Joel Barkan, author of numerous scholarly articles on Kenya and an influential policy advisor in Washington, has passed away at the age of 72.
Prof Barkan's death in Mexico City on January 10 was announced on Thursday by his widow, Sandra Barkan. The cause was a pulmonary embolism – a blood clot of the lungs, Mrs Barkan said.
“He was the unquestioned authority on Kenya in Washington,” said Makau Mutua, dean of the law school at the Buffalo branch of the State University of New York.
“He loved Kenya as much as any Kenyan I know,” added Prof Mutua, a Kenyan human-rights advocate and a friend of Prof Barkan's for many years. “Joel did more to forge democracy and fight against impunity in Kenya than any American I know.”
In addition to his scholarship and his teaching on Kenya at US universities, Prof Barkan had served as an Africa consultant to the World Bank and the US Agency for International Development. He was widely respected in Africa policy circles inside and outside the US government.
Prof Barkan first travelled to Kenya in 1962 as a participant in Crossroads Africa, a volunteer programme considered a forerunner to the US Peace Corps.
He met Mzee Jomo Kenyatta during that trip – the first of Prof Barkan's many encounters with high-ranking officials in Kenya over the course of his more than 50-year involvement with the country.
“He became totally hooked on Kenya,” Mrs Barkan said in an interview on Thursday from her home in Washington. “He went back and back and back.”
At the time of his death, Prof Barkan was serving as a senior associate at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a leading Washington think tank.
He earned his undergraduate degree at Cornell University in New York and received a doctorate in political science from the University of California at Los Angeles. Prof Barkan taught at the University of Iowa for 24 years.
“Joel was a great optimist in regard to Kenya,” said Mrs Barkan, a retired dean of the University of Iowa's graduate school. “He was confident Kenya would work through its problems and become a prosperous, democratic country.”
In addition to his wife of 51 years, Prof Barkan is survived by his son, Joshua Barkan; his daughter Bronwyn Barkan; and his 99-year-old mother, Theresa Barkan Willits.
A memorial gathering is planned for mid-May in Washington.