Prof Okoth Okombo: Towering linguist and sign language advocate

Friday November 3 2017

Okoth Okombo

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

By Kimani Njogu

On Wednesday, November 1, 2017, Kenya lost an accomplished, intellectually generous and witty linguist.

Prof Duncan Okoth Okombo of the University of Nairobi was undergoing treatment at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi when his ancestors beckoned and he obeyed.

Born on November 8, 1950 at Kaswanga village, on Rusinga Island, Suba district, the son of Mzee Elisafan Okombo went to Kaswanga (D.E.B.) Primary and Intermediate School in 1958. In 1967 he joined Mbita Secondary School and in 1971 joined Kenyatta College to study Mathematics and English in the three year secondary teacher programme.

Okoth grew to become one of the foremost authorities in African linguistics and many scholars recognise him as the father of sign language studies in Africa. He was the Founder and Director of the Kenyan Sign Language Research Project, based at the University of Nairobi.

Okoth was a natural actor with abundance of humour, delivered effortlessly.

He was a public intellectual comfortable with peers at the university and equally at ease on national television and within civil society. His unique voice and stature compelled audiences to pay attention.

I first met Okoth Okombo in 1975 when, as an undergraduate student at Kenyatta University College, he performed in Wole Soyinka’s Kongi’s Harvest. I cannot recall the role that Okoth Okombo played — I think he was one of the Aweris — but  his towering figure and powerful articulation kept all of us glued to our seats as we witnessed the delivery of a political satire about the rulers of fictitious kingdom of Isma, during the preparations for celebrations and aftermath of New Yam Festival.

As the performance unfolded, it became clear to audience members that Kongi, the ruler, is repressive, ambitious, and autocratic.

His regime is supported by team of sycophants, the Aweris, a brutal carpenters Brigade and the ever present Secretary.

But Kongi’s regime is under threat from Danlola, the revered traditional king. To contain him, Kongi puts the king behind bars as he seeks to be the Supreme Authority. Kongi seeks to usurp Danlola’s position by taking charge of the New Yam from Oba Danlola’s hands as a symbolical gesture of the king’s submission. However, this plan is subverted by his former mistress. The deliveries of this story by Okoth Okombo and the rest of the crew were so powerful that the performance has remained in my mind for over 40 years.

After his undergraduate studies, Okoth joined the Department of Linguistics and African Studies at the University of Nairobi where he did his graduate studies and taught, mentored and undertook many administrative duties.

When I joined the University of Nairobi, Main Campus, for graduate studies in Kiswahili in 1985, I had numerous opportunities to interact with Okoth Okombo and was mesmerised by his mastery of the science of language, especially syntax and semantics.

His understanding of the role of language in social transformation was music to my ears. In his view, it is quite ironic that Africa continues to rely on European languages for its socioeconomic transformation while the majority of the people use community languages for their interaction.

He argued vehemently for the conscious expansion of African languages so that they can function effectively in education.

By transferring knowledge and skills in African languages, Okoth argued consistently, we are able to survive in our contexts and conceptualise and express our world. In his view, African languages are core to the resolution of our human development crisis. If earlier in his scholarship, Okoth Okombo devoted much work studying functional grammar, his intellectual rigour shifted to matters of language policy, intercultural understanding, translation and social justice.

It is this connection between language and society that made him break the barriers of intellectual solitude to reach out to community.

He supported translation studies and urged Kenyan scholars to translate books from different cultural domains in order to understand them.

At the 20th launch of Maneno Moto Moto Kutoka China, a collection of poetry by the Chinese writer Jidi Majia, he argued that translation is not just about language, it is also about cultures.

During the Constitution of Kenya Review process, he provided critical input into the language and culture provisions. He also involved in forums during the development of the Languages of Kenya Policy and Bill, currently under the custody of the Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology.

Throughout these engagements, he has insisted that community languages of Kenya deserve recognition and dignity. He has been a champion of Kenyan Sign Language. He believed, like Noam Chomsky, that the language faculty is common to all human beings, despite conditions of neurological or physical disabilities.

Deaf children develop language to remarkable degrees and society ought to prepare the infrastructure for the enjoyment of their linguistic rights.

It is these rights that Prof Okoth Okombo sought to protect and articulate.

In his last days, he was also quite concerned about the inability of political leaders to focus on nationhood, equity and fairness.

This inability to increase intercultural understanding, in his view, is setting the stage for intense interethnic mistrust detrimental to the nation-state.

At a time that Kenya is going through a difficult phase in its politics, it may be worth pausing for a moment to take stock of the linguistic and political concerns expressed severally by this intellectual giant in his writings, public speeches and media appearances.


Prof Kimani Njogu is  a Director at  Twaweza Communications, Nairobi.