To most people, Strathmore University is a place of staid composure, of stiff lips and an almost British gentility. There is something right about this. After all, the university has taken a long time to cultivate a reputation for seriousness, and is keen on maintaining so that every person who goes through it can only expect the best.
But this view, if taken to its extreme, might have the effect of depersonalising the people who go to study and work in the university every day. It might give the impression that they are putting on an act, losing themselves in an effort to conform to an environment that is otherwise foreign to their normal way of doing things.
To those who are tempted to think in this way, events like Strathmore University’s annual end-year staff party will provide a most welcome reassurance that the university is, in fact, patronised by regular people, who breathe the same air as everybody else. At the last of these events, which took place on Friday, 24th November 2018, the evidence was in full show.
In a tent pitched on the grassy field next to the library and decorated in blue and red, the colours of the university, staff members turned up to spend a few hours celebrating the waning year together. The tent was a clear sign, the HR manager said, that the university was growing. Previous parties had been held in the auditorium; lately, it has shown signs of bursting at the seams.
The instructions had been that everyone should come in “strictly African” attire. Because this was a university, endless debates were had on what “strictly African” meant. Was it possible, many queried, to pin down any kind of dressing as strictly African? In the end, most people turned up in bright kitenge dresses, patterned shirts and flowing West African trousers.
But there was the odd person who over-interpreted the instruction. For instance, there was the one who drew a map of Africa on a yellow post-it note and stuck it to his breast pocket using golden paper clips. Another gentleman came wrapped up in a Maasai shuka (a red patterned sheet wrapped around the waist) and sandals. The shuka looked like it would fall off the whole time, but it never once budged.
They sat on round tables spread inside the tent, conversing, eating and drinking. On a stage set up at one end of the tent, Kayamba Africa, a renowned Kenyan band, belted out tunes from around the country and the continent. Every now and then, someone walking to the servery for a second helping would burst out into a spontaneous jig, perhaps overcome by the melodies bouncing around the tent.
In attendance were the pro-chancellor, the chair of the University Council (alongside three members of the council) and most of the university’s senior management. They kept their speeches short and quite informal, lending themselves to the easing of entertainment and celebration.
The Vice Chancellor Designate, Dr Vincent Ogutu, who will take over from Prof John Odhiambo in a few years, gave a speech; the Vice Chancellor did not say a word. Earlier in the year, when he announced the selection of his designated successor, Prof Odhiambo had promised that he would slowly start stepping into the background. This was one of the first signs of him keeping that promise.
Dr Ogutu’s speech focused on the beginnings of Strathmore as the first multiracial advanced educational institution in East Africa. The university’s theme for 2018 has been collaboration, and in his speech, he underscored the fact that the Strathmore experience began and persisted through close collaboration among very different people.
By uniting the three segregated races of colonial Kenya around a common goal, the founders showed that they valued the contribution each person could make. The fact that Strathmore has not only lasted to this day, but has thrived, Dr Ogutu maintained, meant the pioneers had been right. It was for this reason, he insisted, that the spirit had to be carried on, even beyond the year in which it had been made the theme.
He was followed on the podium by Mrs Bernadette Musundi, the Chair of the University Council and Rev Dr Silvano Ochuodho, the Pro-Chancellor. Their speeches were also very short, and turned around the idea of working together and accepting one another. But perhaps what stood out from their speeches was their light-heartedness, and the comfort and ease they felt being among the staff members.
Shortly after the cutting of the cake and popping of champagne, the dancing started in earnest, led by a member of Kayamba Africa. A train of gyrating men and women traced a loop around the tent, curving around tables and avoiding outstretched feet. It was a rare moment of hair being let down. More than that, it was a sign of happiness, of sheer gratitude for making it almost to the end of another year.
But perhaps most importantly, it was sign that Strathmore University is made up of ordinary people.