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John Kiplagat Koech: Man who gifted space explorers walking stick has one big regret

Health & Science

 Photograph of NASA Apollo crew Neil Armstrong with Mzee John Koech after gifting Armstrong with a walking stick. [Titus Too, Standard]

As he enjoys his retirement, 88-year-old John Kiplagat Koech believes he would have gone places had he not quit school in lower primary.

Koech retired from traffic police headquarters on August 1, 1993 at the age of 55 at the rank of senior sergeant.

According to his discharge certificate, Koech - service 23072 - was a police driver, and served for 29 years. Because of his good character he was awarded N/E medal, medal of good conduct and a ten-year medal award.

His education was limited, but his commitment to service saw him deployed to drive VIPs under presidential escort. This saw him interact with high ranking foreign government officials.

But what remains etched in Koech's memory to date is gifting National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) Fifth Manned Apollo Crew commander Neil Armstrong a walking stick and a Somali sword for safely landing on the moon on July 24, 1969.

"I would be at a higher standing at the moment had I gone to school. I was even invited to Houston in the US after the NASA centre acknowledge my gift and interest in space science," says Koech at his home in Eldoret.

Was dedicated

He could not proceed to the US because he was dedicated to serving the country in Kenya Police.

To date, he cherishes photographs of Nasa Apollo crew Armstrong, Michael Collins, who was the command module pilot and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr, a lunar module pilot who made the first lunar landing mission.

"By then, I was serving at Abaswet post in Wajir division under special police that was driving and guarding American personnel, who were drilling water in the region. I was elated when I heard that a man had landed on the moon," Koech said.

According to Koech, he was moved, and he consulted with his seniors, including then police commissioner Benard Hinga, before buying a sword, applied for a permit and handed them over to the American Embassy in Nairobi for delivery.

A copy of an undated newspaper cutting in our possession states: "Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, is being flooded with gifts from fellow earthlings. But probably, none is befitting as the gift from a Kenya police constable in Garissa - a walking stick."

"At a brief ceremony in Nairobi this week, John Kiplangat Koech of the police unit at Garissa, handed over to the American Embassy for delivery to Armstrong at the space centre in Houston, a beautiful Somali walking stick entirely sheathed in red embossed leather."

It adds: "Since the walking stick also conceals a long steel sword, constable Koech thoughtfully included a permit - required by Kenya law - testifying that Armstrong is authorised to carry the weapon in accordance with the African Arms Act, Cap. 125, section 2. It is signed by the District Commissioner of Wajir."

And in a letter from Nasa to Koech dated November 6, 1970 and seen by The Standard, S. B. Weber wrote to sincerely thank Koech for a kind letter and post cards to Armstrong.

"He is always pleased to hear from those with keen interest in our space programme. Unfortunately, because of his heavy schedule of activities with Nasa, he is unable to personally respond to each letter he receives. We are enclosing an autographed picture of Armstrong, which we hope you will enjoy."

Robert R Gilruth, Director Nasa, had also written in a signed letter of August 13, 1970 to Mzee Koech, appreciating his deep interest in space exploration and also for gifting him with a lovely statue.

Koech has several correspondences delivered to him through American Embassy as he served in Kenya police.

 Photograph of NASA Apollo crew Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins who was the command module pilot and Mzee John Koech was sent the photograph from NASA center in Houston after gifting Armstrong with a walking stick. [Titus Too, Standard]

Koech was born in remote Legetet village in Tinderet, Nandi County, in 1935. He enrolled for Standard One at Sitotwet Primary School in 1947. Koech later went to Sileget for Standard Two but dropped out in Standard Three in 1949 out of protest for being punished by a teacher.

"I had just come out of seclusion after undergoing the Nandi circumcision rite, and I could not agree to be subjected to punishment after a teacher asked me to kneel down before the rest of the pupils," said Koech.

Two years later, Koech went to the neighbouring Kericho District and was attracted by a police band conducted by white colonial officers. Not knowing the police department were looking for potential youths for recruitment, Koech was forcibly listed and taken to Kiganjo for a six-month training.

Driving course

However, he did not last more than two months before he left. "During a morning run, I went past the training zone, looking for freedom fighters. Officers later dismissed me, saying I was too young," he says.

But at home, his peers ridiculed him of cowardice. "I went for a Kenya prisons recruitment drive and was listed under service number 934," he says.

Koech was deployed to Machakos after a six-month training. Later, he proceeded to Kamithi Prison, where he took a driving course.

By 1963, he was back to Kenya Police headquarters and worked in various stations before joining the presidential security escort in 1971, attached to the then Vice President Daniel Moi and later to President Jomo Kenyatta.

In 1973, Koech recalls that he was deployed to carry Very Important Persons (VIPs) and would drive foreign head of delegations from the airport to meeting venues.

Koech, who is married to two wives and has several children, cites discipline for his success in police career but says: "Had I progressed in school, I would have attained higher standing than where I am currently."

He says he took his first flight recently when mobile phone service provider Safaricom bought him a return ticket from Eldoret to Nairobi for his birthday to celebrate him for being their valued customer.

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