How do we remember a public intellectual of Ochieng’s stature?

Sunday Nation columnist Philip Ochieng.

The late Philip Ochieng.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • As a leading Kenyan public intellectual, Ochieng wrote dispassionately on a variety of issues.
  • Ochieng will not go in peace because misuse/abuse of words continue to cause heartache, pain, suffering, destruction or death.

Today eulogists repeat the cliché ‘go in peace’, without thinking why the departed needs to be in peace. Does it mean the deceased had lived a troubled life? Or what peace are we wishing someone who has embarked on a journey that we, the living, can only speculate about?

I am not sure that Phillip Ochieng Otani would actually agree to go in peace. He would probably demand that we discuss the very etymology of this phrase, dissect its history and use, and ponder its value to today’s society. He would have made a case about understanding its philosophical, social, cultural, linguistic or even economic value before throwing it at the dead – how did the ancient Greeks bid the dead farewell; what about those from the Nuba Mountains; and the Ogiek or the Twa etc?

Well, why would son of Otani have insisted we debate such a phrase? Because it is the nature of human beings to discuss, to question, to dialogue, to argue, to philosophise about life. What better topic can one have for a disputation than the age old question of what happens after we die? There is no more perplexing subject for discussion than the afterlife.

Diverse cultures have different views about where we go to when we die. There are those that promise paradise – a place of milk and honey and music and everlasting joy. Some promise that we are reborn as some animal or object when we expire. Others simply say that we journey into some other world to join those who had exited earlier and are reposing in one or other form of existence – we become ancestors. There are those that say we just cease to exist and change into different matter – that is it!

So, one way of mourning the son of Awendo is to remember how he would have approached this question, had it been put to him in his last years or days. Ochieng had declared that he was an atheist. What did that mean for him? Did he simply think, as agnostics tend to argue, that we can never know for sure that there is God out there and even how the said God appears? Or by claiming that he was an atheist he was insisting that he needed more evidence from those who wished to convince him that there was God. Or was Ochieng making this case as it was expected of him as an intellectual, more so a public intellectual?

‘Remembering’ son of Otani

To mourn Ochieng is to also to ask the question: who was he in the eyes of Kenyans? Put differently, what did the people of Awendo, Ongata Rongai, Kisumo, Eldoret, Kacheliba, or North Horr think of him? What did the readers of his columns in the newspapers think of his words, ideas, arguments? What did his generation think of him beyond sibling rivalry, spite, like and dislike? What did his mentees or workmates or neighbors or friends or enemies find most impressive in him? There have been acres of newsprint ‘remembering’ son of Otani, many of them revealing, in different ways, those who disliked or envied him; those who admired him but had never expressed the respect publicly before; even those who ‘claimed’ to have known him but had little to say about what they ‘knew’ of Ochieng. Yes, he was a celebrated journalist. But what is being celebrated in his journalism?

I only ever met him once about three years ago in Ongata Rongai, although I had been reading him for years and wondered how one man could write on such diverse topics. For some time, the journalist Parselelo Kantai and I had been wondering how to get a copy of I Accuse the Press. It was said to be out of print. So, we decided to track down the author. Kantai managed to get the phone number of Ochieng’s daughter and we made an appointment to see him. Just a little bit out of Ongata Rongai we drove into a compound with a bungalow. There we would meet Ochieng and have more than two hours’ chat over various topics.

The surprise of the visit was to discover that Ochieng had several cartons of copies of I Accuse the Press tucked somewhere in the house! We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. But that was Ochieng, right? He had written a book; it has been published; it had been launched; his ideas were available publicly. Did it really matter if copies of the book had not been sold and were lying somewhere in a room in the house where he lived! Probably not, for him. We, who needed the book, had to look for it.

As a leading Kenyan public intellectual, Ochieng wrote dispassionately on a variety of issues. Ochieng would comfortably write on racism and stereotype; he would easily critique the ruling class as he would comment on the economy; he would coldly dissect the state of our education system and laugh at the moral depravity of our leaders at the same time.

Ochieng, as the journalist Tom Maliti remarked to me, was so widely read and up to date that he could as easily cite the most recent debates/authors/books on a topic as those he read decades ago in America and France. He was a public intellectual in the true sense of the word: his thoughts provoked debate in schools, parliaments, and social circles. It is not by accident that he ruffled many feathers with his ideas when working in Tanzania and Uganda.

Abuse of words

However, it is his writing on language – specifically the English language – that will endure in the memory of those who read him. However, I would argue that English was just a medium and subject example that Ochieng used to talk about communication. Human life is generally unbearable when communication is distorted, hindered, truncated or unavailable. The message and the medium are conjoined twins. Thus, for Ochieng, it is important that we constantly reflect on how we say what we say in order to effectively communicate what we intended.

Since Kenyans use English in many public spaces and on many public occasions, it is important to use proper English. If one chooses to use English when there are several alternatives – and most Kenyans have a second or even a third language – one has to account for the choice of the medium. The case Ochieng would make in his column about overuse of jargon, uncalled for repetition, misuse of English idioms etc in public communication, especially in newspapers and by public officials, was not simply about correct usage of language but also about the philosophy of communication. What do we use language for? Why do we choose one over the other? When does it suit us to switch languages? What cultural, social, economic, political, religious, personal or communal worldviews are we communicating when we use English and not Kiswahili or Dholuo or Pokot or Maa?

Isn’t there, therefore, a need to continually debate the way we speak or the medium we choose to communicate. If one chooses to express her thoughts to the world in English, it is upon her to speak or write correctly in English if she expects her audience or readers to understand her. Ochieng has been asking Kenyans to speak in a language that they are comfortable in but should they decide that English it is, then acceptable English let it be. And this is why he would often write at length about the etymology of a word or a phrase. Words are not mere innocent scratches on a piece of paper or signs on a computer screen or sounds from the mouth.

Words carry the weight or history; they have travelled far and wide and in the process acquired new meanings; they provoke different emotions in diverse people; they can invoke love but at the same time provoke war; words, from whatever language, are not stable carriers of meanings. To learn how to put them together to convey what is one’s head or heart is to show that one is at peace with his world.

Ochieng will not go in peace because misuse/abuse of words continue to cause heartache, pain, suffering, destruction or death. As the 5th columnist (whose etymology should be seriously studied), he deliberately sought to intellectually destabilize the seeming comfort of journalists, public commentators, general communicators and users of the English language in Kenya, lest they destroy English and also cause harm to the public, in whatever form. As we bury him, let’s keep his last words.

The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]