You will have heard and read a lot this past week about our TV screen star, Catherine Kasavuli, who passed away on December 30.
This is a reflection of how this seemingly humble, “ordinary”, soft-spoken but exceptionally articulate woman impacted her distinguished career. I add to the tributes my rather belated voice for two main reasons.
The first is my feeling of sorrow, anger and outrage at the sinister scourge of cancer that is robbing us of a large number of our people, especially women. The second is a simple sharing with you what I think were Catherine Kasavuli’s core qualities that made her particularly influential in her profession.
About cancer, you know that it is called a malignancy. That means evil-willed, destructive, negative force. Cancer is probably the most feared and puzzling disease, for both doctors and potential patients. The medics say cancer is a kind of riot in our bodies. The cells that make it up refuse to operate as they are meant to. They start destroying themselves or attacking one another.
The riot can happen in any part of our body and even in our life-circulating blood, as in the case of leukaemia. But, instead of the difficult Greco-Latin medical names, we ordinary folk identify these malignancies according to the parts of the body where the riot occurs. Thus, we hear of brain cancer, prostate cancer, ovarian cancer and breast cancer. The list is endless.
As you know, however, we only speak of cancers in euphemisms, deceptively soft or indirect terms, like “something dreadful” or “a suspected tumour”. This is a well-known linguistic superstition. We fear calling cancer by its name, lest we bring it on or aggravate it in our loved ones or ourselves. The reason why we have such a dire fear of cancer is that, in Western medicine, there are few or no known definite cures for cancer.
Consolingly though, contemporary research, in areas like molecular biology and stem-cell therapy is yielding encouraging breakthroughs. But the battle is far from won, and a cancer diagnosis is still harrowing news. Despite all the sophisticated equipment and medications, which most of us cannot even afford, many cancer diagnoses end in death.
Catherine Kasavuli died of cervical cancer, according to medical reports. Her loss, just a few days after the death of my friend and colleague, Alakie Mboya, who succumbed to breast cancer, opened up a wound of deep sorrow and bitter memories of the many dear and admired women whom we keep losing practically every day to this monster.
Within my own immediate sphere of interest, a whole clutch of lovely people have been claimed by cancer within the past few years. These include Prof Wangari Maathai, the medics, Dr Margaret Akinyi Ogola, of The River and the Source fame, Ms Regina Kitula of KU, and my childhood friend, Mary Kizito, formerly of Daystar University.
Just as I was mourning Catherine Kasavuli, I remembered another Catherine, who passed away just about two years ago. Catherine Kariuki, an impressively talented theatre personality, had battled intestinal cancer for several years.
After treatment in India, she apparently picked up and returned to Kenya, identified herself as a cancer survivor and declared herself, in word and deed, a warrior against the malignancy. I do not know if it was the malignancy, “coming out of remission”, that cut finally her off.
I was not a close friend of Catherine Kasavuli, but, like the millions of her fans, I admired and respected her unreservedly. One conversation I remember once having with her, at the Kenya National Theatre, the favourite retreat of VoK (KBC), UoN and us theatre people alike.
This was in the mid-1980s, and I had turned up at the theatre in my tracksuit and tennis kit, as I often did. When she asked about my attire, I told her I was going to coach my tennis students after my theatre rehearsal. She said she would love to learn how to play, and wondered if I could coach her. I said yes if she could find the time to come to the courts.
She never made it to the sessions. But that brief encounter between us suggests to me now two of the qualities that I think helped Catherine Kasavuli succeed phenomenally in her career and endeared her to her innumerable admirers.
The first is a personality trait the French describe beautifully as “sympathique”. This describes a person with the ability to make you feel that she is genuinely interested in you as a person and wants to communicate with you. Catherine Kasavuli was “sympathique” par excellence.
The second quality was Kasavuli’s lively, almost childlike, eagerness to learn. I felt no coyness or flippancy in her voice when she said she wanted to learn how to play tennis. She might not have made it to my courts, but I did not feel that it was out of a lack of interest. Coupled with her patent humility, this curiosity and eagerness to learn benefited her as she learnt, mostly on the job.
Catherine Kasavuli was largely what in the trade they call a “Fleet Street model” journalist. Like London’s Fleet Street newsmen, who started their careers as tea-makers for the seniors, Kasavuli did not start with degrees and diplomas in journalism, but with radio continuity announcing, straight out of high school.
She must have learnt a lot of the skills of effective presentation from “Oxbridge/BBC”, high-cost stalwarts of the day, like Elizabeth Omollo, Norbert Okare and Ben Lui.
Also playing handsomely in Catherine Kasavuli’s favour was the growing influence of television in those heady 1980s. With her natural brilliance, a strikingly standard accent, probably acquired from systematic listening, and her strong powerful and elegant screen presence, which the specious and shallow described simply as “beauty”, she was just what television needed in those days. The beauty she certainly possessed in abundance, but it is how she carried it, what we call “deportment”, that most mattered.
Genda vulai, Catherine (nenda salama).
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]