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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

We have Dr. Henry Chakava to thank for our freedoms today

Most of us take our freedom to read what we like for granted. Dr. Henry Miyinzi Chakava recently passed away after a life devoted to undermining state censorship and promoting the right to free expression. What was it like for him and others we owe for our current freedoms?


For at least two thousand years, states and powerful elites and leaders across the world have tried to control how people think by banning poetry, fiction, and non-fiction films, plays and books. Among them are novels the powerful feared promoted sexual freedom, equality between different classes, races, or gender identities. Scientific journals that argued human beings have evolved, a solar system exists, or the world was round equally suffered the same fate. So too, have books that exposed human rights violations, military operations, or government corruption.


In 259 BC, 460 Confucian scholars were buried alive, and their books burnt by Chinese Emperor Shih Huang Ti to ensure the history of China would start with him. It is rumoured that an Egyptian Pharoah’s decision to burn 200,000 volumes of Greek books provided six months fuel for the Alexandria city baths.


Successive generations of religious leaders have organised public burnings, sanctioned readers and banned different versions of the Bible and Koranic writings. In 2013, it took a quick-thinking librarian to save hundreds of thousands of ancient Timbuktu manuscripts from Islamist insurgents in Mali.


Post-colonial Kenya has had its own demons. Successive national administrations carried on many of the authoritarian cultural practices of the British colonial state. Like many African governments of the time, any thinking that was critical of the state faced the same playbook. Critical writing in African languages, condemning gross inequalities and rights violations, or exposing corruption invited isolation, economic ruin, violence, detention with trial or deportation with no option of appeal. This was the fate of several Kenyan patriots. Some of the most famous have been Abdilatif Abdalla, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ngugi wa Mirii and Micere Githae Mugo among others. It is worth noting that many of them have outlived the leaders of the regimes that persecuted them.


Less famous than his authors but as loved by many people in the world of literature and learning was the father of Kenyan publishing, Dr. Henry Chakava. As Heinemann Publishers and its successor East African Educational Publishers Limited Managing Director, this son of Vihiga championed the freedom of expression for close to five decades. He courageously published Kenyan and other African authors like the late Ama Ata Aidoo, David Rubadiri, Chinua Achebe Taban Lo Lyiong’ and others at a time when their calls for equality and human rights was considered subversive by their governments.


These patriotic efforts came at a personal cost. Chakava was intimidated, assaulted, and threatened with detention without trial and exile experienced by his writers. Despite this, he steadfastly supported academic freedom and freedom of conscience by distributing their books and faithfully making sure they received their royalties for over a decade in some cases. He also consistently promoted Maragoli culture and Logooli language and founded the Kenya Publishers Association.


As captured in the many public tributes offered by colleagues, the authors he published, and the public, Chakava lived a courageous and extraordinary life. Let us remember him as a firm defender of the rights, freedoms and responsibilities contained in the Constitution of Kenya, decades before their recognition in law.


Let us salute his vital role in decolonising the power English had over Kenyan literature, education, and commerce. His efforts contributed to the publication of several African poetry, plays and storytelling books in Kiswahili and other African languages. His legacy will live on in the Africa Writers Series books that are still available to us today. That we have a generation of African writers that are internationally recognised is also due to his diligence.


Thank you, Dr. Henry Chakava for your unwavering commitment to nurturing a generation of fearless voices. Thank you for the rights we enjoy today.


This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard,  16 March 2024


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