On the morning of November 2, 2017, I checked my University of Nairobi Faculty of Arts WhatsApp group, and was hit by the horrible news that the cruel hand of death had robbed us of Prof. D. Okoth Okombo.
My grief was deep beyond description, and this for a number of reasons.
Prof. Okoth Okombo (1950-2017) had B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Linguistics and African Languages, all from the University of Nairobi. He was the 1977 winner of the Gandhi Best Student Prize in the Faculty of Arts upon his graduation with a B.A. (First Class Honours) as a Linguistics Major.
After obtaining his Masters and Ph.D. degrees, he secured a teaching position in the same university and grew in his career to become a full Professor in 1999.
He published widely on issues concerning African languages, and contributed passionately to policy debates and decisions, some of which influenced the current Constitutional provisions on language in Kenya.
Yet despite his vast learning, he was always exceptionally accessible and deeply conscious of the struggles of the masses of Kenyans who heave under the weight of a host of systemic injustices.
As high school students in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we heard Duncan Okoth Okombo present “Books and Bookmen” - a Voice of Kenya (now KBC) radio programme.
I first met him personally in an interview room at the Kikuyu Campus of the University of Nairobi early in 1992, as I was seeking to move from Kenyatta University to the University of Nairobi.
I got the job, and so began my thriving collegial relationship with this eminent don. Prof. Okombo was ever friendly, and would pause for a greeting however pressed for time he was.
Prof. Okombo read some of the drafts of my doctoral thesis on the rights of Kenyan Ethnic Minorities, and made very helpful comments. He even lent me relevant books on the nature of ethnicity, thereby significantly enriching my presentation.
It was a great honour for me when, towards the end of 2005, he attended the defence of my doctoral proposal in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Nairobi, and emphasised to me the importance of distinguishing between a research problem and a social problem.
When I embarked on my work as Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Thought and Practice: A Journal of the Philosophical Association of Kenya from 2009 to 2015, I requested Prof. Okombo to peer review an article for the Premier Issue. His review was so outstanding that I used it to prepare a template for future peer reviewers of the journal’s articles.
In 2013, I co-chaired an international symposium in honour of the late Kenyan philosopher, Prof. H. Odera Oruka, best known for his Sage Philosophy Project. On that occasion, Prof. Okombo presented a paper titled “The Semantics of Sagacity and its Implications for Odera Oruka’s Sage Philosophy”.
I am deeply saddened by the fact that Prof. Okombo has left us just before the publication of Odera Oruka in the Twenty-first Century - the volume containing updated papers from that symposium, edited by Drs. Oriare Nyarwath, Francis Owakah and myself.
One of the strongest strands in the bond between Prof. Okombo and I was my disability. He had an intense interest in the numerous coping mechanisms that persons with disabilities employ to survive in this largely insensitive world.
He often talked to me about my use of the white cane, admitting to me that he enjoyed quietly watching me walk around the University of Nairobi Main Campus. His interest in disability issues first came to the fore through his involvement in the Kenya Sign Language Project hosted in the Main Campus of the University of Nairobi , thereby contributing significantly to raising the profile of this highly neglected but important mode of communication.
On one memorable occasion, Prof. Okombo accepted my invitation to speak on “Continuing Education” to the Society of Professionals with Visual Disabilities, co-founded by Jimmy Gichuhi and myself. Those in attendance were inspired by his extensive knowledge and clear communication.
EXCLAIMED IN DISTRESS
Like all great teachers, Prof. Okombo was a great learner. Whenever he was invited to speak on a topic, he not only read up for it, but also talked to people to enrich his understanding.
It was always a joy to converse with him on topics he was preparing to present. Once when he was asked to speak on the importance of addressing the marginalisation of persons with disabilities, he requested me to do a short write-up for him describing the kind of environment I dream of living in as a totally blind person.
Two years ago, as I was boarding an aircraft in Amsterdam, I received a call from Prof. Okombo. He wished to confirm whether a certain phone number was mine, and I promptly said it was not, whereupon he exclaimed in distress and told me that he had been conned: someone had sent him a text message claiming my mother was seriously ill at the Mater Hospital, and that I desperately needed Sh8000. Prof Okoth promptly sent off the money, only to realise that he had been conned.
Sad as the incident was, it confirmed to me what I had known for a long time - that Professor was ready to come to my aid at a very high cost to himself.
WAITED FOR HOURS
I later sent him back Sh4000, knowing very well he would never accept the full Sh8000. He called back to protest that since it was not my fault that he was conned, I should never have sent him back anything; but I had my strategy in place: I told him I knew exactly how he felt, and that is why I had only sent him Sh4000. This convinced him to reluctantly keep the cash.
I can now reveal that without Prof Okombo’s intervention, I would probably never have managed to move from Kenyatta University to the University of Nairobi. When I showed up for the interview at Kikuyu Campus that I talked about at the beginning of this article, I waited for hours to be called in and finally, I was called in, just before, or during the lunch hour.
Years later, Prof Okoth was delivering one of his many public lectures, this time in Maseno. I was not in attendance, and he would never have guessed that I would get to hear what he said on that day, but friends of mine were in the audience, and they reported it back to me.
During that talk in Maseno, Prof. Okombo expressed his great confidence in persons with disabilities, and told the audience of an occasion when he was part of an interview panel that was required to interview a blind person for a lecturing job at the University of Nairobi along with other sighted candidates.
Members of the panel, all scholars, decided that they would not let the blind man into the interview room because they were “sure” he could never meet the academic obligations of the job.
However, Prof. Okombo, due to his interest in sign language, wanted to hear what that blind man would say. He therefore prevailed on the members of the panel to give the blind man a hearing, and they did. In the end, the blind man performed better than all his competitors. That blind man was myself.
The wonder of that discriminatory interview was that I was not asking for my first job - I was actually a Tutorial Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at Kenyatta University! Twenty-eight years later I have moved from the Tutorial Fellow position which that panel granted me in February/March 1992, to Lecturer in November 1992, to Senior Lecturer in March 2016.
If there were more of the likes of this truly eminent scholar, committed to facilitate rather than to inhibit, I would certainly be full Professor today.
I will greatly miss Prof. Okombo’s friendly greetings and chats along the corridors of academia. I will also miss the warmth and cheer that he brought to the Senior Common Room. Above all, I will miss the presence around Campus of an eminent don unshakeably confident of the vast potential that all human beings, regardless of their limitations, have.
As the Luo say, “Lowo Jajuok” (“The soil [symbolising death] is a wizard”). May God grant members of his family the strength they need to cope with this terrible loss.
Reginald M.J. Oduor, PhD, is a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Nairobi. He blogs at http://kenyancrossroads.blogspot.co.ke. Twitter: @ReginaldOduor