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Kenya’s Literary Icon, Ken Walibora’s Story Writes Itself Even In Death

He was a modern-day Shabaan bin Robert, in love with Kiswahili and was at the forefront in ensuring the growth of the language in Africa and the world, May he Rest In Prose.

I read Ken Walibora’s Siku Njema when I was young thanks to my cousin. This was after I had read a small Ugandan book, Wake up and Open your Eyes by Edward Muhire. Both books had characters that resonated with my childhood dreams and fantasies, and sometimes issues I was grappling with at the time.

Never in my life did I ever think of coming face to face with the creator of ‘Kongowea Mswahili’, the character I admired, in Siku Njema. In fact, I couldn’t connect the voice I heard on KBC radio and the narrative I had read several times until I met the bespectacled dark-skinned man with a sublime smile. This was at the launch of another reputable writer Joe Khamisi’s The Wretched Africans at Goethe Institut in Nairobi, in 2016.

We were lined up waiting for Joe to sign our books and in the hubbub of “Hi” and catching up with old friends, someone called out Waliaula’s name. That was the time I met Ken Walibora Waliaula. In that instance, I wished I had carried my Kidagaa Kimemwozea for an autograph, but then the rush of the mind…

Our brief conversation, his calm demeanor, and mannerism made me wish to meet the guy again for a longer conversation but that never happened. His life would tragically and suddenly be robbed from us at a time we were grappling with the Covid19 monster. It hurts that while we are keeping distance to avoid contracting this so menacing virus, his soul would leave us.

Equally devastating, he was just another unidentified victim of a hit-and-run until the man was identified days later. The realization, grief, shock, and conspiracies would start to unfold as we try to come to terms with the loss; the media would flash headlines that the prolific author could have been a victim of city mugging. According to the Kenyan newspapers, the government pathologist had found multiple stab wounds not consistent with a road accident after an autopsy. Anyway, we hope that investigators will shed light on what actually brought down this literary giant.

Born and raised in Kenya, the ardent advocate of the Swahili language, Prof. Ken Waliaula was a lecturer at Riara University, he also worked as a journalist and popular news anchor, he did a stint at Kenya’s public broadcaster Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) and NTV, a private media entity owned by Nation Media Group where he also worked as Group Kiswahili Quality Manager. He effectively used his skills in these fields to postulate his passion for Kiswahili and literature.

At 56, the Swahili novelist, poet, playwright, literary and cultural scholar had penned myriads of literature, both fiction and non-fiction. Notable works under his arm include:- Siku Njema that labored the story of love, Ndoto ya Amerika, Kidagaa Kimemwozea, Chapu Chapu, Damu Nyeusi na hadithi Nyinginezo, Maskini Milionea na Hadithi Nyingine, Hazina Bora, Homa ya Nyumbani, Innocence Long Lost, Kufa Kuzikana, Mbaya Wetu, Naskia Sauti Ya Mama, Ndoto Ya Almasi, and Upande Mwingine. Both Kidagaa Kimemwozea and Siku Njema have been used as high school set books in Kenya.

Walibora’s works have majorly been published in East Africa by various publishing firms. He has been one of the most sought after writers in Africa, whose work is as delicate yet roar-some as the man himself. His Magnus opus Siku Njema was published by Longhorn Publishers. He has also worked with Oxford, Moran, Macmillan and Sasa Sema Publishers. He is among East African writers who have worked with more than one publisher.

The author also worked with Chama cha Ukuzaji wa Kiswahili Duniani (CHAUKIDU) as its inaugural president while studying at the University of Wisconsin in the USA. He has also lent a hand to East African Community Kiswahili Commission and the African Academy of Languages among others. In 2016, while speaking at the launch of Joe Khamisi’s book; The Wretched Africans, he encouraged Khamisi to have his books translated in Swahili. Khamisi is the author of Politics of Betrayal, The Wretched Africans, Kenya: Looters and Grabbers among others. Waliaula said he was more than ready to lend a hand in the translation of the books.

The late author engaged in mentorship programs in Kenyan schools, he has had a great impact in the remarkable improvement of the attitude and performance in Kiswahili in schools. Waliaula leaves behind a huge legacy and a fan base which nostalgically remember reading his works in school; Siku Njema (1997-2003) and Kidagaa Kimemwozea (2013-2017.)

As a contributor to the growth of the Kiswahili language, Waliaula has shown that language is dynamic as can be seen in his works. Siku Njema is a simple narrative based on very dynamic use of language that begs for growth while Kidagaa Kimemwozea breathes a fresh aura of maturity and espouses the modernity of language. He never sought to maintain the tradition of language but contributed to its growth as can be seen in the two books and his most recent works than the examples given.

As we mourn his demise and try to come to terms with the mystery behind his demise and the narratives that follow, we hope that his legacy will outlive the suddenness of his departure. It has been so clear that Walibora never glorified his childhood in his biography, like other authors for he lived in the grounds that everyone has a past for and no human is perfect.

Africa has lost a giant and a flourishing linguist and a man who contributed to the decolonization of the mind of many young Africans who drunk from the cup of his evergreen wisdom and knowledge.

May he rest in peace.

Additional reporting by Charlotte Idah.

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