Greetings all in these unhappy circumstances; Bantu, as you know, is gone across the big river. I really wish we didn’t have his crossing, standing as a
preamble to this message. Bantu? I hope the few lines I share here might connect to our larger collective memory of this man who will continue to be an enigma even to those of us who knew him for many years. I offer only a snippet of Bantu’s narrative as the man and his ideas struck me over 18 years.
I do not mean to inveigle myself in Bantu’s story, but the methods of folklorists indicate to me that I can only tell parts of that narrative that I got to know by dint of being associated with him over the years. And perhaps if we understood better that all our stories are but iterations of others, past and present, in a struggle for making happen a better world then perhaps we might appreciate more the connections rather than the differences between us. After all, regardless of the proliferation of opinions and feelings about him, let us remember that Bantu was human, like all of us.
Our first meeting– in 1990– and what has now turned out to be our final encounter occured in spaces that ordinarily would appear rigidly, irreconcilably divorced, yet in retrospect it seems that it is our habitation of similar spaces that ultimately enables me to see what I can of Bantu Mwaura. It is thus just as well that we met and parted as we did. We met as undergraduate students at Kenyatta University’s literature department and our final meeting occurred in a more relaxed environment over Kenya’s national cuisine–Tusker and Choma–which seems to have been a valedictory of sorts, at Roysambu Inn on Thika Road the first week of September 2008; I revert shortly to the significance of these spaces.
I recall vividly our first week as freshers at KU when there was a minor march to the administration block over some minor grievance (attested to by the fact that the university was not closed). Bantu was one of the first students to be made a non-resident; the irony is that even if he was not on campus at the material time of these events, the administration kicked him out of the university halls of residence anyway, just to make an example out of the man. Of course it was easy to victimise him because with his dreadlocks; he stood out.
Later if we, his colleagues in literature classes, probed him about this matter, he would simply retort that “it just shows the irrationality of the system…judging people simply by their looks.” He ignored but never forgot this particular matter–how can one eschew memory in the process of social analysis?–and moved on to distinguish himself as being one of the more passionate students in our class; ever fond of quoting Steven Biko among other Black consciousness writers, well, we transformed our Bantu into Biko in a neat onomastic process that belied the social ugliness that Bantu so-passionately believed needed to, and could, be changed. You never could tear away Franz Fanon and Paulo Freire out of the man’s hands.Yet Bantu didn’t just read these writers; while their work supplied value as analytical prisms, he was acutely aware of the context within which he worked.
Social consciousness, self-awareness and analysis–and the politics that inhibit their achievement–are things that Bantu-Biko paid keen attention to; personal grievances by “the system” merely strengthened his resolve. There never was any doubt in Bantu’s mind throughout our time as undergraduate students and in later years that the divisions that society sets up amongst the citizenry have a clear political purpose; it is not incidental that ‘regular’ folk in Kenya kill each other for their “eating chiefs” (apologies to Taban Lo Liyong). It strikes me as relevant that I had the good fortune of having gone to school with both Bantu and Ntai Wa Nkuraru, another fiercely passionate social reformer, who was my year mate at KU university; he died “mysteriously” in his late 30s in London in 1999. He too taught us something about belief in and commitment to social justice.
In later years we went our separate ways–Bantu headed to Leeds University and on to America. What kept us connected was our interest in non-canonical forms of popular creative expression; thus we discovered another shared interest–the politics of bar room theater, and it was a happy coincidence that in our different fashions, we both got to work with the late Wahome Mutahi. I immediately saw what would draw Bantu and Mutahi together–a deep concern with questions of social justice and exposing the structures and logic that undergird social inequities in post-colonial Kenya.
The passion of Bantu combined with Mutahi’s humorous critique of power enable one to see many of the things that could be remedied about Kenya (and perhaps other lands as well) but which we choose not to! The commitment to the popular arts by these two artists also showed us something else: that the search for knowledge of society might also be pursued in/through non-canonical spaces/creative practices. Thus I believe the Kenyan arts/performance scene is the richer for Bantu’s input, a fact that is well-demonstrated by the array of articles that he and his team put together in Twaweza Communications’ maiden issue of Jahazi, a culture and arts journal for which he was initially editor-in-chief.
It’s hard to believe that Bantu ever laughed, but he did, and I know a huge story might be made of his tendency, when he smiled, to tug at his goatee, but even then there is something to be learnt from his rare-smiling habits. We all had our arguments with Bantu about all manner of literary topics; he was certainly not easy to corral in these disputes, but if you did hem in this man who would footnote his rhetoric by quoting so many books your ears and head spun–he is certainly the only one I knew in Kenya who quoted Kole Omotoso and pronounced the second name correctly!–and if he did see your point, then Bantu conceded the fact in one of the most genial smiles that I have only rarely seen particularly amongst academics.
See, Bantu was not just all argument; he was complex human being with an even more complex personality that perhaps society saw too harshly, or chose to not see at all, because what he said disturbed us. Definitely he was disturbed by us and our cynical habits! This was the sort of politics that we chatted about over our last meal that uncharacteristically cool late afternoon last September.
From the academy where our connection begun with a search for knowledge in canonical literary forms to the bar where Bantu and I (and many other Kenyans) debate(d) emergent forms of knowledge and popular forms of knowing, one can only hope that even if our collective conscience appears numb perhaps we might remember Bantu’s passion for causes he believed in. It was not for nothing that as undergraduates we compared him to the incorruptible teacher in Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful ones are not yet Born.
Ohio State University
Center For Folklore Studies
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We have been following with considerable concern the deadlock in the National Assembly of Kenya regarding the designation of the Leader of Government Business in Parliament and the nomination of the Chairperson of the House Business Committee.
We welcome yesterday’s ruling by the Speaker of the National Assembly, Hon. Kenneth Marende, which should unblock the impasse and enable Parliament to continue the important business of the people. We applaud the Speaker for his wisdom and statesmanship.
We urge Kenya’s leaders and all Members of Parliament to put aside their partisan considerations and place the interests of the people first. It is imperative that they recapture the spirit of reconciliation and healing needed to build a democratic, stable, peaceful and prosperous nation.
Issued by Mr. Kofi A. Annan, Mrs. Graca Machel and President Benjamin Mkapa.
29 April 2009