The first thing that most people notice about Kenda Mutongi, professor of history and chair of Africana studies, is her striking electric blue and green glasses. And yet, despite her interesting choice of eyewear, Mutongi insists that she is not used to receiving attention. From her perspective, Mutongi can’t understand why anyone would want to hear about her little old, boring life. She is mistaken.
The story of Mutongi’s childhood is hardly typical. She grew up in rural Kenya until she got a scholarship to Coe College in Iowa. Mutongi eventually moved on to graduate school at University of Virginia before somehow managing to end up in Williamstown. Western rural Kenya to western rural Massachusetts definitely does not describe the average journey to the Purple Valley.
Mutongi did not always plan to become a professor. “I was kind of a drifter. I never imagined I would end up being a professor. The idea is growing on me,” she said.
One of the disadvantages of being a full-time professor is that Mutongi has less time to write. In September 2007, Mutongi published Worries of the Heart, which examined the social and political reality through the eyes of widows – a group generally on the fringes of society. One of the things that surprised her during her fieldwork was how much rural western Kenyans missed aspects of colonial rule. “They do not want colonial rule again. But they recognize that they had things under colonial rule that they do not have now. They miss having basic needs such as running water and proper roads,” she said.
Mutongi tries to return to Kenya every year in order to visit her mother and her sister as well as to do more field-work for her upcoming project, Carry Me Home: Commuters and Transport Culture in Nairobi, a study focusing on the history of public transportation in Nairobi.
During her visits to Kenya, Mutongi often feels frustrated by how much hasn’t changed in her homeland. “I wish it could change more,” she said. “I was there just two months ago and there still is no running water, no proper roads. My area is not unique. The government, due to corruption and lack of resources, doesn’t help out. And when the government officials do get the resources, they give it to their hometown. It’s very nepotistic.”
Despite her disappointment, Mutongi always enjoys getting out of the Purple Bubble once in a while to visit the place where she grew up. “It’s good to go back. Being there helps me understand the world better. It’s refreshing and reminds me of my bourgeois life in Williamstown,” she said.
Since 1996 when she first started working for the College, Mutongi has certainly seen the Africana Studies Department go through several changes. When she started, there were barely a few allocated lines of money to hire professors. “We were basically borrowing faculty from the other disciplines. It wasn’t a cohesive group as it feels now,” she said.
Mutongi has brought in numerous renowned professors who have strengthened the burgeoning program. Now the concentration has swelled to 136 students. “But we still have to figure out what kind of department we want to be. There is the ethnocentric model and a kind of liberal arts model, in which we study a broad scope of areas,” she said.
Another hope Mutongi has for the Africana Studies Department is the return and growth of Williams in Africa, a program that has been suspended for the past two years. “We are hopeful that WiA will be under Africana Studies. Students who are concentrating in Africana Studies would go abroad, which gives them a full experience,” she said.
Mutongi always tries to reveal to her students the hardships and realities of living in western, rural Kenya. In a current class, she faced the challenge of trying to explain the city of Johannesburg to students who had never been there or any place like it. Mutongi contextualized the city by giving her students all the major plays that have taken place in the Market Theater in Johannesburg. “By the end of the class, the students had a feel of the place. They felt like they had been there. They didn’t feel quite so distant.”
Mutongi has come a long way to settle in Williamstown, but with her experience and insight into her motherland, Mutongi can bring the realities of living in Kenya a little closer to the Purple Valley.