We were only at the end of our second week as freshmen at the University of Nairobi in October 1979 when they sent us home. The previous week had been spent on registration amidst the excitement of orientation activities. We had immensely enjoyed listening to Prof. Joseph Donders who walked us through the motions of a rewarding life at the university. The Christian Union organized a weeklong of coffee activities called ‘Nyam nyams.’ Freedom was in the air.
Donders taught us how to read a six hundred-page book in one hour and how to enjoy the nightspots of Nairobi. He told us about such hideouts as Sabina Joy Day and Night Club, Hallians, Club 1900, Grosvenor, Starlight, Inn on the Park, The Garden Square, The Pub, Eclipse, Fransae, Hole in the Wall, Imani Day and Night Club and other places.
It was imperative, he said, that every university student visits these places, at least once in his or her lifetime at the university. This was not however to say that you should partake of the things that went on there. Together with my roommate and a couple of other varsity lads, we visited half of these places within ten days. We were overwhelmed by the sale and stench of love at Imani. Yes, it was a place to be visited only once, and a shocking eye opener to the seamy side of the city.
But this Saturday was the big day we had been keenly waiting for. We would enjoy our first Kamkunji at the university and march gallantly through city streets. The Second Years and the rest had thronged back at the start of the week. A notice had swiftly gone up on virtually all open notice boards that there would be a Kamkunji at the quadrangle in the Box. This was the place where a majority of the women lived, with a few in Hall Twelve. Mary’s Hall would come later.
The choice of location was because the female students were beginning to get tired of the Kamkunji’s and were staying away. The saying goes that if the mountain will not come to Mohamed, Mohamed will go to the mountain. If the Boxers would not come to the Kamukunjis, the student leaders would take the Kamkunji to the Boxers. On the agenda were two items. First, the Kanu Government had determined that Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and all former Kenya African Union (KPU) Party members would not be allowed to run in the general election slated for December. Second was the question of academic freedom.
Thrown in the elections mix was George Anyona, at this time a former detainee, alongside other members of Kenya’s fiery and dignified Third Parliament like Martin Shikuku and Jean Marie Seroney. While Shikuku and Seroney, who had accused Kanu of being dead, were cleared for the elections Anyona was thought to be far too hot to be allowed a new lease of political life. And so the headline on the front page of a leading daily paper read, “Anyona and ex-KPU barred.” We said NO.
Rumba Kinuthia, Gerald Otieno Kajwang’, Mukhisa Kituyi and a couple of others led us into the streets to announce our protest. We agitated for democracy and for academic freedom. The Jomo Kenyatta Government had detained Ngugi wa Thiong’o two years earlier. Although the new President, Daniel arap Moi, had released him alongside all other detainees on Jamhuri Day in 1978, Ngugi was not allowed to take back his job at the university. He had gone in for organizing community theatre in his native Kamirithu Village in Limuru.
The government was concerned that Ngugi was opening up the eyes of ordinary folk in the countryside to the true anatomy of the origins of their misery. Some said he had been jailed for writing Petals of Blood and Ngahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I want). Whatever the case, he was now a free man. Yet he was not allowed back to teach. We wanted him back.
The government closed the university the following day. They said that we should go back home to participate in the elections – which were still two months away – and to enjoy an early Christmas. They even gave us money, saying it was a refund of our capitation fees for what remained of the term. Never mind that we did not pay fees and that the government gave us an allowance that we called ‘boom,’ after the illicit coffee boom of the 1970s.
We went home. We enjoyed the boom, the politics and the early Christmas. Some of us thronged to Mathare Constituency. We registered and voted for Dr. Munyua Waiyaki, a darling of the university student community. We loved his charisma and courage. Had he not told off the redoubtable Attorney General Charles Njonjo over the thought of Kenya establishing diplomatic ties with apartheid South Africa?
The protest of October 1979 marked the beginning of unending confrontation that would see us lose a cumulative full academic year. Numerous issues in the country and beyond called for our voice and action. Each time we acted, the government reacted. The only solution in their bag was to close the university. And so we went home over the assassination of Prof. Walter Rodney in Georgetown Guyana. We paid for commemorating the Sharpeville Massacre of March 1960 in South Africa and for remembering the murder of Steve Biko and of our own J. M. Kariuki. We were punished for calling for peace in Angola and Mozambique and for the independence of Southwest Africa, now Namibia.
On other occasions, we were sent away for marking the fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty in Iran, the excesses of the Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, the introduction of the one party regime in Kenya and detention of our teachers. They came for Willy Mutunga, Shadrack Gutto, Mukaru Ng’ang’a, Anyang’ Nyong’o, Micere Mugo, Kimani Gecau, Katama Mukangi and many others. In the end, they sent us away for between eight months and one year, because of the dark day that was 1 August 1982.
Regardless, in an age when Nyayo harassed everyone into submission, the University of Nairobi – the only university in Kenya at the time – became the conscience of the nation. Many a young man lost the opportunity to complete their studies for hailing human rights and freedoms. Odindo Opiata, George Rubik, Carnell Onyango, Onyango Paddy, Anyona Kanundu, David Murathe, Rumba Kinuthia, Saulo Busolo, Mukhisa Kituyi, Titus Adung’osi, Aoko Midiwo and a gentleman I now only remember as ‘Mr. Efficacity’ rank among the finest in my time. And there were other silent ones. They churned out liberation leaflets and other literatures.
These youth walked in the shoes of such other greats before them as Wafula Siakama, James Orengo, Chelagat Mutai and Awori wa Kataka. As we left the University of Nairobi, the conscience of the nation remained in the safe hands of Mwandawiro Mghanga and PLO Lumumba, newly arrived.
A generation later, I read in the daily press of university youth who protest about food. They set property on fire. They burn buses, laboratories and libraries because of food and student elections. I cannot understand. What went wrong? Is this university material? Really? Even the intermediate generation of Kabando wa Kabando, Wafula Buke and Kent Libiso never did this kind of thing. I catch myself marveling at the tumble of the academic community to common scavengers for food and wooly materialism. Whence cometh our redemption?