BY JACOB OKETCH
Prof Ken Walibora was interred at his rural home in Trans Nzoia County last month after dying in the most tragic of circumstances on Nairobi’s Landhies road when he was knocked down by a speeding matatu on April 10.
I have been compelled to pen a piece about him, rising from the fact that I knew him closely having been classmates at the University of Nairobi at the department of literature. I fondly remember our lecturers in those days. Our poetry classes were under the tutelage of the late Alex Okwalo Teyie. Prof. Henry Indangasi taught us prose. The late Dr Kavetsa Adagala taught us South African literature and the indefatigable CS for interior, Dr Fred Okeng’o Matiang’i taught us West African literature not to forget the late Dr Waigwa Wachira who introduced us to the study of drama. Prof Kiiru opened our eyes to see how Caribbean literature looked like.
Ken was a very brilliant student. I remember our academic contests where we would fiercely compete during Continuous Assessment Tests. Indeed, Ken’s prowess in English language is understated. Infact, his academic journey was wholly in English including his PhD research project, which focused on writings from prison. I remember one time when he was undertaking his doctoral research and we happened to have bumped into each other at the main campus and then we decided to pay a courtesy call to our former lecturers at the department of literature. We were lucky to find Professors Henry Indangasi and Kiiru with whom we had a hearty chat.
Ken was an extremely humble. You could not tell that he was the acclaimed author that he was. As I watched his virtual service which was streamed live courtesy of the Nation Media Group, his humility was attested to by the church minister who shocked mourners by saying that Ken would volunteer to sweep the church compound or even clean the toilets. This is something that he did as late as the last days that he attended church service in westlands. One cannot imagine an acclaimed author and an accomplished scholar humbling himself this way. From that service, I also came to discover that Ken was actually a church minister. The preacher talked of how he and Ken would do door to door ministering of the word to the faithful.
Ken’s contribution to the growth of Swahili language in Kenya and the entire African continent cannot be gainsaid. I knew him in 1999 when he had only published one book, Siku Njema, the popular title that became a secondary school set book. He went ahead and published more than twenty titles since that time. He was a prolific writer whose work straddled almost all the genres of literature. He wrote novels, poems, plays, children stories and even a memoir; Nasikia Sauti ya Mama. Indeed, before Ken came into the picture, Swahili literature studies in Kenya was dominated by Tanzanian writers such as Ibrahim Hussein, Shaaban Bin Robert among others. He commanded a lot of respect among Swahili scholars in the East African region and beyond.
Ken was a man of various talents. As an acclaimed author, he embarked on the task of popularizing Swahili language in learning institutions. He gave talks in many secondary schools to achieve this objective. As the treasurer of PEN-Kenya, I was privileged to be among a group of writers who popularized his memoirs among high school students. In one of our trips to schools to establish PEN clubs, we bought several copies of Nasikia Sauti Ya Mama to donate to school libraries in western Kenya. In that group of writers were Tony Mochama, the Standard Newspapers columnist and an accomplished poet who is the secretary general of PEN-Kenya, the late Prof Chris Wanjala who was then the chair of PEN-Kenya’s committee of Language and literature, Khainga O’Okwemba, the host and producer of Books Café, a literary talk show program at KBC English service and also the president of PEN-Kenya.
Ken was also involved in translation work both locally and internationally. He was an integral part of the team that translated the new 2010 constitution from English to kiswahili.His most outstanding achievement in this area, is the translation of Google and Microsoft website user content from English to Kiswahili.
Ken was a very caring person. As a director of one of the institutes at Riara University, he was in the process of establishing a course unit in Elementary English and he had invited me to teach it. In fact, we were just waiting for enrolment of students so as to commence the course. Unfortunately, the cruel hand of death has snatched him before this project could become a reality.
It is with a very heavy heart that I convey my most sincere condolences to his entire family; his wife Chebet and their two daughters who reside in the US, his siblings and other members of the larger Waliaula family. Ken may not be with us anymore but the imprint of his work will remain with us for generations. His death is not in vain, for millions of people have benefitted and will continue to benefit from his work.
The saddest bit of Ken’s demise, particularly to family, friends, colleagues and former school and classmates is that it came at the world’s most difficult times. It came in time of unprecedented restrictions especially of movement, in times of curfews, lockdowns and quarantines that have characterized the Covid-19 pandemic, when it was impossible to pay homage during his burial and have some kind of closure. It is difficult. It is tormenting. Fare you well my dear friend till we meet again.