Thursday, December 2, 2010

Fountain of knowledge

Fountain of Knowledge, University of Nairobi
One of the people who’s had a big influence on my understanding of Africa is Kabiru Kinyanjui.

Kabiru Kinyanjui is a Kenyan education specialist, academic and consultant. He’s written and advised on politics, social policy, conflict and peace, civil society and development – among other things. He’s widely known in the region in these fields, and highly respected.

His bio is impressive: a degree in law, history and sociology from the University of East Africa (Dar es Salaam), and a masters and doctorate from Harvard. He’s authored numerous books and articles, and he taught for many years at the University of Nairobi and was Director of its Institute for Development Studies. He’s been a visiting professor at universities in North America, has served as consultant to several international organisations, and been a commentator on political issues (including for the Voice of America following President Obama’s election).
Book cover, African Perspectives on Development,
edited by Uli Himmelstrand, Kabiru Kinyanjui and Edward Mburugu
Kabiru Kinyanjui has played high-profile roles in education in Kenya, serving as the Chairman of the Public Universities Inspection Board that made recommendations on transforming higher education in Kenya, and as Chairman of the Board of the Kenya National Examinations Council. He’s also been on the boards of for-profit and social enterprises including the K-Rep Group, Juhidi Kilimo and the Family Bank.

He helped establish the Nairobi Peace Initiative-Africa, and serves as Chair of its Board. The Nairobi Peace Initiative is an organisation that seeks to transform conflicts and build peace in Africa, by engaging in discussion and in mediation, reconciliation, training and strategy development in countries affected by conflict.

I worked with Kabiru Kinyanjui for several years in the 1990s, when we were both at the International Development Research Centre. He was based in Nairobi, I in Ottawa, but we collaborated frequently. He was senior to me in education and experience but always treated me like an equal.

Looking back, I see that he probably had infinite patience with me. His knowledge of the region, of the diversity of cultures, the history of countries, and the nuances of national and local politics was astonishing. Mine was, let’s say, emerging. It was a privilege to see him interact with peers, and with younger scholars in the region, who clearly looked up to him. He is one of those people whom you could truly call wise – and kind, and principled.

One day, while on a visit to projects in the region, Prof. Kinyanjui and I stopped to watch the television news between meetings. A report came on about global disease patterns and life expectancy. We watched as the life expectancies for our respective countries of birth flashed on the screen. I don’t recall the exact numbers but it was something like 80 for me and 55 for him. The realisation hit: I had about 45 years to go before I reached mine, and he would have been close to his.

The unfairness of it still gets to me. There’s no justification for such inequity. Injustice is a feature of our world, but when it hits close to home, it’s particularly hard to ignore.

But, here we are. I think about Prof. Kinyanjui’s commitment to education and to peace, and his patience, and I smile.

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