As I sat down to start writing this, Prof Peter Barasa of Moi University called to tell me that he had heard on Citizen Radio in the morning that the ‘The giant was past tense’.
Prof Okoth Okombo was truly a giant, literally in physique and metaphorically in intellectual achievement and breadth and depth of knowledge in a variety of fields.
On any podium, Okoth filled the space with an awesome presence accomplished by sharpness of wit and style of delivery that only he could master. He had a unique way of combining humour and intellectual argument that captivated his audience in a unique way.
I first met Okoth when we were first year undergraduates in 1974, and we happened to be both in linguistics, a field he studied and researched with extraordinary passion.
However, his interests and involvements were not restricted to linguistics as is demonstrated by his many contributions in debates on politics, education, philosophy and literature.
For example, he participated frequently in political debates on TV and in print and many mistook him for a political scientist. He also facilitated many seminars and workshops on political communication, working seamlessly with political groups and non-governmental organisations.
Most of what he did was effective because he had a rare gift of being able to reduce the complex concepts to simple and humorous down-to-earth illustrations accessible to any literate person.
WROTE ONE OF THE PIONEER NOVELS
In the literary world, Okoth distinguished himself not only as an avid reader and commentator but also as a writer. His novel written in Dholuo, Masira Kindaki, is one of the pioneer novels written in a Kenyan language.
He did this in Dholuo, which he considered his mother tongue but still remained an avowed Suba nationalist to his death. Okoth was a wonderful conversationalist in both English and Dholuo.
Everyone enjoyed listening to him tell a story as he made any narrative truly delicious.
Prof Okoth Okombo was a jack of all trades but a master of linguistics — his scholarly calling which he practised with all his strength, soul and spirit.
He was our Noam Chomsky in this part of the world and believed that a successful student of linguistics could excel in any field because in linguistics we pay attention to minute detail since a slight sound variation, for example, can change the meaning of a word or a whole sentence and thereby determining whether communication takes place or not.
The name Okoth Okombo is familiar in linguistics circles internationally but particularly in Africa where he participated in numerous conferences and taught in many universities.
As a member of UNESCO Group of Experts on national language policy issues, he participated in many workshops and conferences.
He was also a prominent member of African Academy of Languages (ACALAN) based at the African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
He will be remembered particularly for the development of Dholuo linguistics in which a number of PhDs have been produced.
Those in Kiswahili linguistics will also miss his contribution to the development of Kiswahili, which he taught and examined at post-graduate level at various universities here and abroad.
For many who knew him well, there was always a whisper about his academic prowess qualifying him to be called a genius. Like Chomsky, he combined his linguistics with mathematics.
He could go to great lengths to demonstrate the similarity between mathematics and linguistics, what some people call mathematical poetry, which includes Einstein’s famous energy equation, E= m X c2, associated with the nuclear bomb.
As someone puts it “…the manner in which they are written is strictly, provincially human. That is what makes them so much like poems, wonderfully artful attempts to make infinite realities comprehensible to finite being.”
INTRODUCED STUDENTS TO MYSTERIES OF HUMAN LANGUAGE
Okoth successfully reduced the esoteric linguistic theories and principles to commonplace formulations which his students joyfully learnt as he introduced them to the mysteries of human language.
Some readers might remember when he recently suggested a mathematical formula for achieving the two-thirds gender rule in parliament.
That is just how creative and liberated he was as a scholar and a responsible citizen.
Prof Okoth Okombo was brutally honest and hardly suffered mediocrity and academic laziness gladly.
Many of his colleagues were cowed when he was on the floor at a departmental seminar or at an international conference, because he never hesitated to point out fallacies in academic arguments and defended his position valiantly and in a calculated style.
We have lost a great polemicist, a celebrated linguist and a wonderful teacher. University of Nairobi has lost a truly loyal member of staff.
I remember when I suggested to him some time in 1997 that I wanted to take up a job in South Africa, he told me he could not imagine starting to use a new address from the University of Nairobi one.
For him, people are identified with institutions and hopping from one to another begged questions he was not ready to answer. I took his word and determined to retire at Moi University.
For me, I have lost a friend and a true companion in the struggle to develop linguistics and language education. I am glad I knew him because his life enriched mine immensely. His falling reminds me of C.S Lewis’ words about life and death: “The creatures cause pain by being born… in the most complex of all the creatures, Man, yet another quality appears, which we call reason, whereby he is enabled to foresee his own pain which henceforth is preceded with acute mental suffering and to foresee his own death while keenly desiring permanence.”
Kembo-Sure is a professor emeritus at Moi University and a lifelong friend of the late Okoth Okombo with whom he collaborated in many projects. [email protected]
WHAT OTHERS SAID
“He was a wonderful mentor of young scholars. He hired me at the University of Nairobi and led me gently by the hand in the rocky academic world, where tribalism and petty turf wars are the order of the day. He is a globally respected tower of intellect.”
Prof Evan Mwangi, Northwestern University
“Okoth loved knowledge, its generation, production and dissemination. He shunned puritanical narrowmindedness. He was a linguist who indulged in literary scholarship as much as he philosophised on numerous topical sociopolitical issues.”
Prof Peter Amuka, Moi University
“Through his ground-breaking scholarly effort, he significantly facilitated the integration, through a common language, of thousands of deaf people into the community, thereby enhancing their productivity and self-esteem.”
Dr Vincent Ongore, Scholar and chief manager at KRA
“Even if you didn’t agree with his ideas, you had to admire the passion, clarity and wit with which Prof Okoth Okombo shared knowledge,”
Dr Joyce Nyairo, cultural analyst.