Ken Ouko (pictured) treated his classroom like a theatre. His students at the University of Nairobi where he taught for more than 20 years were his audience.
He held their attention with his mastery of sociology and psychology, roiled them with his storytelling skills, and made many of them fall in love with sociology; a subject that many had feared was being edged out as many people opted for hard sciences.
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The dramatic pauses, deep laughter, and relevant examples of the things that defined humanity made his lectures popular among many.
“He never came to class with a book, but he would quote authors and pages of articles and write 10 pages off hand. He dressed very elegantly and he was humorous and witty. He would buy us breakfast in class,” Hassan Ali, a former student wrote in one of the many tributes that streamed online and off the net when news broke that Ouko had succumbed to Covid-19 on Saturday morning.
His sudden death was preceded by a recording to his colleagues telling them he was scared, and his lungs had collapsed. He had been admitted to the Aga Khan Hospital after he developed breathing complications. The playful chuckle that always defined his voice was gone and he admitted to some of his colleagues that he “hated how he was feeling and was very scared”.
“He sent a recording last week sounding frail. He said he was not doing well and was being wheeled into ICU. What a resilient man. Calling even when the disease had made him weak,” says his colleague and friend Francis Owakah.
His colleagues describe him as amiable, social, mobiliser and hilarious. A story that many of his colleagues tell is how in serious meetings where the administration was being confronted, Ouko had to be reminded not to smile. He would promise to try but never succeeded. A grin would crack his face even when people expected him to be annoyed.
“If you look at his photos, he was always smiling. He always reminded us that life was not too serious,” says Owakah.
Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha, who was his vice chancellor for 10 years, says Ouko was tactful in telling people things they did not want to hear. Notably, he would strenuously push the agendas of the female gender at a time when academia was very masculine; and it is perhaps what earned him the moniker of a brutal womaniser.
“He was too sympathetic to the needs of females. He always represented their issues and maybe it was misinterpreted. What stood out was his ability to make students think deeply and analyse issues,” says Magoha, adding that it would be hard to find a replacement for the man who had made a name for passionately speaking about human behaviour.
Ouko’s friends describe him as king of a wild universe. He loved his cars –polished and expensive. He hosted parties marked with staggering opulence. His suits were imported and he seemed ageless in his fashion choices.
In between conversations about his love for rhumba, he would sneak in anecdotes on sociology. He subscribed to the aphorism that man is inherently flawed and it is only when you understand that it is easier to love a flawed person than attempt to change them that you would find happiness.
Media lapped at his quotes and knowledge of what makes humans behave like they do. What would make a mother kill her own children? Why are men bleaching their faces? Why do people wail so hard in funerals of those they never cared about? Ouko had the explanations, quoting from books and experience.
When Covid-19 started ravishing nations and governments and medics were baffled at why it was so difficult for people to do something as basic as maintaining social distance, he talked of the instinctive desire of humans to huddle close when disaster looms.
“When people get bad news, human nature dictates that they reach out for a hug or sit close to their loved ones. Nobody wants to be alone,” he said in a media interview.
Ironically, the disease made him die alone, clutching on technology to reach out to his loved ones; and they were many.
A few hours after the announcement of his death, his name became among the trending topics on social media. Accolades of his humorous nature and the cheeky notes he left his students brightened the gloom.
“When I got a D in my first CAT with him, he drew some circles on my paper and wrote: “these are where my tears were falling as I marked this paper,” said Prisca Njau.
Others talked of how he showed up for students in trouble, like the time he drove to Kericho to condone with a student who had lost his wife yet they were barely close. His close friends wrote elaborately of his involvement in politics.
“Ouko was not one to do things just because people are doing it. He had his own mind. Very principled,” says his friend Barrack Owino.
Even when he went on record that it is time for the country to legalise prostitution and let the women of the night trade freely, he never retracted despite the backlash. He lived to the mantra on his CV: “I am driven by the belief that no obstacle is insurmountable as long as the will and enthusiasm prevail.”
The only obstacle that he could not fight, one that he passionately talked about, was living in the Covid-19 times.