Kenyatta University

Students walk into Kenyatta University.

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Feting Mwalimu Kawooya: A humble but great teacher

What you need to know:

  • There is a saying that saints are ordinary people who do ordinary things in an extraordinary way.
  • I dare not call Mwalimu Kawooya a saint, although I know he is a deeply spiritual person and a strong practising pillar of his church.

I am usually more readily impressed by women than by men. We will not get into the reasons for that here, especially as I understand some of them may be quite controversial. In any case, the person strongly on my mind this week is a man, a humble teacher, known only to his students and close friends like me.

At KU, I reconnected with Vincent F. Kawooya, and taught with him for the better part of the 20 years that I taught there. I say reconnected because Kawooya had worked with me at Makerere in the early 1970s, where he was one of the founding members of the Kiswahili and African Languages Department. He had also been my contemporary in Dar es Salaam, two years behind me. He was in Yoweri Museveni’s class, with whom he studied Political Science under luminaries like Guyanese Walter Rodney, author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

But Kawooya’s heart was in Literature and, especially, Language and Linguistics. His mentors were scholars like John Woodhead, Farouk Topan and Mohamed Abdulaziz, in whose steps he followed when he went for his graduate studies to their alma mater, London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

Mwalimu Kawooya (or “Khaoya”, as we jocularly call him, approximating him to his “Western” neighbourhood connections), retired from KU in late May 2021, after 40 solid years of lecturing on Kiswahili Teaching Methods in the “Comtech” section of the University’s School of Education. In the process, he must have taught thousands of Kiswahili teachers, scholars, communicators and educationists, who are spreading the good news of our lingua franca across East Africa and the world.

That is no mean achievement, especially for a native of Uganda, where Kiswahili is not regarded as a forte of popular communication. But I have already told you that Mwalimu was forged in the mint of late-1960s Dar es Salaam, and like many of us, he caught his kind of bug from the bubbling environment. If Museveni caught the revolutionary (mapinduzi) bug and Bukenya the bantering (gumzo) one, “Khaoya” appears to have picked up the teacher (mwalimu) variety, of which Mwalimu Nyerere was, of course, a paragon.

There is a saying that saints are ordinary people who do ordinary things in an extraordinary way. I dare not call Mwalimu Kawooya a saint, although I know he is a deeply spiritual person and a strong practising pillar of his church. Picking up a clutch of books and files every day, trekking to lecture halls and seminar rooms and vociferating for hours on end, as you push the chalk and dusters across blackboards, may look like a simple routine. But doing it consistently and impeccably for 40 years, as Kawooya did, puzzles the mind. If such staying power is no cause for celebration, I do not know what is.

Those who know the game will have noted that I had not mentioned the designing and marking of, literally, heaps of coursework, term paper and examination assignments. Nor should we forget the obligatory supervision of students on their field projects and teaching practice right across the country.

For Kawooya, however, and other non-Kenyan East Africans at our campuses, there were other challenges in their working conditions. With the collapse of the original East African Community in 1977, university employees at campuses outside their countries of origin lost the right of permanent and pensionable appointment, or tenure, as the Americans call it. One was thus hired on contract, renewable every two years, if needed.

Renewal was not automatic. You had to apply, justifying your continued hiring and demonstrating your performance and contribution to your Department and the University. It was, in effect, like going for a job interview every two years, and it was all tied up with work and residence permits. So, when I said that Mwalimu Kawooya had retired this May, it was only a way of speaking. What happened was that he had decided not to renew his contract for the twenty-first-or-so time.

The fact that Kawooya had had his contract successfully renewed some 20 times speaks quite eloquently for the man’s competence and dedication. But something more touching, I think, is that there was a kind of reciprocal love affair between Mwalimu and KU. Kawooya certainly loved KU and his students, many of whom he and his wife Betty treated as genuine family members.

My own experience at Kenyatta also tells me that one of the reasons why Kawooya survived and thrived at KU is the singular culture of comradeship that characterises staff relationships in most of our Departments. For those of us who opened up and warmed up to our Kenyan colleagues at KU, nationality or ethnicity did not matter. You felt a strong sense of belonging.

This probably sprang from the almost entirely residential nature of our original community. We all lived together as neighbours on campus, in our Lower and Upper Zones, along our neat streets, avenues and closes, named after African countries . Our little front and back gardens abutted on one another, separated by simple, thin hedges.

We were not only colleagues who only met in corridors and offices or studies, but friends who brought up our children together, sending them to our community primary school on the campus. The Kawooyas, I believe, lived at Burundi 3 for all the time they were on that beautiful campus. “Times change and we in them are changed,” as Ovid, the Roman poet, put it. But one cannot help a touch of nostalgia for those idyllic KU times.

Mwalimu Kawooya is now quietly settled in his retirement home, about 150 kilometres south of Kampala, and just about 50 kilometres north of the north-western border with Tanzania. I am sure he will always cherish dear memories of Kenya and, especially, Kenyatta University.

I would love to share recollections of his teaching and mentoring from some of his students, and his colleagues.

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

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