa, the humanities or liberal studies, like language, literature, history, theology and philosophy, are an excellent preparation for public service and leadership roles.

You will have heard a great deal of the many roles that Hayati Ben Mkapa played in his distinguished life. They ranged from being an astute journalist, heading Tanzania’s first public media house, through serving as a consummate diplomat and his ten-year stint as third President of the United Republic, to his unique ministrations as an Elder Statesman and continental peacemaker. Mkapa may have had his failings, but they were not for lack of trying.

Open-minded, tolerant

His humanities education helped him in his struggles in three main ways. First, it apparently nurtured in him that open-minded and tolerant attitude that enabled him to receive and evaluate opinions and standpoints without prejudice. That is what “liberal” is all about. Secondly, Mkapa’s linguistic and literary training equipped him with a superb communication competence, or eloquence, that enabled him to convince and persuade his many audiences of the reasonableness of his views.

Finally, a humanities education trained Mkapa to keep insatiably searching for information and knowledge. This is evident in the voracious reading habits that sent Hayati Mkapa seeking out and consuming the writings of even obscure novices, like the Bukenyas of the 1970s. I think that a fair supply of well-read and constantly reading leaders would go a long way towards making Africa a better place to live.

I am yet to read Ben Mkapa’s book, My Life, My Purpose. I will start on it as soon as I can get a copy.

I hope you will join me in the reading.

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


You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.