The Alembi I knew

Posted: January 21, 2010 in Issues, News, Personalities
Tags: , ,

Saturday, January 16, and I am relaxing in the house minding my business, when at around 7.40 pm a text message bursts into my phone. “Ati Alembi is dead?” Was the terse message from a colleague in the office. WHAT! This can’t be! I say to myself reading the message again. Dr Ezekiel Alembi had been admitted at the Mater Hospital on Tuesday, January 12, in critical condition. I hadn’t gone to the hospital as I was waiting for him get out of ICU, that way I reasoned I would be able to chat with him, and maybe joke him out of getting off the damn hospital bed. I suddenly remembered that heavy rains had prevented me from a new year’s party he had invited me at his house in Kahawa West. You see Daktari was very faithful and generous to his friends – Yes, I considered myself his friend – and would occasionally throw parties at his house. These parties were occasions where daktari and his friends ate a lot of food and drank a lot of tea – it was always tea, and maybe juice or soda – told stories and jokes and generally laughed at levels that would not amuse the chaps at NEMA. Daktari had his seat facing the rest of the people in the living room. Actually, it was a three-sitter, which he occupied all alone, er and his many books and papers. That was his office in the house. The mass of books and papers had a clattered disorderly look about them. “You know there is order in disorder,” Daktari would defend the state of his ‘office’. “I know where I have put each and every item, and it will not take me a second to retrieve it. But if someone arranges them I will have a hectic time finding things.” His explanation made perfect sense to me. Before I got married, my house had a very disorderly look about it, but then it was convenient for me as I knew where each and every item was, even in the dark. Enter the missus and the house became very clean, neat and ordered. Problem is that I have to keep asking where everything is… I am not complaining though By failing to attend the party, I missed the opportunity to be with Daktari for probably the last time. It turned out to be the last time he shared a meal with his friends, more like the last supper, because I am told the earliest person left his house at 8pm, for what was supposed to be ‘lunch’. He called me twice after that to tell me how much fun I had missed. Oh how I really missed! But then I comforted myself with the thought that from December 18 to 20, which by the way, is less than a month before his death, I was with Daktari at his rural Ebwiranyi home, in Western Province. It had been an occasion to launch his latest book, James Mwangi: The People’s Banker. I think this was book number 40, authored by the man. Now you see why he is so important.

Dr Alembi, (right) during the launch of his book The People's Banker In Bunyore on December 19, 2009. James Mwangi is third from right. This was Daktari's last public function

However, during our time in Ebwiranyi, I could tell that Daktari was unwell. He got exhausted quite often. During other times he would excuse himself saying that he needed to rest as his blood pressure was giving him trouble. It was really sad to see Daktari reduced to such a weakling. The Daktari I knew was a bundle of energy waiting to be unleashed into the various projects he undertook with so much vigour. At some point on the dinner table, and in the middle of a conversation, he just switched off and dozed off, for about five seconds. And when he came to he had this look about him that told me that all was not well with the good Daktari. Still, he put on a very brave face, in spite of all the pain and suffering – I was later told that he was in a really bad shape. During the event, Daktari with James Mwangi, the CEO of Equity Bank, launched the Ebwiranyi Community Library, in honour of his late parents Mzee Musa and Mama Selifa Alembi. He had build a brand new house, at the cost of around Sh700,000 – he told me this – to house the library. This got me thinking, why in the face of such suffering, would he insist on pulling off such a massive project, in such a hurry. Now, with the benefit of hand sight, I think Daktari had a premonition of his death, that he wanted to get the project out of the way before he passed on. Daktari was really keen on having well-wishers donate books to his library, and asked me for ideas. Luckily I had carried two copies of my book Henry Wanyoike: Victory Despite blindness, and promptly donated them to him. I guess the best way I can homour Daktari’s memory is by organising a campaign to have people donate books, the best way I know how. Despite being a very busy man, Daktari always had time for his friends. He would invite me for lunch at KU, where we really discussed many issues. Our lunches ended up being four to five hour affairs. And Daktari was a dramatic and funny man. I remember that whenever we went for lunch at the senior common room at KU, Daktari would feign annoyance on finding that there was no ugali on the menu. “I want real food! (ugali),” he would say. “I am not a bird to eat grains (rice).” To Daktari, nothing came before a good meal. “Aah Josefu, let us eat,” he would time and again me. “Why should we starve ourselves when there is food.” And I always daid amen to that. I think it was Unoka, Okwonkwo’s father, in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, who said that whenever he saw the mouth of a dead man, he saw the folly of not eating what one had during his lifetime… I met Daktari sometime in 2001. Then I had started writing a column I called Book World, in the Sunday Standard. Then he was plain Mr Alembi, as he had not yet gotten his doctorate degree. It took him close to eight years to get his doctorate degree, and it was not for lack of effort. During that time he time and again presented his proposals to the vetting committees at Kenyatta University, and they always managed to frustrate him. During our many talks Daktari confided in me how these individuals, who shall remain unnamed for now, frustrated him to a point where he was on the verge of losing his teaching post at KU. Then KU administration issued a circular to the effect that lecturers who did not hold doctorate degree would lose their jobs. And this was precisely the point when his tormentors had upped their tempo in frustrating my poor guy. At some point his salary was suspended, and for someone with a young family, this was really cruel. Meanwhile he had to think fast. He registered for his doctorate at the University of Helsinki in Finland, which he got in 2002. Yet this is the same person who went on to head the Literature Department at KU. This goes to prove that you cannot put a good man down. At the time of his death Daktari was the director of KU Radio services.

Whence comes another like Daktari Fare thee well Esekia.

You fought a good fight.

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Comments
  1. Though he is gone, he lives through his works. That was one great guy. Truly, whence cometh another like Daktari?

  2. Dr. Alembi taught me how to do 115% of the activity at hand. I wanted to organise a setbook festival, he made it a national affair! I always felt pressed for time, always behind in my projects, but I saw Daktari pull off hundreds of projects at the same time and was shamed. I have a couple of guys who look up to me, and my CV is 3 pages – Dr. Alembi’s is 22 pages single spaced, so just imagine what he has done. His is a lesson to all of us; live your day as if it is the last, live it fully, don’t have hang ups, appreciate everyone. I am who I am because I had people like Alembi to prop me up. You are right, we should do something great in this man’s honour! Am glad that KU’s Travelling Theatre is organising a performance in his honour. Let’s do more for his library!

  3. Indeed Daktari leaves behind very fond memories and although we feel sad he is no longer with us, i wish to celebrate his contribution to humankind, and remember his hambleness, love and equal treatment to all……you should have seen him during the Nairobi International Bookfair children activity, the little ones just loved him. We will miss you Daktari, but you left us enough love and wisdom. You will forever be in our hearts. Goodbye my friend.

  4. Hellen Njiru says:

    This piece of news has caught me by surprise..though i didn’t know daktari for long enough,he left a great impact in my view towards literature after teaching me Alt 201..he will be forever cherished and missed,may his soul rest in peace.

  5. cwanjala1944 says:

    Dr Ezekiel Alembi stands between the old poets like Leopold Sedar Senghor,Okot p’Bitek and the second generation of composers like John Ruganda and Francis D Imbuga.The earlier category consciously went back to their rural setting to rekindle a culture they had lost.The second category,Ruganda and others, were individuals coming to terms with themselves.Dr Ezekiel Alembi stood out as an unselfconscious performing artist who fitted so well in the culture of his people that he resonated with their arts and helped promote those arts with the least effort.He perfected not only the written word in books but also the spoken word on the stage and in the lecture room.Most of us defended our doctoral degrees befo re committees of academic experts who invited us to their fraternity after they were satisfied that we had defended ourselves well.Once that was done we accepted the power to read that they had given us.We went on to lecture and to profess.Not Alembi.On obtaining his doctoral degree he went back to his people in Bunyore and presented his findings in his doctoral research in a manner that only the classical Greek dramatists like Sophocles and thinkers like Socrates Plato,Aristotle could have done.He shared the conclusions he had reached with what Professor Rocha Chimerah would call “Akina yahe,” and thus handed back what belonged to them.

    What lessons do we learn from Alembi’s legacy? A good artist discovers the idiom of his people and uses it to write for adults and for children.A good artist can be an administrator, head an academic department, head a radio station, and become an academic registrar and or work for entrepreneural institutions like banks a nd arts and drama enterprises.At the heart of Alembi’s work was the concern for humanity, nay, the individual person around him irrespective of death.The sense of urgency that underpinned his artistic ouvre was informed by the Soyinka like strife to record the mores of his society and to provide a vision for its future.The man had hardly started.But, alas, death visited his bed and took what made him move on this earth – mortal life.May his soul rest in eternal peace.

  6. Jeremy Ng'ang'a says:

    Am utterly shocked to learn of the death of Dr Alembi. I first met him while we were in school in the early 80s. His love for literature, reading and books inspired me in my literary career. I still remember the way he took his role in Muntu enthusiastically. My most heartfelf condolences.

  7. Bitugi Matundura says:

    Ni majonzi makubwa! Taaluma ya uandishi – na hasa uandishi wa fasihi ya watoto nchini Kenya na barani Afrika imepata pigo kubwa.Mojawapo wa njia za kumuenzi Dkt Alembi ni kuhakikisha kwamba tunawatungia watoto wetu kazi za ‘masafa marefu’. Tungo ambazo zitahimili mapito ya wakati. Kazi ambazo zitatoa mchango mkubwa katika maendeleo ya fasihi ya watoto sawa na zile alizotunga Daktari Alembi.

  8. PAUL LETIWA says:

    So sad. Thanks Ngunjiri for that piece.

  9. Mwari Ateku says:

    OMG….. this is really sad on a personal level. Dr. Alembi was a long time friend of our family. The last time I was with Professor was on December 26th at the Abanyore Cultural Center. He was with the waheshimiwas under the white Jukwaa. I am so glad I had to cut across the APs that were guarding the tent to say hello to my friend. I would have been saying “I wish I did say hello to him.” The next Sunday the Standard reported on the event and they dedicated a large portion of how Alembi had started a library huko Bunyore.

  10. Richard Ndungu says:

    Very moving..never met the man, but im very moved.
    May the almighty rest his soul and comfort all those that were dear to him.

  11. Dr. Christine Nandi says:

    Dr. Alembi taught me when I was a sophomore in high school back in the late 80’s. His love for literature and poetry was evident. I still remember how he made poetry fun by acting it out…He is also my uncle…He was supposed to be the guest speaker at my wedding in 2006 but he could not make it. May God rest his soul in eternal peace.

    • ajanga khayesi says:

      Dr Nandi,
      Alembi, recieved a typical hero welcome in Nairobi, Along Kisumu-Busia road and in his village home at Ebwiranyi.
      The fully packed burial ceremony held at Ebwiranyi primary school proved beyond doubts that Alembi was a man with a big heart.

      As speeches went on, the Luo and Luhya plus other tribes sung and danced to the isukuti drumming as he himself wrote that “Luhya escort dead bodies by sond and dance”

      As his former student, what did you learn from Alembi and how far can his candle burn. On 19th dec 2009, his message was based on “MOVE ON’.
      Ajanga khayesi

  12. mnyangweso says:

    We have lost a colleague, I have lost a brother. it really hurts. Rest in peace bro.

  13. Rebecca Nandwa says:

    To me he was just Alembi, a man with a very big heart, infectious laughter and easy to connect with.
    I met Alembi in the late eighties and he left a mark
    on my mind. Any time we would meet, we would talk about nothing but life. Yes, we talked about books but more often than not, it was just about the challenges of life spiced with anecdotes.
    He would descend from his high academic tower and be just a nice warm person to talk to. Alembi had a gift of connecting with people that many of us lack.
    He is gone physically but his memory lives on.

  14. Dr. Samuel Ouma Oyoo says:

    I could not believe it when I was informed by a person who knew Alembi had been a classmate at Kangaru Embu in the early 80s that the Citizen radio had mentioned something like “bado wanafunzi wa kenyatta University wanaomboleza kifo cha Dr. Alembi” I had to dash out for all copies of that day’s newspapers for any write ups as explanations. In one of the papers, the death had been reported. The immediate questions were why did Alembi die, and what killed Alembi? But I still did not believe Alembi had died. So on Saturday 30 January (the burial day) I decided to travel to Dr. Alembi’s home in Ebwiranyi Village to pay my last respects to a classmate I admired. I arrived at his home at about 9am. To my dismay, lying there, in a beautifully decorated casket was Alembi’s body, dressed in the characteristic attire of Literature fellows – a light yellow/beige agbada complete with a head gear. After doing a silent prayer and taking a closer look at my friend’s face, I decided to take Alembi’s last photos using my mobile phone. I then looked round the home after which I drove away from Dr. Alembi’s home but with the two questions still on my mind. Alembi why did you decide to die this early?
    But one remarkable thing happened while I was driving back to Luanda. I met the headmaster of our former school (the school we attended with Dr. Alembi for our a levels) , but whose daughter is now Alembi’s widow. He was being driven to the funeral in the KLJ 719, and that was a great sight to me and those who saw the white car at BOX 17 EMBU – those days. Dr. Alembi, rest in peace – your achievements were a source of inspiration to me.

  15. knight says:

    Daktari though you left us ,your legacy will forever remain with us . There is no doubt you were a role model to many . We will miss you deeply Dr. Alembi

  16. Tsikhungu Emmanuel Shikuku says:

    Joseph,
    This is a good piece that virtually goes down well to celebrate his life. But the point I wish to emphasize is the fact that he had the potential to mentor every young person who came to contact with him. He had an aura which always made young people feel like they can make another important step in their lives. Many of the M.A students he supervised in K.U will attest to this. But perhaps of the whole lot of his M.A students I was the the greatest beneficiary. In the first yr of my M.A in 2002, i was expected to identify a topic for the thesis i was to write in the second yr. When I sought Alembi’s advise, he, without blinking, told me to start reading around children’s literature and how it can be applied to Drama festival. And for the next five yrs we worked so studiously on this topic, compiled and presented my M.A thesis on an analysis of primary school plays at KNDF.Throughout this work, I can to realise that his greatest ability was his a clarity of focus that is rare among many and perhaps that is why he was able to do so many things at the same time. He took to me as his son and made me believe I could do so many things at the same time. On typical day, we could walk to Nation centre, where there was something for him to do, then to Longhorn publishers, then buy a book at Savanis, then to Drama festival office, have a hearty lunch somewhere (of course with friends esp. Sirengo, then back to K.U and he could go to class for two hrs mfulilizo, then we could sit for the next two hours discussing my work. Then back at his house, while others slept till morning, Doc. was at his famous chair writing anothe book for children or writng another seminar paper. How Doc, managed to live like that everyday remained a mystery to me. But in all these, he did with gusto, energy and vibrance. Perhaps that is why his passing on is incomprehensible to us because amny of naturally want such hard-working people to live longer and mentor more people by their hard work. But sadly……….sadly he has passed on. May be his passing on is a forecast for us, products of his mentorship, to live our lives at the fullest. To work to our fullest, to love all as Alembi loved us, to laugh, even when we are surrounded by pain and to provide warmth in other people’s lives. This way, Alembi will live in us and hence he lives on……………

  17. ajanga khayesi says:

    The Kahyesi family has know Dr Alembi for the last 32 years, since Alembi and Dr Meleckizadeck Khayesi both joined Kakamega high school, western Kenya as first former. The Mr Avedi who selected the two boys in the school, set a future fire in their lifeline. God had a purpose for Alembi to die when majority needed him. A farmer picks the healthiest fruit from a vine yard..and indeed God did the same.
    Though kenyans have lost a scholar, as Ebwiranyi villagers mourn, Alembi’s death has set a new life in some young persons. Equity Bank has begun a scholarship for seven children, to continue Alembi’s spirit amongst his people. How wonderful that one can help people while in the grave.

    Yes, do not forget the Community library that he launched on 19th Dec 2009, the some publishers have promised to donate books.

    He donated books to Ebwiranyi primary school– where he started his humble career;
    Ajanga

  18. Terry Gunnell says:

    The world is a smaller place today. Our brother Ezekiel will be sadly missed, not only in Kenya and East Africa, but in many other places around the world (including Iceland where I am now writing). We will miss his friendship, his knowledge, his stories, his wisdom, his laughter, his character, his interest in reaching out, and perhaps most of all, his hopes for his country, his people, the voice that drama can give to the dreams of schoolchildren, and most especially his belief in the potential of the young – and the generations to come – to bridge barriers and move the world forward into a beter place. Our thoughts go out to Ezekiel’s wife, children, and wider family.
    There is an ancient Icelandic verse that deserves to be spoken aloud at this moment: “Cattle die; kinsmen die; every man is mortal: I know one thing that never dies: the judgement on the dead.” Our international brother Ezekiel’s name deserves to live long in our judgement. This was a great man. A true brother to the world at large. Terry

  19. Vincent Owino says:

    Dr.Alembi taught me Literature(Theatre Arts) at Catholic University in 2001.He was a personal friend and I knew his family as he had personally invited me to his home and i was amazed at how the man loved playing with his little daughter.He could play with the little girl as if he was a real child himself!No wonder he was a specialist in children’s literature…It seems Daktari chose who to confide in and true to your word,he also told me of the frustrations he faced at KU before he got his phd,a battle that would take him to Finland..He inspired me a lot and he almost secured an opportunity for me to attend a World Play conference in Australia.Unfortunately,lack of funding frustrated our efforts and he was utterly disappointed the turn of events.
    I lack enough words to express my sorrow at the sudden loss.My heart goes out to his wife and young daughters.

    May God grant them strength and protect them like he does to his own children.

  20. ndinda says:

    I somehow landed on this post one year later. I was coincedentally thinking about him this morning… I have never felt as if Daktari has gone..maybe I am still in denial.. but I have chosen to deny the spirit he left in us go. I can still remember his belly laugh as if I saw him yesterday.. I am forever grateful for that which he taught us…about life, about writing..

    Really happy that I stumbled upon this piece…

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