I do not lack friends in high places, especially of the scholarly and academic ilk. While I was waiting for Ndugu Fred Matiang’i to summon me to the Education Review, I got an invitation to a conference on the evaluation and validation of the programmes of the East African Kiswahili Commission.
There was every reason for me to rejoice at this invitation. To begin with, Prof Inyani Simala, the first executive secretary of the East African Kiswahili Commission, who invited me, is an eminent Kiswahili scholar for whom I have a profound respect.
Secondly, the venue of the conference, the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD), still popularly known to us as KIE (Kenya Institute of Education), is an old haunt of mine. From as early as 1978, I was a frequent visitor there, especially on missions to record educational programmes for schools.
The programmes were under the Educational Media Services (EMS). It was here that I interacted with the EMS producers and directors, who ended up becoming close friends, like Ngungui Kiio, Margaret Ojuando and Edwin Nyutho.
To ensure quality, the producers would ask us on the campus to script programmes in our subjects and then work out with them how to record them as broadcast lessons for schools. We also often came with our university colleagues to voice the scripts in the studio.
I remember once participating in a programme at the KIE scripted by the late Mwalimu Wanjohi, the one who had performed, as a young man, in the premiere of Henry Kuria’s pioneering play Nakupenda Lakini, in 1955.
Wanjohi had written scripts for a nutrition programme and we recorded them at the KIE with my dear Kenyatta University friends, including Ciarunji Chesaina, David Mulwa and the late Francis Imbuga.
Wanjohi had mentioned in his script a West African dish called joloff, and one of my lines was a question: “What is joloff?” Either the line itself or the way I said it was so funny that we all laughed heartily at it and it has stuck in our memories from those distant years. Every time David Mulwa and I meet, one of us will ask the other, “What is joloff?” and the laughter flows again.
So, it was to this citadel of precious memories, the KICD (still KIE in my mind), that I was returning for the Kiswahili Commission conference. But the KICD today is a very different setup from the humble institution of the 1970s and 80s.
The new sky-scraping edifices boast not only elegant conference theatres, laboratories and libraries but also excellent residential and catering facilities.
I was quite pleasantly surprised when I realised that, instead of scrambling to nearby hotels, the young man who picked me up from the JKIA drove me directly to the KICD, the conference venue, where a cosy room was waiting for me.
But you can hardly imagine my joy and satisfaction as the East African Kiswahili Commission welcomed us and got down to work on its strategic plans. It was real! The Tume ya Kiswahili was up and running.
Possibly the one person there who fully appreciated my humble bliss was Prof Kimani Njogu. It was with him and our chairperson, Tanzanian Dr Anna Kishe, that I sat down in a nondescript boardroom in the EAC Building in Arusha, early last decade, and started laying down plans for the formation of the EA Kiswahili Commission.
Designated as the “Task Force” for this purpose, the three of us were starting almost from scratch, but we had a few assets. We all had a deep love for Kiswahili, and Anna was executive director of the Tanzanian Kiswahili Council (BAKITA).
There was also our intimate friendship. Mine with Kimani Njogu dated from 1978 when he, a young scholar then, and I, a middle-range lecturer, were “comrades” in the academic struggle.
As for Anna, I think it was her Tanzanian hiba (graceful deportment) that drew me to her at first sight. She brought back many of the endearments of my youthful days in Dar es Salaam.
Our bonding was so natural that some of my friends, like Kithusi Mulonzya, currently the managing director of One Planet Publishers, hearing me talking to Anna, were duped into believing that she was really my sister, as I called her.
Dr Kishe once uniquely honoured me when she invited me to deliver the keynote address at the National Kiswahili Day in Dar es Salaam in 2008.
Another asset we had in our efforts was Mary Makofu, a senior administrator at the East African Community Headquarters, under whose docket our Task Force fell.
This lady, from Kenya, seemed to take more than a purely administrative interest in our assignment. I think she, too, loved Kiswahili and her solicitous attention to us did a lot to facilitate our endeavours.
Still, it was an uphill task, and it has been more than a decade since those days. But seeing Professor Simala and his EA Kiswahili Commission in place and at work makes one feel that it has been worth all the sweat, travel and debate.
It is even more exciting to learn of the plans they have for the spread and promotion of Kiswahili in the East African Community and beyond.
Based in Zanzibar, the commission has designed tightly formulated strategies for Kiswahili, including vigorous affirmative action in countries like Uganda, where it faces various challenges.
The commission will also establish a databank of Kiswahili scholars and other activists and encourage the production and distribution of Kiswahili teaching and study materials.
The commission also promotes the formation and support of Kiswahili associations in the region. Above all, the commission will actively encourage the establishment of national Kiswahili councils in all East African Community countries and systematically coordinate their activities.
My own eyes have seen the glory, but I am not singing the nunc dimittis (let your servant go) yet. I want to see some more.
Meanwhile, I will be waiting for you to tell me what joloff is.
AUTHOR: AUSTIN BUKENYA