Remembering Prof. Joshua J. Akong’a
Maurice N. Amutabi
The death of Prof. Joshua J. Akong’a on 7th February, 2017 caught many people by total surprise because he was not sick and lived one of the healthiest lifestyles for a professor. He liked to walk and ate healthy food. He liked his indigenous food, did not drink or smoke. He shunned indulgence and luxurious lifestyle. Prof. Akong’a always looked healthy in his tall frame and was a workaholic. Therefore, many people were greatly shocked when the sad news of the death of Prof. Joshua J. Akong’a was delivered to our Vice Chancellors meeting at KICD in Nairobi by the CEO of the Commission of University Education (CUE) of Kenya Prof. David K. Some.
Prof. Joshua Akong’a received his PhD in Anthropology from the University of California, San Diego, USA in 1979. He received his BA in Sociology from the University of Nairobi in 1975. He attended Kakamega High School where he sat for his O level exams in 1969 and A level exams in 1971. He attended Esiandumba Primary School from where he sat for his primary exams in 1965.
Prof. Joshua Akong’a was soft spoken and less ambitious than many scholars that I know. He supervised more PhD students at Moi University than anyone that I have known in all fields, from education, history, religious studies, environment, sociology, geography, anthropology to development studies. He was loved by his peers due to his laid back demeanour. He never engaged in polemical arguments and would often switch off during loud and fiery debates, and would therefore provide the way forward for he was always neutral. Prof. Akong’a was loyal and focussed on his academic work. He worked for only two employers- University of Nairobi and Moi University – in his entire life and rose to become Dean.
Prof. Joshua Akong’a was widely published. He published over ten books and several dozen articles in refereed journals and edited volumes. His most famous book was The African families and the crisis of social Change. He belonged to the generation of people born before computer and did not participate actively in social media so did not do digital and electronic publishing or posts on Facebook and Whatsup.
Prof. Joshua Akong’a hailed from Emuli, from the Abamuli clan of Bunyore, who are associated with Abashimuli and Abashitsetse clans. The Abamuli arrived in Bunyore as vassals of Nabongo (king) Mumia of Wanga kingdom, and representatives of the Abashitsetse ruling clan, and collected tribute on behalf of the Nabongo. Prof. Akong’a was born in this clan on April 25, 1949 at Esiandumba Sub-location, South West Bunyore Location, Luanda District of Vihiga County. After the collapse of the Wanga kingdom with the coming of Europeans, many Abamuli were left to their own devices and many became traders and business people at Luanda market.
I first met Prof. Joshua Akong’a at the University of Nairobi in 1986, when I was in first year and he was then known as Dr. Akong’a and working at the Institute of African Studies as a lecturer. He worked closely with one of my academic and research mentors Prof. Gideon S. Were, which allowed me to interact with him more. The two were working on a World Bank and World Population project on district socio-cultural profiles in Kenya. Prof. Were was the project team leader and Prof. Akong’a was the Principal Project Coordinator. Prof. Akong’a wanted me to study anthropology but I was interested in history. Prof. Were recruited me as one of his data collectors but Prof. Akong’a was unsure about me.
As Prof. Were’s principal assistants, Prof. Akong’a did not initially like me to work with Prof. Were because, as he confessed later to me, he thought I was born in town and did not know much about rural Kenya where the project was concentrated. He was also uncomfortable with me working on Prof. Were’s ethnography project funded by the Rockefeller Foundation because he thought that I was not conversant with the Luhya language in which the data was collected. Prof. Akong’a was of the opinion that one could not excel in academia without proper grounding in their language.
Prof. Akong’a left the University of Nairobi for Moi University in 1989. Moi University had just been founded and he established the school of socio-cultural and development studies with Prof. William Ochieng. He was instrumental in resisting naming it the school arts and social sciences or humanities and social sciences. As fate would have it, I joined Moi University as lecturer in 1992 and we worked together. As colleagues, I found him more interesting than when he was lecturer at the University of Nairobi. I discovered that he was personable and down to earth. He could laugh and engage in small talk like other people, besides his huge academic profile. He was a consummate reader and writer and often left the library at night, especially when there was a conference in the offing.
In 1995, Prof. Akong’a took about ten of us junior scholars from Moi University such as myself, Prof. Maithya, Prof. Joram Kareithi, Prof. John Mwaruvie, Prof. Eunice Kamaara, Prof. Kenneth Inyani Simala, late Edward Onyango Odiyo, among others to Nairobi to present papers at the 5th Conference of Pan African Anthropologists on Anthropology, on the theme “Population and Challenges of our Time” organised by the African Association of Anthropologists, Nairobi, Kenya, 15 – 19 October 1995 where he was one of the keynote speakers. The conference was convened by Prof. Paul Nkwi of Cameroon and served as an academic eye opener to many of us budding scholars. Prof. Akong’a did not allow the traditional attacks seen in those days on young scholars by seasoned professors. In those days it was a habit for academic heavyweights to run junior scholars off the stage by engaging in academic violence.
Prof. Akong’a was as fine as they came from the American training and he would start by stating the good in one’s presentation before pointing out areas that need improvement. You would never hear him using language of intimidation and disrespect to young scholars. You would never hear him saying that the paper suffers from academic myopia, has advanced academic kwashiorkor, lacks focus, lacks theoretical framework, and lacks rigour, as was the case of some professors whom I cannot name here. That is why his death devastated many who benefitted from his big heart and academic generosity.
I therefore agree with the acting Vice Chancellor of Moi University, Prof. Laban Ayiro who said, “Yes. Prof. Akonga was without a shadow of doubt one of our greatest dons. His commitment and sacrifice to tasks related to his duty were immeasurable. My heart and prayers are with his family during this painful period. May his soul rest in eternal peace.” To be sure, Prof. Akong’a was one of the greatest. His research in Northern Kenya made me adapt the area as my field as well and quoted from his wealth of research in the region.
As junior scholars at the time, we benefitted from Prof. Akong’a’s mentorship. He provided a lot of support and encouragement to us during those formative years when we were told that without a PhD on campus you are supposed only to be seen and not be heard. It was him who gave us secrets of ‘political’, ‘balloon’ and ‘featherweight’ professors who had not published and those days there were many of them at Moi University. He defended the rights of young scholars and often came from Deans Committee meetings bruised on our behalf fighting for travel allocations. I recall one day when I was awarded only 20,000/- to go to UK for a conference in 1994 and he encouraged me to take the money and use Aeroflot. I bought a cheap air ticket for Aeroflot (then Russian airline) and passed through Cairo, Karachi, Moscow, Helsinki to London and almost missed the conference, where I arrived on last day of the conference.
When his mother Jennifer Okisa died few years ago, we arrived at Esiandumba village with Prof. Kenneth Inyani Simala, among others, and found Prof. Akong’a crying. I had never seen Prof. Akong’a in this state, crying loudly like a child. He was the strongest person I knew but here he was in the village crying at the death of his mother, and at his most vulnerable position. It is when we sat down to talk, that we realised why he had to cry so loud. His mother had been the pillar of his life. She was the reason he lived. She had raised them against great odds and spent more days of her life working hard for the family. He narrated how she walked many kilometres to ensure that he was comfortable in high school, by taking to him boiled potatoes. She sacrificed for him, including surrendering her blanket to him when he was in form one.
In 1997, I sat with Prof. Akong’a on the same seat for three hours on the Moi University mini bus from Alego Usonga where we had gone to bury the late Edward Onyango Odiyo to Eldoret. He told me many things. He told me to focus on publishing and spend more time on writing research proposals. He was already full professor in 1994 and told me that the drive to professorship is based on individual accomplishment more than group solidarity. I was then chairman of young scholars on campus who had been advocating for change in the country. We had been threatened and denied scholarships and promotions, and regarded as rebels. The following year I received a scholarship and thanked him for good advice. Prof. Akong’a was among the first people to congratulate me when I was appointed professor. He was also among the first to congratulate me when I was appointed Deputy Vice Chancellor and later Vice Chancellor.
Interdisciplinary research did not exist at Moi University before Prof. Akong’a. People were isolated in their own little cocoons and fields and did not do any research. They fought and bickered against each other in their little pools. Prof. Akong’a encouraged us to embrace multidisciplinary research and write using anthropological prism, literary prism, historical and gender prism, economic and feminist prism, saying that this broadened one’s academic horizons. He said that not many African scholars imposed themselves in their work. He said that many of them had not embraced interdisciplinary research. he encouraged me to write about funerals, gender, conflict, environment,
Prof. Akong’a applied and was interviewed for senior university positions and served as dean and campus Director at Kitale Campus of Moi University. He was aware that some positions came through canvassing and political goodwill. He never canvassed and never liked politics. We will miss his mentorship and hope that his academic legacy shall endure forever. May God rest his soul in eternal peace.
Prof. Amutabi is Vice Chancellor of Lukenya University, Professor of History and Fulbright Scholar Amutabi@gmail.com