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HomeWealthPhilip Ochieng': One Of The Greatest Journalist Kenya Has Ever Produced

Philip Ochieng’: One Of The Greatest Journalist Kenya Has Ever Produced

THE MAKING OF A GREAT JOURNALIST

© Victor Ochieng’ 

The 5th Columnist: A Legendary Journalist, is the life story of Philip Ochieng’ as told by Liz Gitonga Wanjohi. It is a tale of a great journalist who learnt the ropes on-the-job. Dr. Joyce Nyairo, a cultural analyst admits in the prolegomenon that the brilliant biographer took an incredibly difficult task — of putting into words the life of one of the greatest grammarians in the country, a wonderful wordsmith — who had an admirable felicity of diction. 

Foremost, Wangethi Mwangi, former Nation Media Group editorial director contends that Philip Ochieng’ enjoyed his life socially and intellectually. Socially when he was younger — and intellectually in his retirement. Those who went to school with him posit that the great journalist excelled in English right from the onset. Later in life, he taught good grammar through his well-woven newspaper columns. He described himself as a freelance grammar teacher. 

No wonder, still on prefatory part of it, Dr. Tom Odhiambo, a literary puritan at the University of Nairobi, commented that avid readers of Kenyan newspapers described Philip Ochieng’ as language doctor, philosopher, editor, social historian and careful critic. 

Indeed, he was a seasoned scribe that straddled the East African media landscape like a colossus. Tracing his background from his humble and simple peasantry upbringing at Awendo in Migori County, the putative author narrates the story of glory, of a precocious person with a penchant for learning from a fledgling stage. 

In retrospect, Philip Ochieng’ joined Alliance High School (AHS) in 1955 at the height of Mau Mau Rrebellion, in which African guerilla fighters had taken up arms against British colonial rule. In those years of yore, Edward Carrey Francis was the Headmaster of that giant boys’ school. This great educationist, who earlier on taught at Maseno School, instilled discipline in his sedulous students. Every Friday, he delivered pep talks touching on a wide array of topics.  

In consequent, Tom Mboya and Philip Ochieng’ were close-knit friends. During school holidays, Ochieng’ spent some time at Mboya’s house in Ziwani, and later in Lavington in the trendiest town, Nairobi. Occasionally, the young trade unionist, Tom Mboya, paid his school fees and gave him some doit to serve as pocket money. 

Again, Philip Ochieng’ was in the first lot of the 81 Kenyan students who left the country in 1959 for further studies in America. He was among nearly 1,000 students from Africa who secured scholarships to study in the best American universities up to the mid-1960s. 

Unfortunately, while in America, Ochieng’ never completed his undergraduate studies. Albeit, he became a towering intellectual — whose beautiful brilliance dwarfed those who had acquired several degrees in life. He was intellectually omnivorous. His ken of knowledge extended from the most mundane topics to Nuclear Physics. He had intellectual knowledge on virtually any topic — spanning from the Greek Mythology to the Bible, from literary classics to oral tradition, Astrophysics to ancient history. 

Somewhat, when he dropped out of Roosevelt University, and flew back to Kenya in 1961, Tom Mboya rescued him from intellectual oblivion. Tom Mboya Rateng’ Okew Godhiambo helped him secure a second scholarship to study in France. There was also close camaraderie between Philip Ochieng’ and Barrack Obama Senior. While Ochieng’ matriculated into Roosevelt University, Obama Senior joined University of Hawaii. 

In actual sense, Philip Ochieng’ was not a trained journalist per se. Instead, he studied English language, Literature, as well as French. Due to zeal and zest, he rose through the ranks in the newsroom and became a great journalist. He first joined Nation in 1966 when Michael Chester was the news editor. 

Ideally, it was at the East African Journal that my namesake perfected his sub-editing skills. Therein, he also interacted with luminaries in the literary world like Okot p’Bitek. He edited his celebrated poems such as Song of Lawino, Song of Okol, Song of Malaya and Potent Ash.

Moreover, together with literary giants like Taban Lo Liyong, they strategised on how to Africanise the Literature department at the University of Nairobi (UoN). T. Adhiambo writing in his doctoral thesis in 1968 pointed out that a panoply of Literature lecturers at UoN like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Taban Lo Liyong, Owuor Anyumba and Okot p’Bitek, clamoured for a transformation of the English and Literature department. The dons agreed that there was a heartfelt need for an ‘African narrative’ to supplant the syllabus they perceived was too European in orientation. 

It is instructive to note that the great journalist also authored I Accuse the Press and co-authored The Kenyatta Succession with Joseph Karimi. 

Conversely, Philip Ochieng’s style of writing became a subject of debate for a long time. Some people with limited vocabulary and lazy to learn complained about his missives and blog posts. They accused him of grandiloquence and magniloquence: Use of high-flown language. Which begs the question: Who was Ochieng’ really writing for? On his harsh rebuttal, he blamed such lousy readers for suffering from mental blocks that barred them from digesting his messages. 

Serendipitously, in 2004, President Mwai Kibaki awarded him the coveted Order of the Grand Warrior of Kenya award, OGW. Later, in January 2010, he was in the task force that reviewed the current education system: to align it with the new constitution. Therefore, in his sunset days, Philip Ochieng’ led an extremely busy life. He still found time to write right as he did. 

Ipso facto, due to his cache of experience for his many years of service in journalism, and his vast knowledge on virtually all areas of life, Philip Ochieng’ was often picked to advise the government on various issues. When the Kenya Yearbook Editorial Board (KYEB) was formed in November 2008 as a state Cooperation, Ochieng’ was one of the journalists on it.

In a morbid sense, last year, the grim reaper plucked him from the garden of life at age 83. He is silent and absent in our major writing spaces, but his spirit lives in scribes like us. We keep his life and legacy alive by weaving words on daily basis. 

The writer is an editor, author and public speaker. 

vochieng.90@gmail.com. 0704420232