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He wandered from herding to academia

By | October 9th 2009

By Kipkoech Tanui

America’s theologian William Shedd left a saying that captures Prof James ole Kiyapi’s journey of life from rural Maasailand to the sanctum of international academia.

The renowned Presbyterian who died in 1894 taught: "A ship is safe in harbour, but that’s not what ships are for."

Born two years to Kenya’s Independence, the Medical Services Permanent Secretary could have chosen the comfort of his environment teeming with exploits of moranism because that was where his world seemed safe.

Written word

But again, his little experience with the written word — through his elder brother — opened up a horizon he wanted to run and touch. It looked far and the journey treacherous and dreary, but it also appeared mystical to his young, curious mind.

Eventually, the beckon of education won him over, taking him through a lowly primary school back home, to Alliance High School for six years and later Moi University in Eldoret and Toronto University, Canada.

In this bumpy, yet adventurous journey away from of his ancestral ‘harbour’, he laid down impermeable foundation for his life and on which he stands today.

Prof ole Kiyapi with four of his six children [PHOTOS: COURTESY]

It was in Moi University in 1988 when Kiyapi first shook retired President Moi’s hand because he distinctively stood out as the first locally trained Forestry expert to earn a First Class Honours Bachelors degree.

Today, even as a PS, he still has one leg in the world of academia, first as a researcher and publisher of academic material, and as a supervisor of one PhD student and three Masters Degree candidates.

Appointed PS

"I was appointed PS in 2006 while teaching at the university and I could not abandon them,’’ he said.

When Mr John Michuki replaced Kibwana after 2007’s chaotic elections, he explains, he sold him the idea of over-flying Mau Forest with journalists and the minister agreed. The picture of desecrated Mau was beamed on TV screens and soon after Prime Minister Raila Odinga flew there, and as he says, ‘the rest is history’. Asked what inspired him to take the first bold step on Mau, he quoted Edmund Burke, the British statesman and philosopher: "Evil flourishes when good men do nothing." The man dubbed the ‘PS Preacherman’ because he is not only a church elder and public speaker, but also a church minister, last month was at his church, Nairobi Pentecostal Church Valley Road, teaching the place of environment in the Bible.

Lucy, who he married as a schoolteacher, he reveals, has walked in his footsteps and received her PhD degree in Counselling and Psychological stress last year. This takes us to 1986 when he was 25, and onto what he recalls as a ‘simple yet serious’ church wedding in Kilgoris — where the main meal at the reception was soda and bread.

"All we did was buy new clothes, soda and bread. I invited my former chaplain at Alliance University, Rev Welch, to preside over it and he accepted. I was a student and I took my card to our Vice-Chancellor, Prof Douglas Odhiambo, and when I saw his official car outside as I held my wife’s hand, my heart shook with joy. He had accepted my invitation,’’ he says. It was at Alliance High School that Kiyapi for the first time ever saw himself in a picture.

Senior boys

He recalls he was an instant attraction to the senior boys and teachers, who he regaled with stories of killing a lion with his own hands, dancing by the fire in the bush the whole night, drinking raw cow blood, and taking part in cattle raids.

"Some of it was exaggerated because I realised the old boys loved it and would ask me to sit and chat them up while the rest of the juniors were doing general cleaning,’’ he recalls.

Asked if he did not feel like a like fish out of water at Afya House, given his professional training, he responded: "I am not swimming in strange waters. Environment is a strong determinant of health. Where there is conservation and environmental consciousness, the disease level is low."

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