What you need to know:
- Dr Runo’s Royal Africa Society Prize, earned from the Brits because of his innovative search for biological control of our deadly striga weed, impressed me on several planes.
- Prof Saida Yahya-Othman, a prominent linguist and English Language expert, is a close acquaintance of mine and I profoundly respect her editorial skills.
I read, in the course of this week, two particularly heart-warming articles by my fellow contributors to the Nation publications.
One was the news report of the award of the prestigious British Royal Africa Society Prize to Prof Steven Runo of Kenyatta University. The report was by our veteran education specialist, David Aduda.
The other article was a book review by UoN’s Dr Tom Odhiambo. Book reviews are not easy to write, as I know from personal experience. But Odhiambo’s lucid response to editor Saida Yahya-Othman’s Nyerere: the Making of a Philosopher, apparently the first in a 4-volume biography of our beloved Mwalimu, does just what a good review should do. That is to make you want to read the book.
I found his article “a good read”, as my friend and faithful reader, Githuku Mungai, calls it. Incidentally, let me share with you here a few of my expectations of good writing, also by way of answering some of your many requests of tips on good writing.
The articles I quoted above may serve as illustrations.
One of the main reasons why I write for the Nation is that I am an avid reader of the Nation papers. I have been addicted to them since the mid-1960s, which were their youthful days, because they have, and have always had, some very good writers.
I am obviously the notable exception to prove the rule. This is why I feel particularly grateful for your affectionate reading of my weekly scribbles. Anyway, the moral of the tale is that, in order to be a writer, you have to be a reader.
I have shared with you my expectations of a competent piece of writing. I expect enjoyment, information and inspiration. Do you remember facility and felicity?
Writing should be fluent and easy to read. This is the facility part of it, the legibility, while the felicity part is the elegance and sweetness of language that make us feel that what we “hear” (yes, we read with an inner ear) could not have been put better.
We will save the details of information and inspiration for our long-promised chat about the common writer’s survival tactics. But the long and short of it is that worthwhile writing should contribute to our experience by telling us a story or giving us news, memories or insights into an aspect of reality that might have otherwise escaped our attention.
Equally importantly, a “good read” should leave us with a feeling of enlightenment, a suggestion of some new directions in our human struggles on the paths of life.
Reading and writing are, however, highly subjective activities. Even as we outline and underline the specifics and tangibles of writing, we have to admit that there are deeper layers of the mind at which texts touch and affect each individual differently.
Regarding our articles, for example, Dr Runo’s Royal Africa Society Prize, earned from the Brits because of his innovative search for biological control of our deadly striga weed, impressed me on several planes. My eyes popped not only at the handsomeness of the £17,000 that come with it but also because of the sheer prestige that I know comes with recognition by any of these Royal Societies.
But you would know that for me, the strongest significance of Mwalimu Runo’s glory lies in his being, literally, a down-to-earth scientist and teacher who fights his battles down in the Alupe fields.
There, as Aduda told us, Prof “vaccinates” our millet, maize and sorghum against the killer weed. Who can be more inspiring than a professor who makes sure that children will have kuon/ubusuma on their plates?
Need I add that I was particularly elated that Prof Runo serves at my very own KU citadel? It takes me back to those remote years when our Faculty of Science comprised only a few units housing “Botzoo”, Chemistry and Physics. A department like Biochemistry Microbiology and Biotechnology, which Prof Runo heads, is certainly a long way from our humble “college” days, and we have every reason to celebrate and rejoice as we congratulate Prof Runo.
As for the Nyerere biography, Dr Odhiambo particularly caught my attention by mentioning that Prof Saida Yahya-Othman of Dar-es-Salaam University edited the first volume, and that she highlighted Mwalimu Nyerere’s feminist activism!
You, of course, know that nearly all of us who grew up under the direct influence of Mwalimu had a profound respect, if not a uniformly unreserved admiration, for him. But it had never occurred to me to consider a “feminist” side to Mwalimu Nyerere. I can hardly wait to read Nyerere: the Making of a Philosopher to find out.
But there is more to it than first meets the eye. Prof Saida Yahya-Othman, a prominent linguist and English Language expert, is a close acquaintance of mine and I profoundly respect her editorial skills.
I worked closely with her for the better part of three years, in Dar es Salaam, Bellagio in Italy, and Zanzibar, when she led our editorial team for the Women Writing Africa project of the Feminist Press of New York.
Indeed, she was one of the international team of remarkable women who contributed significantly to my “education” in feminist matters as we worked on that project. Though of a much younger generation than mine, she was one of my best teachers.
In Zanzibar, Saida introduced us to Howani Mwana (Hush, My Child), an exhortatory long poem (utenzi) composed by her aunt, Zeynab Himid Mohamed, and edited by Saida and her brother A.S. Yahya.
It is often compared to the Lamu classic Utendi wa Mwanakupona. What particularly caught my eye, however, was Prof Saida’s remark, somewhere in the introduction, that her aunt, Zeynab, one of the first two Swahili girls to go to school in Zanzibar Town, had had to disguise herself as an Arab.
The racist colonial system did not permit Waswahili children to join the only girls’ school in the town.
How can I help reading differently?
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]