On November 5, the lights went out on one of Kenya’s most renowned educationists after Everett Standa, a poet and former Kenyatta University vice-chancellor, breathed his last.
Prof Standa was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2016 and was treated in India.
Three years later, he had a heart surgery and some few months later he developed a stroke with his family saying he had been on a wheelchair since then as health complications and age took a toll on him.
“He was a soft-spoken and intelligent man,” Geoffrey Monari, the CEO of the Universities Funding Board, says of the departed.
Prof Standa was once the CEO of the Commission for Higher Education (now Commission of University Education) and was also at one time the vice-chancellor of Kenyatta University.
He was recognised for the role he played in the expansion of Kenyan universities. “He oversaw the rapid growth of universities and enrolment of students. He contributed a lot to the quality assurance of universities,” Mr Monari added.
But to many, Prof Standa will be best remembered for his classic poetic hit, penned in 1967, I Speak for the Bush.
The poem demonstrates the humorous yet stinging style through which Prof Standa took on a number of societal issues.
“He will always be remembered for his poem, I Speak for the Bush which is studied by literature students in Kenya,” added Mr Monari.
The poem juxtaposes the worldviews of the persona who is from the bush, having stuck to conservative values, and his friend who has embraced liberal modernity that is amoral, individualistic, unjust, aloof and transactional.
His humour endeared him to students who would occasionally request him to recite poems, a request he gladly honoured.
Prof Standa joined KU in 2003 from Moi University, becoming one of the pioneer VCs appointed by the late President Mwai Kibaki.
He was hired on a three-year term when most other VCs were being given five years.
Prof Standa took over from George Eshiwani at a time when student demonstrations were at fever-pitch in the push to have Prof Eshiwani axed by the regime of the late Kibaki.
“He brought an air of friendliness to the running of the university. There were no more threats of sackings unlike when Eshiwani was in charge and staff used to avoid meeting him (Eshiwani) because he would always find some fault in you,” said a senior staffer who served under the three VCs.
Olive Mugenda succeeded him at KU when his contract ended.
He applied for the job again but came second to his then-deputy vice-chancellor (Finance, Planning and Development) Prof Mugenda.
Prof Mugenda had presented an ambitious strategic plan for the university, convincing the university council to hire her.
Prof Standa would later be tapped to head the CHE— the body overseeing universities and ensuring they uphold quality standards.
It was during his time at the helm of the CHE that the late President Mwai Kibaki gave charters to more universities and increased the number of constituent colleges of major universities in an effort to ease access to higher education for millions of young Kenyans.
Speaker of the National Assembly, Moses Wetang'ula, captured the contribution of Prof Standa in the education sector.
“Prof Standa exemplified an exceptional array of qualities and exhibited an acute acumen for educational administration. His legacy, a testament to unwavering values such as candour, sincerity, integrity, wholehearted dedication and a selfless commitment to the educational sector resonates deeply,” Mr Wetangula said.
Even after the interment of his remains in Mahanda Village, Prof Standa will remain immortalised in his evergreen poetry.
Written decades ago, A Pregnant School Girl, relates well with the current ‘sponsor’ culture that is so rampant in the country. The sad mood of the poem has engulfed the village he grew up in. The ‘bush’ has lost its most vocal son.