Books Featured Issues Personalities Reviews

Raila Odinga: My life at Magdeburg University

When Jaramogi Oginga Odinga sent his son Raila Odinga to communist East Germany, it was on the firm understanding that he would eventually study Medicine, despite the fact that the son was inclined to the arts.

This was in 1962 and Raila was only 17. He had just left Maranda School. In Germany, he was enrolled at the Herder-Institut in Leipzig, which had been a faculty of the prestigious Leipzig University.

“Students would arrive from many different parts of the world, having gone through widely varying education systems, so there was a need for them to be harmonised into the German system and to pass a university entrance exam before they could be admitted to any German institution of higher learning,” writes Raila in his book the Flame of Freedom. “The Herder-Institut was thus a combination of high school and language school.”

“I was just coming out of primary school, so I had to go through the Herder-Institut’s high school programme, taking three and a half years, along with fellow students from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and many other non-German speaking places,” he adds.

Among his colleagues at the Institute was Moses Keino who would later become Speaker of the National Assembly. Keino had however finished his ‘O’ Level studies back in Kenya, so he only spent a year at the herder-Institut before joining university.

Keino struck friendship with Etta Kirui, a Kenyan girl who had come to Leipzig to further the Nursing course she had acquired in the UK. The friendship blossomed into romance and soon, they were married, with Raila acting as the Emcee.

Their studies included a mandatory three-month basic German language course. “At the end of the three months, I came second to Ruhti in the German language exam,” writes Raila. “Coming from German-speaking Switzerland, he had an advantage over me.”

Back to the ‘Medicine course’.

The path to medical school involved studying Maths, biology, physics and chemistry. During his second year of study, the students had to do some practicals, at a local hospital, which involved the study of human anatomy. This is where a ‘problem’ arose.

“To my horror, the students were practicing on cadavers, cutting them up and examining various pieces of the dead bodies. I looked at it and just felt sick,” writes Raila. “I knew immediately that I was not cut out for medicine.”

Thoroughly traumatised, Raila threatened that he would go back to Kenya, if the institute’s administration did not allow him to change his course of study to Mechanical Engineering. “Changing courses initially put me at a disadvantage,” he writes. “The engineering students had completed courses in subjects I had not been studying… I had to work extra hours to catch up.”

Raila says that at the end of the three-year course, he passed ‘in all the subjects with high marks’ and was admitted to the Magdeburg College of Advanced Technology, which eventually became the Magdeburg Otto-von-Guericke University. “I chose Magdeburg because it specialised in heavy engineering,” adds Raila.

According to the book, Raila was at Magdeburg between 1965 and 1969.

At Magdeburg, Raila was the only African student; the only other African (a Sudanese) chose to identify himself with Arabs. He remembers a certain Norbert Shonborn who was jolly and full of jokes. He was the class clown. “He unfortunately failed his exams and was expelled,” says Raila.

His roommate and best friend in campus was Roland Obst, a German. “We would meet up again, many years later as middle-aged men, at a 2007 college re-union, we attended with our wives,” he writes.

It is at Magdeburg, Baba had his first taste of romance with a girlfriend named Huldegund Ruge, who was studying Chemical Engineering. The girl was fascinated by Africa and since Baba was the only African in a group of 300 students. It is easy to see why she was attracted to Raila.

That romance lasted only six months and Baba hooked up with another German, a school teacher named Margita. “…she used to come see me in Magdeburg, while I also visited her in Arendsee… I stayed with her several times and would take my books to study while she was working… It was a very happy and pleasant time,” writes Baba.

During his time at Magdeburg, Raila was the secretary general of Federation of Kenyan Students in Europe (KFSE). This involved a lot of travel in European countries attending student gatherings. At some point he was scheduled to travel to Moscow. Baba had written a telegram to his brother Oburu, who studying in Russia, so he could pay for their visa and clear them at the airport.

The telegram did not get to Oburu on time, leading to a lots of frustrations by uncooperative airport officials. Fed-up with the frustrations, Baba and his friend decided to hop into a taxi and get to their destination without visas. Airport officials stopped the taxi and ordered the two out. By the time Oburu arrived to sort them out, Baba had already been deported back to Berlin!

Did you know that when the famous American Jazz artiste Neil Armstrong came for a concert in Magdeburg, Baba was hired as an interpreter!

He explains that the courses at Magdeburg were extremely rigorous and that the dropout rate was high. “Of the original 40 in my group, only 17 of us eventually graduated,” explains Baba.

Baba graduated with Upper Second Honours (Gut) in Production Technology, which qualified him to register for a PhD, which he did, but failed to take up the offer.

The Flame of Freedom is published by Mountain Top Publishers.

Events Issues News Personalities

Kenyan elected to continental publishing body

A Kenyan, Mr. Lawrence Njagi is the new treasurer of African Publishers Network (APNET), the continental body that brings together African publishers from both English and French speaking countries. Mr. Njagi, who apart from being the chairman of the Kenya Publishers Association, is also the managing director of Mountain Top Publishers, was elected for a two year period when APNET’s general council met in Cape Town on the sidelines of the Cape Town Book Fair. Mr. Samuel Kolowale, who heads the Nigeria Publishers Network, was elected as chairman.

The new team also includes Mohamed Radi, from Egypt as vice chair. Members of the council are Mrs Christine Ekue from Togo, Mrs Gaulphine Nyirenda from Malawi, Mr Asare Yemoah Konadu from Ghana and Mr David Kibuuka from Uganda. The new team will be in office for a period of two years. The new team takes over from the previous office held by Brian Wafarowa, from South Africa, who was chairman and Ray Munamwimbu, from Zambia, who was treasurer.

Events Issues News Personalities

Nairobi International Book Fair will blow you mind away

The Annual Nairobi International Book Fair, now in its 13th edition is set to take place from September 22 to 26, at the Sarit Centre in Nairobi. Maishayetu spoke to Mr Lawrence Njagi, the chairman of the Book Fair on what is in store for book lovers. Mr Njagi is also the managing director of Mountain Top Publishers.

Mr. Lawrence Njagi

Maishayetu: What does the 13th Nairobi International Book Fair (NIBF) have in store for potential visitors this year?
Lawrence Njagi: As the premier book show in the East African region visitors should come to the book fair expecting to see the best that the region has to offer in terms of books. This means that visitors should be able to interact with these books under one roof, and in a relaxed atmosphere, without being hassled by salespeople.
This is also about the only opportunity that book lovers are able to meet and interact with their favourite authors. What is more, these books are offered at highly discounted rates. This means that bookshops and libraries should take advantage of this offer to stock up. We will also be conducting seminars and workshops on relevant topics like intellectual property rights and digital publishing. Aspiring writers will also benefit from a seminar on how to successfully get published.
All in all, all visitors to the NIBF, from children, the youth and grownups should come to the Fair in the knowledge that their needs will be adequately catered for.
Q: You have been chairman of the NIBF for the last three years now, what have been your achievements so far?
A: When I took over as chairman of NIBF, the average number of visitors to the Fair was 6,000, by last year that number had risen to 17,000. We expect more visitors this year. Two years in a row, all the stands have been fully booked, and the demand for stands is growing. This means increased revenue for NIBF.
This year, we are having the largest number of international exhibitors at the Fair; five from India, two from Nigeria, one each from Senegal, China and Ethiopia. Of course we have the usual exhibitors from Uganda and Tanzania. This is not forgetting other international visitors who are not necessarily exhibitors. This is thanks to the aggressive marketing campaign, we have put in place.
In addition we now publish a free-to-distribute magazine which gives readers relevant information on the book industry.
Q: Kenyan publishers have been accused of being too textbook-oriented and therefore neglecting creative writing.
A: Before you heap all the blame on publishers, it is good to take a look at the bigger picture. A closer look at the system of education in Kenya reveals that it is too exam oriented; therefore putting to much pressure the student to pass exams at all costs. That rigid culture leaves little room for leisure reading, hence the reason many Kenyans don’t see the need to read after they are through with official schooling.
Q: Aren’t publishers contributing to the problem then?
A: First of all you have to understand that publishers are first and foremost business people looking to make maximum returns, and there is no denying the fact that textbooks provide a good source of profits to publishers. But we also have a moral duty to serve the emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs of readers, and that is where non-textbooks like motivational and fiction fall. All we are saying is that the government needs to put in place policies that encourage leisure reading, a good starting point would be an overhaul of the current system of education.
Q: Still, that does not take away the fact that publishers do not market non-textbook materials well…
A: Let me say that when a book is not well marketed, both the publisher and author suffers as both have invested heavily in the publication. This is therefore a call to publishers to cast their net wider as far as marketing their books are concerned. Let publishers make use of all forms of media, print, electronic, the Internet even, to make noise about the availability of their books. In addition to bookshops, we at Mountain Top sell our books in all major supermarkets around the country. Authors too should come up with ideas on how well to market their books.
Q: You mentioned a seminar on digital publishing, are Kenyan publishers ready to embrace this new technology?
A: Publishers need to be dynamic and be able to embrace new technology as it comes along. However, the reality is such that majority of Kenyans still do not have access to electricity, and thus computers are out of reach for many. Stil, there is a generation of Kenyans that is quite well versed in digital technology and these ones have to be taken care of as well.