When I first got to interact with Ken Walibora, it was through my elder sister’s narration of his highly acclaimed Swahili novel, Siku Njema. I was in class 5 (what is now referred to as grade 5) while my sister, Rachael, was in high school. Siku Njema was one of the compulsory Swahili set books that senior students in secondary schools countrywide had to study.
The storyline captivated me so much that I would literally leave whatever I was doing the moment Rachael started unfolding the events chronologically. Being a very gifted orator, my sister invariably adopted a smug mien whenever she saw how attentive I was. Eventually, she began taking advantage of the story’s intrigue to get me to do what she wanted. Sometimes, she threatened not to tell me the rest of the narrative if I did not give in to her demands. Her wish became my command.
Remembering Kongowea, Siku Njema’s main character
I still recall how I almost shed tears when Kongowea, the main character, sat at his mother’s death bed listening to her last words. Until then, Zainabu Makame, Kongowea’s mother, had not revealed to her only child who his father was but now felt compelled to do so. In her final breath and with great difficulty, she disclosed to Kongowea his father’s location (Kitale) and directed him to enquire more information from Bi Rahma, her closest confidant.
However, Kongowea was confused by his mother’s instruction. He did not understand how his father could be in Kitale because as much as he knew, Kitale was a Swahili word for an immature coconut. He had been born and raised in Tanzania and had never heard of a place known as Kitale, a town located in Kenya. It was through conversing with Bi Rahma, a long while after his mother’s death, that Kongowea learned the truth about his father’s whereabouts.
Reading Siku Njema
A few days after my sister was done narrating Siku Njema to me, she gave me the novel to read on my own. I read it three consecutive times. Studying Siku Njema and learning all the difficult words explained at the back of the book stoked up my passion for Swahili. The fact that I had an ebullient and the most amiable Swahili teacher solidified my foundation in the Swahili language. I won many accolades and commanded respect both within and without our school. I was unbeatable when it came to writing Swahili compositions (Insha).
High School and University Days
My love for Swahili grew deeper as I joined high school and later the university. In both institutions, I was an active member of Swahili clubs. It was during my formative days at the University that I resolved to polish my spoken Swahili, partly because it was intrinsic in journalism, my course of study. I realized that I had to create a Swahili environment of my own simply because the majority of the people I interacted with had no penchant for Swahili.
My decision to pursue journalism at the university was greatly influenced by Professor Ken Walibora’s mastery and use of Swahili in broadcast media. I desired to be like him.
The very first step I took toward perfecting my spoken Swahili was purchasing a Swahili Bible. Besides placing me in a Swahili atmosphere, I discovered the Word of God would also nourish me spiritually according to 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. (King James Version)
I also purposed to be praying in Swahili whenever I was alone with God, and to study as much Swahili literature as I could find in the University’s library.
Meeting Ken Walibora in person
I met Ken Walibora in person on a Tuesday evening (3rd June 2014) at Alliance Francaise, Nairobi during the unveiling of his play known as Mbaya Wetu (Our Evil One). I was in the company of two of my friends.
Walibora’s jovial mood made it relatively difficult for him to find the right words to welcome the audience and invite the guest speaker, PLO Lumumba.
“Sometimes, happiness may rob a person words with which to express himself,” he explained. “I’m so glad to see all of you here,” he added.
Renowned Swahili Scholars
PLO Lumumba reiterated the importance of the Swahili language in uniting Kenyans. He disapproved of public officials who addressed Kenyans entirely in English especially during official public gatherings such as national holidays.
“During this year’s (2014) Madaraka Day celebrations, I expected the President to address the Nation in Swahili and finalize his speech with few English words for our visitors’ sake. Unfortunately, that never happened,” he lamented.
Among the guests who also spoke that evening included Linus Gitahi, then Chief Executive Officer, Nation Media Group, Swahili scholars Abdilatif Abdalla, Professor Said A. Mohammed and Professor Kimani Njogu. Others present were Wallah bin Wallah, Kaka Jos (Jack Oyoo Sylvester), and renowned Swahili poets Abdalla Mwasimba and Nuhu Bakari. Citizen TV’s Nimrod Taabu was the Master of Ceremony
The event was a conspicuous success. I got to speak one on one with some of the most revered Swahili buffs in the East African region and the world at large. I also got to interact with many Swahili enthusiasts in attendance.
After the event ended and everyone went home, Professor Walibora continued to influence and mentor me through one on one interactions and reading his books. He became my go-to person whenever I needed help while writing Swahili scripts for Africa Uncensored documentaries and translating English articles into Swahili. One of the most memorable time he assisted me was when I was doing a Swahili documentary, ‘Punda: Bibi Mwenzangu’ (My Donkey Co-wife), in which I investigated the impact of the international donkey trade in Kenya.
After handing the video footage and my script to the video editor, I couldn’t immediately figure out the correct Swahili translation for the “Director of Veterinary Services” who I had interviewed. That is when I reached out to Professor Walibora. He sent me a text message with the Swahili translation: “Mkurugenzi wa Huduma za Matibabu ya Wanyama.” The documentary won the Business Reporting Award in 2019 during the Annual Journalism Excellence Awards organized by the Media Council of Kenya.
Three Weeks Before His Death
On March 19, I encountered a similar challenge while translating into Swahili portions of the article ‘Tips for Journalists Covering COVID-19’ by the Global Investigative Journalism Network. This time, I needed to ascertain the most appropriate Swahili translation for the coronavirus, its designation as a pandemic, and some of the terms for the impact it had caused, including trauma. As usual, I contacted Professor Ken Walibora and fellow members of the Global Association for Promotion of Swahili (CHAUKIDU). Professor Walibora sent me the Swahili translation for trauma (jazba) on Whatsapp as I engaged CHAUKIDU members in our Google Group.
The outcome of Professor Walibora’s and CHAUKIDU members’ contribution was the article ‘Mwongozo Kwa Wanahabari Wanaoripoti Kuhusu COVID-19’. As a gesture of gratitude to him and CHAUKIDU members, I wrote an email acknowledging his assistance and that of everyone who made their contribution.
Prof Ken Walibora’s Influence
My decision to pursue journalism at the university was greatly influenced by Professor Ken Walibora’s mastery and use of Swahili in broadcast media. I desired to be like him. Through him, I also discovered my talent for writing Swahili poetry. He was my role model in the school of life as well.
But Professor Ken Walibora’s influence transcended my life. His books have long been part of Kenya’s secondary school curriculum and have been studied by hundreds of thousands of students, if not millions. They are still being studied to date. Many students pursuing Masters and Doctorate degrees also looked up to him for guidance.
To the Swahili literary community, Professor Walibora was an icon. His impact was felt globally. As an author, journalist, researcher, and a prominent stakeholder in the Swahili language, he made every effort to grow the language. He became the first President of the Global Association for Promotion of Swahili and was, until his death, a board member.
The Swahili community and the world have indeed lost a legend.
Kabugi Mbae is a member of the Global Association for Promotion of Swahili.
Featured image: Courtesy