Dr Kavazeua Festus Ngaruka – the unsung intellectual hero

Home Focus Dr Kavazeua Festus Ngaruka – the unsung intellectual hero

Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna

Today, the 18th October marks the first birth day of Dr Kavazeua Festus Ngaruka in heaven. I was hoping to do a public lecture to mark the birthday of this unassuming intellectual giant. However, due to work-pressure, I could not do that. Therefore, I feel that the only way to honour him is to re-visit his life – albeit very briefly.

As a born-again believer, Ngaruka went to be with the Lord. Therefore when I say the 18th October marks his first birthday in heaven, I say that without any fear of contradiction.

As I wrote in my tribute to him that was published in April 2019, shortly after his passing, my sorrow was two-fold. In the first place, I lost an intellectual “sparring partner” and mentor.  More often than not, I was the only student in his “informal” class; and I benefitted greatly from that. One of the few topics we agreed to disagree on, was the nature of the working class in South Africa. His view on that was that classical Marxists tend to overlook ethnic identity in South Africa in favour of class consciousness. Whereas I would argue that the working class in South Africa is very much class conscious and fully aware of its economic as well as political power and influence. Therefore for me, ethnicity is not a major factor in the consciousness of the South African working class. 

Secondly, my deepest regret is that the Namibian youth did not get to benefit from this intellectual giant when he was in full bloom because he had spent some 40 years outside the country.  When he came back in 2014, he was very sickly and did not engage much intellectually.  In his academic life at Binghamton University (USA) where he had studied and taught, he had rubbed shoulders with scholars of international renown. These were the likes of Ali Mazrui and Immanuel Wallerstein. The celebrated Wallerstein is the founder of what in social sciences has come to be known as the World System Theory. Wallerstein had taught Ngaruka, supervised him for his PhD and later taught with him at the same university where they also co-authored a few publications. Those who appreciate serious scholarship would agree with me that this is, by any stretch of imagination, no mean achievement at all. 

The friendship between Ngaruka and I started in 1971 at the Augustineum High School – that Mecca of student activism in colonial Namibia that produced the likes of Dr Hage Geingob, Professor Peter Katjavivi, the late Dr Mose Tjitendero, the late Dr Theo-Ben Gurirab, the late Hidipo Hamutenya etc. Although he was my senior, both in class and in age, we immediately connected because apart from being activists, both of us seemed to have a natural bent towards social sciences, literature, poetry and religion. Ngaruka was a versatile scholar and you could not peg him to a specific academic discipline because he could shuttle seamlessly across a broad range of disciplines. He always showed strong academic presence; but without the slightest hint of arrogance.

After many years of separation – we had spent our exile years in different countries – we re-connected again in 2015; and what a re-union it was! During the last few days of his life he became a little bit despondent and distant as sickness was taking its toll on him. Yet despite the health challenges he was facing, he continued reading and writing until his dying day. 

A few of us have vowed to publish his collection of poems titled “Crossing the Kalahari” posthumously as a tribute to him. The poems are a deep reflection of our struggle for independence, the sorrows and joys of life in general and a deep search for this immortal and invisible God to whom he was totally committed. You need to read these poems to have a feel of the measure and depth of Ngaruka as a person. Ngaruka gave the phrase “being in a class of his own” true meaning because he was in a class of his own, in the true sense of that word. He was a vicarious reader, an immersion writer and, above everything else, a deep thinker. My deepest regret is that most young Namibians did not get the opportunity to pick the brain of this intellectual giant, who was every inch a polished scholar of note.

* Ngaruka would never introduce himself as a Dr and this reference to him as Dr Ngaruka would certainly make him turn in his grave.