"It is our turn to eat!" I am not using this header in the context of Michael Wrong’s book by the same title in which he analyzed the prevalent ethnic rivalries on perpetuating the overly crippling graft in Africa. Rather, I use it to denote a shift and generational transition which took place in the Department here in Nairobi recently, before the world came under the current grip of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Prof. Godfrey Muriuki and Prof. Vincent Simiyu retired after 56 and 44 years, respectively, of very dedicated service to the Department. While Prof. Bethuel A. Ogot was the key trailblazer in the nationalist historiography in the Department for years on end, Muriuki was a mentor par excellence; he shaped both people and ideas. The French-trained Simiyu was a great friend to all his colleagues, students and peers in season and out of season.
The retirement of the duo – Muriuki and Simiyu – who belonged to the first generation of local historians in the Department, marked the end of an important era. An era whose hallmark was the aggressive, sustained and successful repudiation of the age-old bias that Africa was scarcely a historical continent on the basis of the paucity of written records. Theirs was a labor of love with “oral traditions as history”, to use the words of Jan Vassina's title of the book Oral Tradition as History.
With the generation that sacrificially made us and shaped our scholarly perspectives gone, ‘it is our turn to eat’; it is our time to pick up from where they left; a time to venture into novel areas and aspects of historical research, learning and teaching; a time to attract the very best of students and peers from across the world; a time to do things in ways that will continue to attract acclaim from among the academe; it is a time to cut fresh historiographical vistas in the Department just like the maverick Prof. Atieno Odhiambo did in the 1980s. He took a strong theoretical and socialist inclination in historical thinking at a period when academic radicalism was frowned at and a surest way of earning the wrath of the state.
As historians and archaeologists in the Department here in Nairobi now, all the above are our very sincere vows and pledges to our students, peers as well as the University and Government of Kenya authorities.
As the current Chair of the Department, I acknowledge, with an abundant fear, that I have inherited ‘shoes’ which are too big for me! It is simply scaring to remember that the legendary B. A. Ogot once sat on this Chair; that the immeasurably amiable G. Muriuki sat on this Chair; that the late ‘iron’ lady of the Department, Prof. Milcah Amolo Achola (MAA), sat on this Chair too, that way earning herself the enviable honor of being the first lady to chair this Department, which was hitherto, predominantly, made up of men! It is no wonder, then, that Achola was succeeded by Dr. Mary Mwiandi, currently on leave of absence from the Department and tour of duty as a Commissioner at the Public Service Commission of Kenya.
However, while feeling very timid about the onerous responsibility of chairing this Department, I take a big consolation in the fact that I am not alone. But instead a part of the 18 strong members of faculty who are professionals in their own right. They are always readily available to carry on the banner as standard bearers from the bygone generation; they are ready to match on steadily forward, with me at the head of the ‘gang’, shouting the words of our departmental clarion call: "Know Thy History, Know Thyself!"
Chairman, Department of History