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Celebrating life, works of Kiswahili icon Ken Walibora





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As we laid the late Ken Walibora to rest at his home on the slopes of Cherang’any Hills in Trans Nzoia County, I vividly remembered the last time he and I discussed the place of Kiswahili literary heritage in development.

That discussion held in Zanzibar reminded me of an animated talk I had had earlier on with two distinguished Kiswahili scholars from Tanzania, Mugyabuso Mulokozi and Fikeni Senkoro. We were all in agreement that we had failed to honour our literary icons.

To address that gap, the East African Kiswahili Commission organised a meeting of Kiswahili scholars at the Mellemfolkelict Samvirke Training Centre for Development Co-operation in Arusha, to discuss how to elevate Kiswahili literary icons.

At the meeting Ken articulately argued that a lot is not known about our artistes, and little has been done to appreciate and pay homage to them.

It was noted with sadness that paragons of Kiswahili literature lie cold in their graves, their souls languishing among us the living, and almost forgotten by a society they bequeathed so much.

The Commission undertook the task of coming up with a proposal of honouring Kiswahili literary heroes. Unfortunately, Ken has died before the idea was implemented.


While the outpouring of tributes to Walibora reveals a rich story of a fine literary gem celebrated both at home and abroad, circumstances surrounding his sudden and mysterious death shine a light on the status of artistes in society. They are perhaps the least recognised in a society they strive to change for the better.


Here is a man who devoted and dedicated his life to create beautiful literary works that have earned him global reputation, yet he died mysteriously, lying unnoticed for days in a morgue, buried without honour!

Ken’s influence is remarkable in many ways and stands out among the most significant in the Swahili literary heritage. Since passing on, interest in his books, especially Siku Njema and Kidagaa Kimemwozea, and his life has grown. Many are rereading his literary pieces with intense curiosity, increasing readership and global recognition.
Although departed, Ken still speaks to us and his legacy lives on. That gives us another reason to celebrate his life and work.

He deserves to be honoured in more prominent ways, including memorials, book events, fellowships, Ken Walibora studies, performances, exhibitions, trusts, festivals, research, libraries, archives and many more. Perhaps a university in Walibora’s birthplace.

The national government could establish Bustani ya Walibora, a literary garden in honour of him. Family, colleagues and professional associations could contribute to it.

Such a site would have a deep and abiding connection with Ken and will not only celebrate him but will open all kinds of possibilities for research and teaching now and in years to come.

His voice and writings remain as sharp and penetrating as they ever were.

Prof Kenneth Inyani Simala is executive secretary, East African Kiswahili Commission, Zanzibar.

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