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Professor Okoth Okombo: The Laker boy whose star shone bright

By James Oranga | Nov 17th 2017 | 4 min read

On January 21, 2011, I shared a table with Prof Okoth Okombo at the University of Nairobi’s Senior Common Room. This was my first lunch as a don at this prestigious institution. Prof, as I came to refer to him, quickly made acquaintance and when I revealed my name, he asked whether I came from the family of the Oranga that he knew.

Interestingly, Prof was my mother’s senior at Kenyatta College, later Kenyatta University back in the 1970s. Such was the man who would become one of my most revered symbols of inspiration. He had a solid memory that could trace my family name to his college days.

Broad mind

Blessed with an exceptional broad mind, Prof, though a linguist, had manifest mastery of several subjects. He debated with lawyers and floored them in the merits of law. He took on political scientists on national television discussions and articulated issues of governance and democracy like their equal.

He never shied away from any scholastic contest. He oozed intellectualism from every pore. He was the darling of Parliamentarians and many government departments whenever they needed expert training in communication, negotiation and leadership skills.

Although Prof was an accomplished linguist, his brilliance in matters of communication made many observers mistake him for a media expert. Yet, this was a misconception that he attempted to correct on several occasions without success. Just before he was taken ill, I had personally persuaded him to make frequent guest appearances in my junior classes to discuss the nexus between journalistic excellence and linguistic competence.

A student

Born in 1950 at Kaswanga village in Rusinga Island, Prof attended Kaswanga SDA Primary School and later Mbita High School in Homa Bay County. He excelled in his secondary school examinations, scoring a Division I, the equivalent of a constant A by today’s KCSE standards. He opted to join Kenyatta College as opposed to pursuing A levels, graduating with an Secondary Teachers Certificate in 1972.

Having topped his class at Kenyatta, he was admitted, on scholarship, to the University of Nairobi to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree in Linguistics. His academic odyssey at University of Nairobi would be momentous; attaining a Masters degree in 1979, and finally a PhD in 1987. He would serve the department of Linguistics and African Languages as a head of department and then the Faculty of Social Sciences as Dean from the year 2000 to 2002. He achieved full professorship in 1999.

Prof also founded and then coordinated the Sign Language Institute of Africa for many years. He was an external examiner for several universities. He was a regular participant in broadcast talk shows.

He dazzled audiences with his wit, depth, language and humor in a way that was unmatched. The last time I pried on his consultancy profile, it was almost ten pages long with an estimated six entries on each page. Clearly, if brilliance and accomplishment could save a man, Prof would have lived forever.

Apart from academics and professional distinction, Prof was also blessed with other amazing personal merits. He stood over six feet tall, was a great dancer, a keen listener, had wonderful people skills and was the best story teller I ever encountered. Like hundreds of my peers, I came to value and adore his opinions and guidance. Socially, he was excellent company. He often joked that the name of his village was so obscure and could not be traced through Google maps. He had to tell people that he was Tom Mboya’s village mate so as to give his place of birth visibility.

Thankfully, Prof leaves behind a fairly stable family. His marriage was blessed with three children, all of who are accomplished professionals. But, his demise will leave a phenomenal family void that their professional stability cannot fill. As his comrades, we had hoped to enjoy the nourishment of his wisdom for several more years.

On the day of Prof’s last hospitalisation, I hoped and believed that he would pull through. A WhatsApp group was promptly established through which we kept tabs with the progress of his treatment. On the night of Wednesday November 1, 2017, I was tormented by a horrible nightmare that Prof had passed on. When I woke up the following morning, I anxiously reached for my cell phone and navigated through my messages. To my anguish, Prof was no more.

Prof’s departure has left an intellectual vacuum that will be challenging to fill. Like some other great men who have gone before him, his story emphasises the greatness of education. With education, all of us can conquer our obstacles at birth. I know that there is a special seat for you in heaven great Prof. Nind gi kwe ja Kaswanga.

Dr. Oranga teaches Journalism at the University of Nairobi

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