Our new Open University and the open-minded scholarship in Konza Technopolis

President William Ruto hands over a mace to the Open University of Kenya (OUK) council chairman, Prof Ezra Maritim, during a ceremony to award a Charter to the institution at Konza Technocity in Makueni County on August 3, 2023.

Photo credit: PCS

The Open University of Kenya (OUK) is now a fully chartered academic entity in the country. President Ruto handed over its Charter and other instruments of identity to my friend and former long-time KU colleague, Prof Ezra Maritim, on Thursday last week.

This was in Konza City, Kenya’s “Technopolis” (technology city) in Machakos County, where the University will be headquartered.

Professor Maritim is the Chairman of the University Council, while Equity Bank boss, Mr James Mwangi, has been appointed Chancellor.

The University recognises the President as its Chancellor, but the President has the prerogative to name a suitable candidate to represent him in that titular role. Prof Elijah Omwenga is the Vice-Chancellor, the chief executive, of the University, which is scheduled to start its teaching programmes next month.

This launch of the Open University of Kenya (OUK) caught my imagination and affections for several reasons, some of them admittedly trivial, but all of them close to my heart.

The event evoked in me distant memories, a pleasant surprise and an enthusiastic hope for the future of Kenya’s education.

All these of course relate to my prolonged and passionate immersion in Kenya’s pedagogical and academic adventure, especially in this part of the country.

You know of the pride I take in my Machakos “roots”, dating back to 1977, when I pitched camp at the foot of the Iveti Hills and started teaching the unforgettable young women of “the” Machakos Girls High School, as Ms Anne Ndonye, our first African Head Teacher, taught us to call it. Anyway, I first heard of Konza during my residence in Machakos.

“Blue Line of Konza” was a transport company operating with a number of passenger coaches from the Machakos Bus Station.

Machakos was a powerful transport hub in those roaring 1970s, and I was impressed to find that the “Akamba” buses, on which I had travelled to Kampala and elsewhere actually had a base in Machakos.

The linguist in me used to get curious about the significance of the names around me, as I did about another bus company, “Mbukinya”, which sounded remotely like my name, pronounced with a mildly nasalised initial sound characteristic of the region.

Anyway, on asking what was Konza, I was told that it was a small trading centre just off the Mombasa Highway, near where we turned off to the left towards Machakos Town.

There was hardly anything remarkable about it, except perhaps an old railway junction with a branch towards Lake Magadi. I had long left Machakos when I heard that Konza was to be developed into a “Technopolis”, a 2000-hectare (5000 acre) high technology city that would be one of the hubs to drive Kenya’s “Vision 2030”.

“A prophet is not without honour but… in his own house,” goes the scripture in part. Many of us Machakos “locals” were excited about the vision of a Silicon-Valley style park in our midst, but many of us secretly nursed scepticism about its realisation in Konza. We would believe it when we saw it, we seemed to think.

In my case, the one time I remember seriously considering the Konza project is when I wondered why our “friends” out there should not consider helping us set up such technopoles across the continent. Then there would be so many jobs here that our people would not have to risk drowning in the Mediterranean or slaving in oil-rich semideserts.

Yet lo and behold (“kumbe” as the Waswahili say), men and women of far greater faith than mine have been and are toiling to establish Konza Technopolis as a viable reality. We owe them gratitude, respect and encouragement.

Last week’s launching of the Open University of Kenya in Konza, in the impressive building that it shares with the Kenya Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), was a big eye-opener for me, and for others like me, to the reality and tremendous potential of the Konza Technopolis and related projects in spearheading Kenya’s development.

The OUK itself should, of course, be the centre of our attention today. Although university education in Kenya and East Africa has blossomed and expanded beyond any horizons that we could have imagined sixty years ago, there are still many obstacles that keep it out of the reach of many who want it.

These include finances, time and space constraints, family and other social commitments, age and the ritualistic traditions around academia, the “ivory tower” syndrome. This is why you still hear of the “town and gown” separation in many societies, with the ordinary people (town) on one side and the “scholars” (gown, “wanazuo”) on the other.

The concept and practice of the open university, which fully came into its own in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is aimed at eliminating or at least reducing this divide. Open learning at its best enables you to be simultaneously a scholar, reader, researcher or writer and a matatu driver or “mamamboga” (vegetable vendor), as the President put it.

This is mainly because open learning affords you the flexibility to work and study in your own time and at your own pace, within your own surroundings. Equally crucially, it leaves you free to pursue your social, family and professional commitments, and of course earn the funds you need to pay for your studies.

This alternative approach has, of course, been greatly boosted by the information communication technology (ICT) revolution. In the past, distance learning, or extramural studies, as they called it, depended mainly on “snail mail” postal services.

The centre sent you study materials and coursework assignments, which you laboured through and then posted back to the centre, to await the tutors’ feedback, again through the mail.

Today you can, and do, work with your tutors in real time, via your computer, iPad or smart phone. No wonder my Tanzanian colleagues call their Open University “Chuo Kikuu Huria cha Tanzania”. “Huria” means “fully liberated”.

Best wishes to the “Chuo Kikuu Huria cha Kenya”!

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