Monday, March 8 this year is International Women’s Day, one of my favourite holidays, and I want to celebrate it by, you guessed it, writing about women. You know that I frequently talk, write and think about women and I make no apologies for my belief that women are arguably the most important subject in the world.
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine an intelligent and productive discussion of any human topic, whether it be faith, politics, health or culture, without reference to women. That is why it is pathetic to note that there are still some male chauvinists deluding themselves into thinking that they can conduct meaningful business without the involvement of women.
Did you hear of the tragi-comical fall of the Tokyo 2020/2021 Olympics Organising Committee former boss, Mr Yoshiro Mori, who did not want women on his team because they “talk too much”? Mr Mori’s utterances were really the nadir of sexist ignorance and prejudice. What kind of “talk-metre” was he using to measure his “too much”?
In my celebration of International Women’s Day, however, I wanted to get more personal and specifically mention a few East African women who have contributed significantly and directly to my intellectual and professional growth. I should preface my mentions with a lot of exceptions, explanations and apologies, which I know will still not satisfy all. So, I skip the apologies and proceed to complimenting the inspiring women.
Suffice it to say that the three friends I introduce to you here came to mind mostly from random memory, apart from the fact that each of them represents one of our original Jumuiya Asiliya homes (Kenya, Uganda Tanzania). Each one of them, too, as I have hinted, positively contributed to my writing, reading and teaching journey. Dr Anna Kishe comes from Tanzania, Professor Angelina Nduku Kioko is Kenyan while Professor Helen Nabasuta Mugambi is Ugandan, though with strong Kenyan family connections.
On a little reflection, however, it occurred to me that all three of these women share traits of character that not only endeared them to me but also inspired me to emulate them and aspire to be a more efficient teacher and scholar. These qualities are self-confidence, a genuine love and devotion to their work, a generous empathy with their friends, a tender eagerness to share with their colleagues and an unshakeable faith in the potential of those around them.
I need not tell you that all three of my friends are topflight high achievers. Their titles speak for themselves. But it was while I was working on specific projects with each of them that I gained the deepest insights into what makes them really great. The precious qualities that I claim to have discovered in them were most noticeable when you interacted up close with them.
Anna Kishe is a Kiswahili and Linguistics expert, with decades of teaching experience at major universities in Tanzania. Most eminently, she was for many years the Executive Secretary of the National Kiswahili Council of Tanzania (BAKITA). During her tenure there, she was selected to represent her country and head the Task Force to set up what is now the East African Kiswahili Commission. I served under her, as Uganda’s representative on the Task Force, alongside my friend, Prof Kimani Njogu, who represented Kenya.
I was the only non-Kiswahili expert on the panel, as you can see, yet Dr Kishe’s respect, generosity and encouragement towards me was boundless. She entrusted me entirely with the mobilisation and consultation processes of the Task Force in Uganda, a “problem” area, as you know, and she did her best to accommodate the Waganda’s views into the final memorandum. Most memorably for me, Dr Kishe invited me to deliver a keynote address to a distinguished audience in Dar es Salaam at the Siku ya Kiswahili (Kiswahili National Day) in 2006. I still regard the date as a milestone in my conversion to Kiswahili.
Prof Angelina Kioko, whom I mentioned in an earlier article, is Professor of English at the United States International University, Africa Campus (USIU-A), in Nairobi. Previously, she was my colleague at Kenyatta University. But Prof Kioko has also been my longest time partner and collaborator in the development and writing of educational materials.
It is in this process that I have come to appreciate and admire Prof Kioko’s feel for and insight into language. I credit my surprisingly long perseverance on our writing team to Prof Kioko’s simple but flattering suggestion that I should stay on because I “can tell stories”. Incidentally, Prof Kioko was my undergraduate student, a first-class honours one, at KU, back in the years.
Helen Nabasuta Mugambi, too, was my student, but even further back in time, and at Makerere. She had to abandon her MA course and flee Uganda in the terror following the abduction and murder of Esther Chesire in 1976. She has been living, studying and teaching in the US ever since. She retired only recently as a tenured Professor of English and African-American Studies at the California State University at Fullerton.
One of Prof Mugambi’s most touching and humbling gestures towards me has been her constant reference to me as an adviser and reviewer of nearly all of her writings and publications. What more could an old teacher ask from a trusting disciple who has achieved international fame?
A pleasant and rich side effect from my long-standing relationship with Prof Mugambi, in 2009, was an offer to me of a visiting professorial stint in African Studies at Bayreuth University in Germany. This followed her publication of a collection of essays, Masculinities in African Literary and Cultural Texts, which she had edited with a mutual friend of ours, Sierra Leonean Tuzyline Jita Allan. My essay on “rapacious masculinity in the Kiswahili novel” was included in the volume, and I think it was on the strength of that that I got the invitation.
Have a happy and uplifting International Women’s Day.