Interview with Prof. John S. Akama author of Undeterred: A Rural Boy’s Journey to the Pinnacle of Academia
- Tell us about yourself, your background and your current ‘station’ in life.
Currently, I am working as the Vice Chancellor of Kisii University which is one of the public universities in Kenya. My background goes back several years as I was bought up in a rural environment among the Gusii community in South Western Kenya. I grew up in a peasantry family looking after livestock and working on family land at the same time.
I went through my elementary education successfully which enabled me to join Kakamega High School and eventually the University of Nairobi where I did my undergraduate degree. I later proceeded to the USA where I did my Postgraduate studies. After I came back to Kenya, I got a teaching job at Moi University where I rose from the position of lecturer to full professor of the same university. In 2009, I joined Kisii University which was then a Constituent College of Egerton University, and since that time I have managed to spearhead the growth of the institution from the status of being a Constituent College to becoming a fully-fledged public university.
- When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
The realization of being a writer started as a process when I was doing my postgraduate studies in America, particularly when attending seminar courses and discussions. I realized that I had competencies in writing and providing research presentations. Fine-tuned my writing skills when I joined Moi University as a lecturer and started publishing papers that got published in high-impact peer-reviewed international journals and later on published books in the areas of tourism development, wildlife management, culture and socio-economic development in Africa.
- How did you develop your interest in writing and what was your first published item? Where was this published?
My first publication was related to my area of specialization in the field of tourism and wildlife management. This publication was entitled “Conflicting attitudes towards state conservation programs in Kenya” which was published in a peer-reviewed international journalin1995.
- When did you write your first book and how old were you? What was the title? Where was it published?
My first book was written whilst I was at Moi University in the year 2002 when I was 43 years of age. The title of this pioneering book is “Cultural tourism in Africa: Strategies for the new millennium.” It was published in the Netherlands by the Tilburg University Press.
- What are the predominant subjects you focus on in your writing? Why?
I write on issues of tourism and wildlife management, areas of the culture and history of indigenous African communities with particular emphasis on the Kisii Community of Western Kenya.
In this regard, I am a scholar in the field of tourism and wildlife management, and being my area of academic specialization, I have managed to publish widely in that area, over the years. However, over time, I developed an interest in the areas of ethnography, culture and historical development of Kenyan communities. I have particularly had an interest in trying to understand the culture and history of the Gusii community, especially how the community developed culturally, socially, economically and politically, over the years. I have done extensive research and have managed to accumulate a lot of research materials on the culture and history of the Gusii people.
- Where did you get your information or ideas for your books?
I got my information from journals, and books (mainly through bibliographic searches). Also, over the years, I have conducted field studies using participatory approaches and survey interviews with resource people, such as community elders and targeted community opinion shapers in the rural communities of Western Kenya. I have also used information from archival sources in museums and other scholarly depositories in Kenya, the USA, and other parts of the world.
- Tell us about your recently released title: Undeterred: A Rural Boy’s Journey to the Pinnacle of Academia
- a) Where and when was it published?
- b) What inspired you to write this book?
I realized that as a person, who is also an academician and university administrator, I had a unique story to tell concerning my unique life experiences, starting from a very humble rural background, navigating through various challenges and hurdles in my social and academic life; to eventually become what I am today.
- c) Regarding the title Undeterred: A Rural Boy’s Journey to the Pinnacle of Academia
- i) What would be the takeaway for someone who reads the book?
The book provides a very clear example of how any person can be able to develop and enhance his/her life skills and also develop academically through personal determination, focus, hard work and discipline. More importantly, the book also shows that with resilience and determination, one can overcome challenges in his/her life and, probably, be able to use those challenges as learning experiences on how to navigate and successfully travel one’s life journey.
- How would that be of help to others in their day-to-day lives?
It shows, clearly, that life is a struggle and what matters is how one approaches those struggles; put simply, no matter the circumstances, one should not give up or give in.
iii. Any concrete examples from the content to illustrate the point?
Examples are there and they are many; when I lost my mother at a very tender age, I had to learn how to survive in the hostile environment of being an orphan and I was able to survive an imperfect family life, where I was under the care of a relatively hostile stepmother, who was not so much in support of my personal and academic growth.
Secondly, in America where I lived as a foreigner and in a very different and alien social and cultural environment, I was able to surmount the challenges of racism and paucity of financial resources and was eventually able to make it through my Masters and Ph.D. training, within an opportune time.
Again, as Vice Chancellor of Kisii University, I have over the years endured very severe challenges, including people wanting to bring me down at all costs, being able to manage a young university with limited resources through personal commitment and being able to build teamwork among diverse staff members. In the long run, I have managed to shepherd a young and nascent university to become a promising institution of higher learning which is moving forward and is poised to become a very vibrant and dynamic university of the 21stCentury.
- How relevant are some of the ideas for others outside (beyond Kenya and Africa) the environment in which you grew up, schooled and worked?
The idea of self-discipline, commitment and focus to achieve one’s life objectives, the principles of teamwork and being able to work with people from diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds are quite relevant to people beyond Kenya, and indeed Africa and the whole world. Also, issues of integrity, honesty and always standing by the truth, and pursuing what is right in one’s life no matter the consequences, do apply universally. These values form what one can call “the pillars of a successful human life, in any social setting.”
- We live in a global village and competition remains stiff in all aspects of life. Concerning the production of knowledge (writing/authorship and publishing);
- a) How can the country leverage this to assert itself in the global village? Through the education system? Professional training? Or what?
We have to agree that in the production of knowledge and being a knowledge-driven society, we are not doing quite well as a country. This can easily be shown by the fact that as a country we rank lowly in critical areas of knowledge creation, skills development, innovation and technological advancement; and probably, that is why our country is relatively underdeveloped and poverty is quite rampant, even after close to sixty years of independence.
In this regard, we have to admit that knowledge, in terms of writing, authorship, publishing, and training in general is a core pillar for the social, economic and political advancement of any society. Thus, as a country, we need to re-engineer ourselves in terms of the production and dissemination of knowledge, skills and competencies for sustainable socio-economic and cultural development.
Through knowledge advancement and skills enhancement, a country such as Kenya can leverage itself to be able to overcome the challenges of poverty, ignorance and disease, and also; be able to create wealth and sustainable development. We have to essentially note that, the world has become a global village and it is only through properly trained and empowered human resources that we can be able to effectively compete in a rapidly changing world. In other words, we have got to re-tool our education systems and professional training, all the way from kindergarten, elementary, secondary and tertiary education guided by clear principles of sustainable development, equitable sharing and efficient utilization of resources at local, regional, national and international levels.
- b) How competitive is Kenya compared to other countries you have experience with?
Due to the lack of proper development and empowerment of the Kenyan citizenry, our country is not very competitive, particularly at the global level. For Kenya to be competitive, we need to go back to the drawing board and come up with clear policies, plans and strategies to develop a highly skilled human resource that can produce wealth and products that are competitive in the global arena, and very importantly, we need to move away from the vices of nepotism and patronage, and start promoting meritocracy in all our socio-economic, political and cultural spheres.
- c) And what would be the most strategic level that such investment would be made to optimize outcomes?
The most strategic commitment is to invest in human resource development and, also, invest in the development of a knowledge-based economy. We should develop an economy which is capable of uplifting the living standards of the majority of the Kenyan citizenry, and we must also endeavour to eliminate all forms of corruption and allow people to earn honest livelihoods. Furthermore, we have to invest in other strategic areas such as modern technologies and the enhancement of a service-based economy. Kenya can be the African hub of information generation, dissemination and technological advancement.
- What is your take on the notion of knowledge and society? And how prepared is Kenya as a country to attain that status?
I have to state that our country is not well prepared in the area of a knowledge-based economy. We need to come up with strategies in which our academic and professional institutions, especially our universities, become centres of the sustainable development and promotion of a knowledge-based economy. Kenyan scholars, academicians and professionals should be provided with incentives that will enable them to maximize their potential in the development of a knowledge-based economy and sustainable development.
- Reading culture and knowledge capture and retention are seen as attributes of global competition in modern times
- a) What role does a reading culture play towards the attainment of a knowledge society?
A reading culture should be a life-long initiative. In developing a reading culture, people should be enabled to read extensively and undertake research in the creation and production of knowledge. Consequently, we need to cultivate a reading culture from a very early age. Kenyans should be empowered to understand that reading and learning is a life-long endeavour that aims at making people, and society, in general, better.
- b) On a scale of 1 (worst) to 10 (best) how do you rate Kenya’s reading culture?
I would rate Kenya’s reading culture at the level of 4 at best.
- c) Explain
In Kenya, most publishers who should be at the centre of promoting a lifelong reading culture are not in most cases engaged in publishing high-level scholarly work dealing with complex cultural, historical, economical, political and environmental issues. You also find that even in schools, all the way from primary, secondary and tertiary level, students are not encouraged to develop a reading culture but are just taught how to pass classroom and national exams. Moreover, people mainly read newspapers, and there is no continuous urge and thirst for wider knowledge. In other words, we are a society where people are not sharpening their critical understanding of various facets of life. Even professionals such as engineers, doctors, lawyers and other experts are rarely engaged in a rigorous search for new knowledge and skills in their various areas of expertise.
- d) What can be done to improve the country’s reading culture? What role of the education system in this? What is the role of leadership, corporate, political, community and otherwise, in this?
There is a need for a paradigm shift in the way we do things as a country. A reading culture has got to be cultivated from an earlier stage of life. Young people in schools should be encouraged to develop a reading culture and a deep urge to acquire knowledge, new ideas and new ways of doing things. We need to have a major transformation of our education system to make it student-centred, where learners are put at the centre of the learning process so that they are encouraged to read widely, undertake research and engage in systematic group discussions that will assist in sharing of new ideas and enhancement of knowledge. In other words, students should be encouraged to read outside the box; apart from reading and specializing in their areas of training, they should be encouraged to have a culture of looking for and reading existing works and interrogating existing scholarly works on various spheres of life. They should be made to understand that learning is a lifelong process and have to continuously acquire and sharpen their new ideas, information, skills and competencies through wider reading and undertaking research on various aspects of socio-economic, political and cultural development.
In promoting a reading culture, leadership at various levels such as community leadership, county leadership, and national levels is critical. The people who are in strategic positions should provide transformative leadership and should be good role models in promoting a reading culture and supporting a knowledge-based economy. Leadership runs across the private and public sector, politicians, church leadership and leaders of non-governmental organizations. All these organizations and their leaders should promote a reading culture and the search for contemporary and futuristic information and knowledge on all facets of human life.
At the national level, the government should provide clear policies that encourage all institutions to promote and systematically develop a reading culture and enhancement a knowledge-based economy.
- Any future writing plans for you? Do you have any projects in the works that you would like the audience to know about? When can we expect another book from you?
Yes, I do have future writing plans and am particularly planning to work on a book which will systematically look at the underlying factors causing poverty, underdevelopment and environmental degradation and/or climate change in Africa in general and Kenya in particular. I would like to dig deeper as to why our country, which has been independent for close to 60 years, is still relatively underdeveloped, and why ignorance, poverty and disease are still rampant after all those years of independence.
- On the subject of writing, reading and knowledge preservation, what message do you have for the following groups of people?
- a) Writers?
First and foremost, anybody can be a writer, what is needed is having unique ideas, being committed and focused in trying to elucidate and dig deeper into those ideas, and being able to put the ideas in a written form, so that people can access them, not for the sake of making money, but being able to write as a life-long commitment to contribute and add to the existing body of knowledge and understanding of human life.
- b) Readers?
Ideally, people in any society should develop a reading culture. They should also be encouraged to understand that reading doesn’t end after school, but it is a life-long initiative. They should also be made to understand that society and the world at large are currently going through major socio-economic, political and technological transformations and because of that, people should always keep abreast of the transformations through life-long reading.
- c) The Publishing Industry?
The publishing industry should not be driven only by profit-making arrangements. As much as profit is necessary, publishers should look at the wider picture of promoting society’s common good. Publishers should ask themselves the cardinal question as to whether what they are publishing is of communal value beyond the obvious notion of extending their profit margin. Particularly, publishers should endeavour to make sure that they participate in knowledge propagation and preservation through their publications.
- d) Policymakers?
This group is critical in developing policies, plans and strategies that promote a reading culture. Particularly, education policymakers should always endeavour to ensure that the kind of education and training that is provided in various levels of learning is transformative and does promote a culture of lifelong learning.
- e) Others (name them)
Others like the church and non-governmental organizations can play a critical role, particularly in grass-root mobilization. In this regard, they should be able to provide affordable reading materials and also participate in various community-based activities that enhance the development, dissemination and preservation of knowledge.
- Do you have any final closing thoughts?
Last but not least, issues of learning, reading and promoting a knowledge-based economy are for everybody and we have to move away from elitist perspectives and should be able to engage all members of society, particularly the common citizenry at the grass-root level should be at the centre of promoting the preservation of knowledge and enhancement of a knowledge-based economy.