There was a whiff of dry air in my office, sometime in early 2009 as Dr Benjamin Kipkorir (right) sat, hunched, his eyebrows somewhat scruffy with age, but his eyes clear and sharp.
The irony of the moment did not escape me; here was an old man, an accomplished scholar, used to calling the shots, listening to a young man barely in his 30s blubbering about publishing procedures. I wondered what he thought about the whole farce. In the end, his words sprung upon me like those gusts of winds that fling open doors and windows in their wake.
The author-editor scuffles started early — with the introduction to the book. Written by the revered Professor, Bethwel Ogot, the introduction had quoted the definition of memoirs from a dictionary published by a competitor. In my over-zealousness, I asked Dr Kipkorir if we could instead quote from the dictionary our company had published.
“No way,” he said firmly, his face a network of wrinkles. Those two words were as emphatic as if pushed down with a skewer. They startled me with their ringing tone of finality with a hint of danger.
“Unless,” he told me, “We fly to Eldoret or Kisumu or wherever we can find Prof Bethwel Ogot. I cannot change anything written by my teacher.”
At that point, he reminded me of another regimented man, with similar white hair — my father, who had passed on about two years earlier. When old men put their feet down for a cause, you lose.
Feeling ashamed, and more than a little embarrassed, I backtracked on the introduction as I saw the agony I was putting him through.
I was impressed by the story. He did not commit the sin of many memoirists by starting the first chapter with the predictable line: “I was born in…”. Instead, Dr Kipkorir begins his memoirs with a frightening if not playfully mischievous experience as a child:
“The earliest recollection of my life is of an event that happened in 1942 or 1943 when I was a little over three years old. It was late afternoon during harvest time and my elder brother, Jeremiah, was playing…with a subet (a staff made of tapered steel fixed with a wooden shaft)…with its metal end, Jeremiah was punching a hole in the ground while I kept interrupting him by edging my foot towards his target point…
He warned me to move my foot away or else I could get hurt…My foot went a bit too far or Jeremiah’s aim varied ever so slightly with the result that he punched a ghastly hole in my foot a few millimetres from my toe”.
ENGLISH DIFFICULT IN SOME PLACES
When I learnt on Wednesday, May 20, that Dr Kipkorir had passed on, I could not help but remember the singular raconteur, who told his story earnestly and genuinely, though some critics have said “the English is difficult in some places”.
Dr Kipkorir led several lives (some claim he was sometimes controversial but I only knew him as a great writer), any one of which could have provided ample fodder for unforgettable memoirs.
In his book, Descent from Cherang’any Hills: Memoirs of a Reluctant Academic, he takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of the world as his education and work takes him to different places.
From the memoirs, we learn that anyone can be anything if he or she envisions it and works hard at it.
We follow the boy from Ng’echer village in Marakwet with bated breath as he leaves the comfort of his home after primary school and goes to Alliance High School and later Makerere University. On his way to Cambridge for his postgraduate studies, we fly and land with him at “Heathrow on the morning of 30th September 1966, the skyline over the airport grey and misty…uninviting to a first-time visitor”. He knew how to turn a phrase, in high-textured prose. And he seemed to have retained something in him of the boy from Marakwet, that wide-eyed boyish wonder.
Having worked as KCB chairman, as a reluctant academic and held various positions in government, his ambassadorial posting to Washington DC was the height of his career — posing for a photo at the White House in 1994 with president Bill Clinton and wife Hillary.
He described how he met the love of his wife, Lea, a high-flying career woman, one time the director of the Kenya Institute of Education. However, tragedy struck when Lea was diagnosed with cancer. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes from his memoirs, when his wife lies on her deathbed, his pen turns teary.
“She began to flail about…By morning, she was delirious and began asking for “Maria” or “Mary”, a person I could not immediately identify (Later, I learnt that this was her primary school desk mate at Chepterit)... For the next two weeks, when she was in and out of consciousness, the only name she called out clearly was Helen, her university college mate”.
Dr Kipkorir came. He dazzled us with his intellectual strength. He went. And left behind a legacy more lasting than a bronze statue. His memoirs.
The writer is the CEO of Phoenix Publishers. [email protected]