Atieno Odhiambo: Prophet has honour except in his home town

Friday March 6 2009


At Ndere in Alego, Siaya District, on Saturday, March 7, Prof Atieno Odhiambo will be laid to rest . He died on February 25, 2009, at the age of 62.

Prof David Cohen, the co-author of three of his books, rightly describes Prof Atieno Odhiambo as “one of the most brilliant minds ever to contribute to comprehending Africa.”

A brilliant historian, Prof Atieno Odhiambo taught many people in Kenya and abroad, including the emerging breed of young and promising historians at the Kenyan universities.

Prof Bethwell Allan Ogot, his teacher and mentor, is one of the few people who can glorify Prof Atieno Odhiambo’s scholarship. Fortunately for people who are interested, Prof Ogot will today speak at the funeral service at Ndere.
I WISH, HOWEVER, TO FOCUS ON THE painful realities that Kenyan academics are subjected to. Prof Atieno Odhiambo was a strong supporter of the University Staff Union, which President Moi banned on July 19, 1981.

In 1985 and 1986, the don was arrested and detained at the Nyayo House torture chambers.

Later, he had to flee for life and freedom, ending up as a teacher in the US. As the gospel according to St Mathew 13: 57 reminds us, “a prophet is not without honour except in his hometown and in his household.” Hometown and household in this case refer to Kenya.

The Moi-Kanu dictatorship expelled this brilliant brain from Kenya, the environment he loved to operate in and where his genius was at its best. Life in exile can be lonely and frustrating, and it takes a heavy toll on many brilliant minds.

The history don’s story of eviction by a brutal dictatorship is shared by other eminent scholars who include Professors Yash Pal Ghai, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Micere Mugo, Maina Kinyatti, Alamin Mazrui, Abdilatif Abdalla, Ali Mazrui, Kamoji Wachira and Shadrack Guto. It seems as if the Kenyatta-Moi-Kibaki-Raila dictatorships have rarely found any use for these brains.

When they did they proceeded to humiliate them, as in the cases of Professors (Ali) Mazrui and Ghai as well as scholars in the so-called dream team headed by Dr Richard Leakey in the mid-1990s. How can Kenya ever develop when it does not utilise some of its best brains?

Prof Atieno Odhiambo, like all other exiled professors, was independent, thorough, hardworking and extremely prolific. Kenyan academics will recall with shame that despite his brilliance and publications, Prof Atieno Odhiambo was a senior lecturer when he left Nairobi University’s history department.

Our universities are famous for punishing and humiliating brilliant minds.

Although the professor visited Kenya regularly while he was based overseas, the history department of Nairobi University never thought of inviting him to give lectures to the students.

Once a brilliant mind leaves, his or her work is not a subject of scholarship at our universities, and young students are denied the fountain of the great brains.
As we celebrate the great historian’s brilliant life, let us remember how the state and our institutions, and people who run them, deny Kenyans the expertise and intellect of people who also stand up for change.

PROF ATIENO ODHIAMBO WAS CLOSE TO Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, and this was one of the causes of his problems with the Moi regime. The don never compromised his struggles for free speech and freedom of assembly. He treasured and fought for his academic freedom.

I am sure wa Thiong’o, Mr Raila Odinga and other detainees will recall with gratitude the support they and their families received from the don.

Prof Atieno Odhiambo is immortalised by his works. Kenyan patriots will never forget him and, sooner or later, when the country has a truly patriotic government, all these great minds will be given their proper place in Kenya’s history.

I hope no Kenyan will be so insane as to ask the Nairobi University’s history department to name a professorial chair after Prof Atieno Odhiambo.