Go well, Richard!
I first met Richard in 2001 when I was being considered for a job on this Campus. Those Campus visits are always intimidating no matter how many times one has done it. Richard introduced me before my talk at 135 HIB. He interspersed his remarks with a few Kiswahili and Gikuyu words, which only he and I knew what they meant in terms of the everyday of Kenyan life. It was as if we were kindred conspirators in the space otherwise packed with strangers, for me at the time. The linguistic conspiracy turned out to be the perfect way of making me feel at home, for it resulted in immediate bonding. Later when I joined the faculty, and my wife, Njeeri, the administration, Richard and his wife, Allison, welcomed us to their house on the hill where we also met his sister Anita Davis. We chatted about Kenya and farming among other things.
I could talk of Richard as a scholar and colleague but I want to dwell on his relationship to my two children, Thiong’o, now thirteen, and Mumbi, now fourteen, because it brings out a side of Richard that I found very endearing. Whenever and wherever their paths crossed, he had a word for each of them. Mostly, they met at the lower swimming pool at Troncos, University Hills. Thiongo in particular would stay with him in the jacuzzi where they just talked, with Richard wanting to know everything about their new life in Irvine and how they were fitting in their new school. Richard did not talk at them; they discussed and debated, with Richard constantly teasing their brains with all sorts of puzzles from history, science and literature. They beat him in Gikuyu; he beat them in Kiswahili. They looked forward to those sessions at the swimming pool and the news of Richard passing hit them in a very personal way. Thiong’o, after a pause, said: He was a great person. He was kind. And he was very smart. Mumbi said: Richard was always kind and friendly. I am sad that I shall not meet him again.
Like my daughter, I find it difficult to imagine that I shall not actually see Richard again swimming at the pool or walking past the windows of Colette Atkinson’s office or along the corridors of the first floor of HIB, always stopping by each of our offices to say hello and exchange a few words, with a smile. For me, that exchange was always preceded by a greeting we reserved for each other, Hujambo Bwana Mkubwa, a greeting in Kiswahili, something like, How are you big boss, but which has a specifically Kenyan flavor, at once evocative of the country’s colonial past of race relations while also mocking it playfully. We shared love of the country of our birth, its incredible landscape of sea, hills, valleys and plains and its history of promise and also failure. We carried, in our different ways, the memories of beauty, and also, quite frankly, terror, which was another knd of bond. But he never bowed to the memory of terror but rather celebrated that of beauty. My wife, Njeeri, remembers how Richard talked fondly of the African woman who helped bring him up. He sought beauty in human relationship but he also lived it in his life, for, in the very act of refusing to bow to the negative and the debilitating, there is another kind of beauty.
I feel as if it was this aesthetic that he sought in intellect and art, literature and literary scholarship a search that resulted in his Magnus Opus, The Material World. Among the dissenting writers mentioned in this work, is John Bunyan and his Pilgrim’s Progress. When one of the characters, Valiant-for-Truth, realizes that he has reached his journey’s end, he calls all his friends and tells them: “I am going to my Father’s; and though with great difficulty I have got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought His battles who will now be my Rewarder.”
Every welcome into the world, as in everything, contains within it, anticipation of farewell. One is truly blessed, who, at the journey’s end, whenever it comes, can say: I have fought the good fight, I have kept the course, and I have kept the faith. Richard has fought the good fight in his life and scholarship, a fight maintained with a smile that came to his face and which I occasionally saw, whenever our paths crossed, and we said: Habari Bwana Mkubwa. Si Jambo Bwana Mkubwa. Now I can say: Kwa heri Bwana Mkubwa. Go well, Richard. Stay well. Rest in peace.
Remarks at the English Department Memorial for Professor Richard Kroll at the UCI students’ center, 11th March 2009.