Walking with donkeys for whatever distance is not an easy task. It is less complicated than a rural boy learning to ride a bicycle in a village where such a device is a novelty, only seen when dignitaries came calling.
Peers agree that Prof Charles Odidi Okidi was not an ordinary boy and were not shocked that he mastered the two feats at quite an early age. And obstinate he was!
How else would one describe a boy who could persuade a heard of donkeys to neigh and bray their way from Karachuonyo, Homa Bay County to Kisii only to exchange them for basket full of cereals.
Welcome to the world of Vihiga’s first African Officer Commanding Station who obstinately rejected the famous John F Kennedy airlifts so that he could complete his studies at Maseno School.
But his story, like all good narratives has a beginning. It started 78 years ago when he was born to Ezekiel Okidi, a batter trader, and Doris Atieno as chronicled in, In Pursuit of Excellence: Memoirs of Professor Charles Odidi Okidi.
The memoirs capture life in another era where currency was scarce and a farmer could exchange a healthy jackass for several bags of maize.
This was a time when a traveler from Karachuonyo could could saunter into a stranger’s home in Nyamira and be accorded a sumptuous meal and accommodated for the night at no fee although he could not speak the host’s language.
Growing up at a time when Africans were just waking up to the importance of education, Okidi and his peers had to pay heavy price to be educated.
Okidi, then aged 12, walked from Ogenya in Karachounyo to Kisii, at times sleeping in strangers’ homes. His mission was to present himself at Kisii Government school to examiners, after a two-day journey so as to sit Common Entrance Examination (CEE) to progress to intermediate school.
However, two years later, in 1956, he failed Kenya African Primary Examination. He spent a year waiting for an opportunity to repeat the examination. In the meantime, he worked as a bicycle mechanic to finance his education at Maseno School.
When he ultimately joined the school, he was enchanted to a point that when a cousin arranged that he flies to America, courtesy of the John F Kennedy airlifts of students which was organised by the Tom Mom Mboya, he flatly declined.
“When I was in Form 3, my cousin Salome Odoro organised for me a letter offering me a scholarship to the United States as part of the political airlift programme. I rejected it, telling my cousin that I would not leave Maseno in Form 3. I was doing well in Maseno and enjoying myself….”
Okidi has a dim view of the airlifts and owing to their political nature, there were several hangers on some of whom were so intellectually challenged that they never completed their education.
“I remain eternally glad I did not take up the offer,” Okidi pens in his memoirs which will be launched virtually on January 22.
His life’s journey took an interesting trajectory in 1962 when he finished Form Four and was headhunted to train as a cadet police officer to form a cadre of senior officers that would soon replace Europeans when Kenya got independence in 1963.
The six-month training majoring in legal studies did not arm him with enough expertise for what awaited him when he was posted to Bungoma. The Sabaot, who had grudges with the colonial government, were planning to revolt in 1963.
He was warned of the impending uprising on the eve of Kenya’s independence.
And as other Kenyans feverishly welcomed Independence Day on December 12, 1963, Okidi who was as acting OCS Bungoma was frantic. “My important task was to ensure there was peace in the area. I toured the area of west Bukusu and the slopes of Mt Elgon all the way to Kaptama. Opinion leaders accepted our messages and there was peace,” he says.
Earlier, he faced the wrath of a colonial settler who had reported the theft of his cattle and demanded that Okidi personally go look for them.
When he declined and instead sent junior stock theft officers, the settler was outraged and called Sir Richard Cartling, who was at the time the Inspector General of Police.
The following morning, Okidi was confronted by the OCPD who had been ordered to go to Bungoma to establish why the OCS had been insolent.
Luckily the stolen cows had been recovered and were grazing at the police station. He was hailed by his seniors as an effective crime buster.
Four years later, he gave up what to his colleagues was a promising career in law enforcement with a direct pathway to Judiciary and a perch as a judge.
Okidi was happy to leave his post in Kericho — where he was a wanted man after he prosecuted a senior Kanu politician for flogging two men — to Alaska Methodist University where he would live as a pauper as he pursued his education.
The memoirs majors in academic achievements demonstrating Okidi’s masterly of Environmental law up to PhD level in 1975 from Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tuft University. He got his doctorate at the expense of lucrative jobs and was at one point almost deported for overstaying.
The scholar would later shun jobs in the US because he wanted to return home and teach at the University of Nairobi (UoN). He was however shocked as Kenya was not as keen to have him.
His application for promotion from senior lecturer to associate professor was sat on for three years and he was only elevated after he was approached by Moi University and offered a full professorship and an opportunity to start the School of Environmental Law.
“Of course I did the right thing. I took the offer by Moi University and was happy that I left UoN as an associate professor.”
Had Kenya listened to Okidi shortly before Somalia’s Siad Barre was dethroned, it would not be having any disputes over the Indian Ocean. Okidi urged the government to ratify agreements with Barre but it did not.
Okidi is hailed as father of environmental law in Africa and has made a mark in Malta and other countries where he has shaped development of curriculum in exploitation of oceanic natural resources and formulation of policy.