A young man in Nairobi once asked me if I was a contemporary of Mwai Kibaki at Makerere. Now, that was a truly double-edged compliment!
Just imagine me, Mwalimu “AB”, playing in the same league as Kenya’s third President, sharing a hall and exploring together the ways and byways of the famous Wandegeya neighbourhood on a Saturday afternoon.
We might even bowl and bat a ball or two on the cricket pitch (called Freedom Square today), just below the “ivory-towered” Main Hall, since neither of us had yet graduated to tennis or golf. So, you can see how flattering the question of the young man was.
But alas, was it possible to mistake me for an agemate of the great man? Maybe, but I must set the record straight. Mzee Kibaki and I are separated by just a little over a dozen years in age, he being a 1930s child and I a 1940s one. In fact, when he earned his historical First Class degree in Economics from Makerere in 1955, I was in Standard Four.
So, honouring me with the imagination that I was right there alongside Bwana Rais (Mstaafu) in the Makerere of the early 1950s is rather comically anachronistic.
It reminds me of the uninformed writer who claimed that our teacher, Margaret Macpherson, directed us in a star-studded production of Julius Caesar that included Julius Nyerere, Milton Obote, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and maybe John Ruganda. Several of those personalities attended Makerere several decades apart!
However, as the years roll by, you reach a point where the difference between 10 or 20 years is not particularly significant. Especially in this era, where such a lot occurs in a flash, literally, anything stretching back beyond 60 or 70 years may, understandably, be regarded as prehistoric.
Thus, out there in the prehistoric “anthropocene” era, the Makerereans of the 1950s and those of the 1970s might as well be regarded as contemporaries.
In any case, seeing how much “at home” Bwana Kibaki felt at Makerere last week, one might have been forgiven the assumption that he had never really gone away.
He blended in so well with the Professors, like Chancellor Kagonyera and Vice-Chancellor Ddumba, that it appeared as if he had always been on the “Hill”, pursuing the scholarly career that he had naturally embarked on, till Jaramogi summoned him home in 1960 to manage his party’s affairs. He heeded the call and left, but apparently he and Makerere never really parted ways.
So, here he was, laying the foundation stone of the monument that is going to be erected in his honour, the 20-floor Mwai Kibaki Presidential Library.
It appears that the edifice will be a multipurpose complex, comprising not only the library but also units like the Mwai Kibaki Centre for Leadership, Public Finance and Public Policy.
It will also house the Mwai Kibaki Endowed Chair in Economics. Now, “Chair” in this context means a professorship, and word around Makerere is that it will be occupied by internationally recognised and specially invited economics authorities.
Mzee Kibaki is one of the best economics students that Makerere has ever produced, and he was one of the first African lecturers in Economics there, after his brilliant post-graduate study at the London School of Economics (LSE). Indeed the skyscraper at Makerere will be a symbol of fully deserved high achievement.
(The LSE is such an august institution in its own right that it struck me, utter economics illiterate that I am, with a total sense of my unworthiness to even enter it and look around.
During my brief stint at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), which is in the neighbourhood, I contented myself with only staring at its towering gates).
One of the things that attracted me to the Mwai Kibaki event, apart from my avowed and professed “Kenyaphilia”, is Makerere’s readiness, even eagerness, to recognise and honour its own.
The “Hill” has produced so many distinguished personalities in every field of human endeavour that you would assume it takes its achievements and theirs for granted.
Not so, as we can see in this gigantic project, expected to be completed in five years’ time.
By the way, is it by coincidence that, apart from the Mwai Kibaki Library, the other monument in the works is the “Mazruiana” complex, in memory of our dear and recently departed Ali, another Kenyan?
I am willing to bet my last penny on a Ngugi wa Thiong’o something or other coming up before the Mwai Kibaki complex is complete. Could I have caught the “Kenyaphilia” from Makerere?
Another and more important aspect of the event is, of course, the concept of endowment, as implied in the proposed “endowed” chair in economics.
This is a way of funding universities that is seldom mentioned or considered in East Africa. Yet it is an established and very effective way of raising funds for universities elsewhere.
The way it works is that individuals, groups or institutions enter into agreement with a university to fund a programme, a centre or an institute at the university under specified conditions. Such donated funding is referred to as an endowment.
In North America, the commonest sources of endowment are successful alumni and alumnae who wish to give back to their schools, groups of former students who entered a school and graduate in a particular year, or professional bodies who may want to promote their professions through specialised study and research.
Thus you may get a William Gates Chair in Computer Studies at a certain university, a Class of 1968 Chair in English Studies at another or a Modern Language Association Endowment at yet another.
I imagine that the Mwai Kibaki Endowed Chair will be established and funded along such lines, as indeed, the distinguished Makerere alumnus himself hinted at the inauguration ceremony.
I think I should think of endowing a chair, if that forthcoming blockbuster of mine really takes off. But I can’t guarantee that it will be at Makerere.
Prof Bukenya is one of the leading scholars of English and literature in East Africa.