Prof Okoth Okombo: The academic who made learning enjoyable

Saturday November 11 2017

Okoth Okombo

Prof Okoth Okombo. He is generally regarded as the father of sign language studies in Africa. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP  


I fondly remember my professor, Okoth Okombo, as a man who mentored my linguistics endeavour and that of many who passed through his skilled hands.

Prof Okombo had a profound, vast, lofty and complex understanding of language and linguistics phenomena only comparable to very few African scholars of his day and time that I know of.

When thinking about Prof Okombo, names like Francis Katamba and Kwesi Prah come to mind as examples of language professors of exemplary merit in Africa.

He amazed his students and colleagues alike because of his intellectual genius that was always on the cutting edge and one which was always theoretically informed.

There was no known linguistics domain that Prof Okombo did not have a peculiar understanding of, from theoretical to applied linguistics. Many times he posed a great challenge to certain field experts where he did not belong directly.

Prof Okombo was informed, focused, articulate, and logical in his presentations in class and in international conferences. He often looked shy as he made a presentation.

It was when one was interrogating and seeming to challenge his view or perspective that he came out of his hiding to charge like a wounded buffalo.

His exceptional brilliance would be revealed and his challenger would be made to bear with his academic prowess which even great scholars in the West and his teachers acknowledged.

What shocked many of his students was how he often turned what would otherwise have been boring mechanical subjects like syntax or even phonology or morphology into very interesting engagements. He made students laugh time and again as they looked forward to another session with him. His use of anecdotes and unparalleled humour attracted thousands of students to his language and communication classes at the University of Nairobi and in other places where he taught. Indeed he was a good public speaker and crowd puller.

Many African scholars often look subdued at the mention of giant names like Noam Chomsky, John Searle, Michael Halliday, Randolph Quirk, etc.

Not Prof Okombo. He openly challenged dominant western traditions emanating from outstanding scholars like Chomsky and the rest and went ahead to establish alternative thought that was appealing to listen to.

This explains why he wrote his doctoral thesis using functional linguistics theory that was little known then when generative grammar was fashionable. He liked experimenting and going for new frontiers of knowledge.

As students at the University of Nairobi, we saw him challenge big names in language studies like Eugine Nida and Geoffrey Leech when they came visiting using African data and thought systems.

This turned him into a role model for many students. I am one of those students who were his great admirers.

Though I talk a lot sometimes, before Okombo I would be noticeably quiet and struggling to look so obedient as I followed his eloquent argumentations that were laced with stories.

I came into contact with Prof Okombo as a first year student in the early 1980s at the University of Nairobi when he taught me an introductory course in linguistics.

His ability to explain something simply with local examples left his students quite amazed. Prof Okombo would later teach me at my Masters level and doctoral level, thus providing a foundation for my linguistics knowledge.

He was a well published scholar with many books and articles in reputable journals in the world. He has great international reputation that many of us can only dream of.

He has worked on many advisory programmes in Africa and particularly in Southern Africa and the rest of the world. He has run numerous trainings in public speaking and negotiation skills in the country in many sectors and abroad.

Many times I sought to know from him why his presentations were very good and he jokingly told me he prepared them when his spirit was charged, though later he candidly told me it was because of the level of investment he put in them.

A look at his home and office libraries can attest to this. Prof Okombo owned some of the most rare and expensive books in linguistics. Entering his office, you would admit you have entered the office of a professor of repute.

I remember vividly his public address about his teacher, Prof M.H. Abdulaziz in Mombasa before he was taken ill. It was an intelligent, interrogative, provocative and impressive keynote address.

I read his inaugural lecture at the University of Nairobi twice each year and it is still memorable to me to date, just like all the classes he taught me. He had a way of making impact which only gifted brains like his could do successfully.

Surprisingly, he also had a witty and intelligent interpretation of political, social, cultural and economic issues and life in general as his close friends in the Senior Common Room would attest to. He had a good working knowledge of mathematics as well. He was an all-round scholar with an irrefutable, solid and amazing grasp of many things in academic circles and life in general. Many times I thought I had a different perspective on matters him and I discussed, but on many occasions his logic and confidence was so compelling that my reason caved in.

This was indeed a great professor and scholar. He is the kind of professor I had in mind when I was in school, who made me wish to go to university against all odds to meet and to be taught by.

Prof Okombo was indeed an eagle that soared great academic heights and who has left a gap in African and world scholarship, whose filling is genuinely difficult.


Prof. John Habwe is a Kiswahili writer and lecturer at the University of Nairobi