Ken Ouko: Brilliant scholar loved fast cars, designer suits

I was fortunate to be one of Ken Ouko’s students in his undergraduate class, Introduction to Sociology, in the academic year 1990-1991. He was young, handsome, unassuming, impeccably dressed and radiant. And how he loved the good things in life!

Ouko - one of the great educators and mentors who has contributed richly to the tradition that has made the Department of Sociology University of Nairobi known for the quality of its teaching and research-- taught us that you could be an intellectual and yet wear designer suits and ride around town in a Mercedes S class.

Back then, he drove a pimped up Volkswagen. I think the Kenwood speakers in that car were worth more than the car itself, but that was Ken as students and faculty alike fondly called him.

Later, after my postgraduate studies, I joined him as a junior member of faculty in the Department of Sociology by literally climbing on his shoulders.

When I heard the news of his passing on, there were so many thoughts and memories that raced through my mind. Just like many of you, I thought about the last time I saw him, our last conversations and the special moments from decades back as his student and later colleague in the lecture halls and offices at the University of Nairobi.

Ken Ouko famously taught sociology of the Family as well as Sociology of Adolescence. He not only taught Sociology -- he invented courses. For all I know, Ouko may have been the first person at the University of Nairobi to teach the course we knew as Gerontology (The sociology of Ageing) and to invest it with compelling meaning. He certainly made his courses celebrated as attested to by the number of times media houses invited him to shade light on issues to do with sexuality, family, relationships, adolescents and youth.

His teaching was electrifying; he wanted nothing less to rouse the unaware. His influence changed my outlook on the purposes of living and made me feel forever unsatisfied with not quite knowing and not quite doing.

He enlarged my whole conception of the fascination and complexity of societies and individuals, past and present, and made it impossible for me to do anything less than my best for the world of which he made me feel so much a part.

I could not, after learning what hard intellectual work really was, and after experiencing the excitement that comes with intellectual and self-discovery, possibly have settled for a way of life that demanded too little of me and that could have left my own decision-making to the mercy of whims and moods and accidental events and passing enthusiasms.

To Ken Ouko there was nothing unfriendly or incompatible in the relationship between the theory and the practice within any field or discipline; nor was there a chasm between art and science. For him also there were no chasms between the community and the student and the teacher.

There is an erroneous notion then and even today that there is a dichotomy between intellectual discovery and self-discovery; that if you are bent on one of these missions, you cannot achieve the other. Ken Ouko made it clear that a great teacher can help a student to achieve both.

Ouko was a great teacher and a great human being, and he is at this moment symbolic of the best that an educator has to offer.

We – students, graduates, community and faculty, council members and alumni alike – need to remember that the kind of teaching he did, the way of life he exemplified and the part he played in his community illustrate the central purpose of an educator and mentor.

Everyone has thought, at one time or another, that Ouko loved teaching sociology more than anything else in life. It certainly appeared that way to all of his students because of the enthusiastic level of energy he put into helping students grasp concepts and master important skills.

But, I think we were all wrong. What he treasured most in life was his family, his friends, and his students. Above all, he valued the relationships he had with each and every person that was a part of his life. More than anything else, he loved being a father. He revelled in his family’s love and cherished his time watching it grow.

I hope that the dedication that Ouko brought to bear in his pedagogy will help us to see to it that the primary educational purpose of higher education is preserved, protected and strengthened for the future when it will be as much needed as it is now.

This exemplary scholar should take his final bow with pride, knowing he made a lasting contribution in developing the confidence and capacity of many young men and women to make a better and more just society.

Edwin Wanjawa teaches sociology in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Pwani University