Tribute to Prof. Joseph Nyasani
By Maurice N. Amutabi
Kisii University, Kenya and the world, are mourning the death of yet another academic giant, Prof. Joseph Nyasani. I first met Prof. Joseph Nyasani at the University of Nairobi in 1986 where he taught me philosophy, essentially metaphysics. He was brilliant and his lectures were exciting. He was the quintessential professor, without ethnic overtones, regionalism and any negative isms. He was simply, Kenyan. He easily stood out by his demeanour and style. He was a familiar face on campus, easily recognised by many students and staff, because he worked part time as news anchor at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) TV station, the only TV station in the country at the time. He was a kind of celebrity.
Prof. Nyasani was fluent and articulate in ten languages and was proud of his English pronunciation. He pronounced words with deliberate flare and academic exuberance. He knew how to dress, always in a suit and a tie, mainly three piece suits. He drove a Mercedes Benz at a time when it was a prestigious machine and students looked forward to such role models at a time when many lecturers drove Volkswagen beetles and old Peugeot 404s and 504s. He came across as simple and approachable. He liked to share his space with ordinary mortal and mixed freely with hoi polloi. He was a member of the Senior Common Room at the University of Nairobi but not a frequent visitor of the place.
Together with the late Prof. Odera Oruka, Prof. Nyasani made philosophy a vibrant discipline at the University of Nairobi. Philosophy was often disparaged and many first years were discouraged from studying philosophy beyond first year, but Nyasani and Oruka inspired many to pursue philosophy. Prof. Nyasani was among few lecturers who taught who would come to a lecture and make long quotes from his own words. He loved St. Augustine and The City of God, from which he quoted rather generously. He mentioned many Popes whom he insisted were black and pointed out the pioneer role of African philosophy in creation of knowledge in the world.
Prof. Nyasani was a deconstructionist and loved to put everything upside down in order to understand it better. He did not take anything one said at face value. There were always many meanings to what we said or did not say. He always questioned any claims including the truth and often asked us to discuss why truth is called truth and if there were hierarchies of truth. He asked tough questions and told us that he did not have answers and neither would we even by the time we all died. He was always in control of his class and was at his best when talking away from his lecture notes, then he would get so excited and start stomping around the stage in animated excitement but would soon realise he had lost some of us, and then would come back home, to continue from where he had stopped.
There are many professors who do not know how to teach but Prof. Nyasani was among the few exceptions. He knew how to tell stories and also engage in academic debates and discourses without getting personal. He told jokes and liked to provoke people into great debates. He rarely got riled. He told us about the colonial days and how African philosophy was marginalized. He was among many scholars that played an important role in recovering and reconstructing African knowledge systems, many of which had been undermined by the colonial project. He rejected notions of cultural profiling, legitimating and straight-jacketing.
In his early life, Prof. Nyasani trained to be a priest but quit on the eve of his ordination. The major conviction and counsel from Prof. Nyasani was that knowledge liberates humans. He believed that everyone at the University should study philosophy besides their other disciplines. He thought that philosophy should be made compulsory in all universities, like was the case in ancient Europe and most American universities, in order for people to arrive at logical answers. His reason was that students and professors made hollow arguments which were not guided by underpinning philosophies and principles and ended up engaging in meaningless diatribes and discourses. He was disheartened by people he called ‘ignorant’ (referred in normal conversation as fools) for they had refused to read and be informed. He refrained from engaging in polemical arguments and would simply switch off and let you go on in ignorant rants, alone. Then he would start again by saying, “So, what we were saying…..
Prof. Nyasani was a national leader and served as the first Chairman of the Kisii University Council, a role he served with great distinction. He is the reason that Management of Kisii University has a national face compared to management teams of other universities. He believed that a national university such as Kisii University should have the face of Kenya. He believed in merit and not selfish religious demagoguery and creation of clan or ethnic enclaves. He was one of our keynote speakers at the 2013 1st Kisii University Annual International Interdisciplinary conference where he impressed. This was perhaps his last official function at Kisii University.
Many of our lecturers at the University of Nairobi relaxed and had their happy hours at the Senior Common Room (SCR) in Ghandi Wing, but where Prof. Nyasani did not like. The Senior Common Room was prestigious and it was where you met who was who in academia in Kenya, but was also a place where there was a lot of academic bullying and grandstanding. There was always a guard at the door who demanded membership card before you were allowed to enter. In the Senior Common Room, anyone below the position of lecturer such as tutorial fellows and graduate teaching assistants could not order for anything unless accompanied by a lecturer, or PhD holder. If you wanted to host a non member at SCR, you had to notify the chairman in writing. There were rumours that Government and University management had spies in the place that picked all manner of rumours as intelligence for them and that is how people like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Mukaru Ng’ang’a, Katam Mkangi, Maina wa Kinyatti, E.S Atieno Odhiambo and others were identified as leftists and identified for detention. I believe these are some of the reasons that made Prof. Nyasani to stay away, usually spending his social hours in Nairobi West.
Prof. Nyasani produced many scholars. My classmates such as Prof. Michael Ntabo (Rongo University College), Prof. Mary Ngare (Moi University) and Dr. Patrick Maison Dikirr (Technical University of Kenya) later took philosophy up to PhD level and now lecturing in many universities. Among his mentees is, Dr. Erick Thomas Ogwora, the Dean of Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Kisii University. Unlike some Kenyan professors who die without producing a single professor, Nyasani has left many and he will be remembered for this great capacity to mentor
Prof. Joseph Nyasani will be laid to rest on March 16 2016 at his ancestral home at Nyabururu in Kisii County. We ask God to keep his spirit alive in many of his scholarly books and articles in years to come so that others can gain from his intellectual contributions.
Prof. Amutabi is Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Academic and Students’ Affairs at Kisii University.