My prayer in tongues and what I had in common with Ochieng

Philip Ochieng'

Philip Ochieng during its unveiling of Liz Gitonga's book about him titled "The 5th Columnist: A Legendary Journalist",  at the Stanley hotel in Nairobi on August 21, 2015.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Ochieng was an exceptional inspiration to us slightly younger and aspiring “intellectuals” in the late 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s.
  • His lucid writings and professional tenacity did a lot to guide us through the torturous paths of post-independence excitement.

Praying in tongues is second nature to me. When I was young, my mother taught me to pray in Luganda, my father taught me to pray in Latin and a little Greek, and my teacher taught me to pray in English. Later, I learnt to pray in French, Kiswahili and a little Arabic. I still pray in all these languages as occasion arises.

Two developments made me reflect on my polyglot or multilingual prayer practices. The first is Pentecost or Whitsun, as they call it in classical Anglo-Saxon parlance. The second and earlier one is the departure, some weeks ago, of my elder colleague, Philip Ochieng, for Pagak.

My friend Joseph Kimura recently asked me to explain to him what Pagak really is. I do not know, since Pagak is “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns,” as Shakespeare’s Hamlet puts it in his famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy.

Okot p’Bitek popularised the name in his “Last Safari to Pagak” sequence in Song of Lawino. He also recorded a moving Acoli song about Pagak in Horn of My Love. Briefly, Pagak is after-world, ancestor land or, as we put it in Kiswahili, “ahera”.

Back to Whitsun or Pentecost Sunday, which is tomorrow, May 21, this year, most mainstream churches will be celebrating what they call the Descent of the Holy Spirit. As told in the Bible, the followers of Jesus Christ were visited by a unique experience that shook them to the roots like an earthquake. It fired them with a power that sent them out onto the streets, boldly proclaiming to all and sundry the message of their Master and founder. It is regarded as the birthday of Christianity.

Gift of the Spirit

One of the most memorable phenomena of Pentecost is that, although all the proclaimers of the new message were speaking in their native Galilean Aramaic, all their listeners among the cosmopolitan audience of Jerusalem heard and understood them in their own various languages. The audience comprised Arabs, Greeks, Libyans, Egyptians, Romans and a host of others called by different names today.

Since then, the ability to communicate across different languages has been recognised as “a gift of the Spirit”. I would like to believe that this is what “speaking in tongues” means. For me, the hypothesis feeds very well into my insatiable fascination with language.

That brings us back to dear Marehemu Philip Ochieng, our ever-revered “mind your language” oracle. A number of commentators mentioned me in the course of mourning Ochieng, and this deeply touched and moved me. Indeed, I owe gratitude to several of you who sent me personal condolences on the loss of my senior colleague. The obvious link between my venerable elder and me was, I suppose, our undisguised respect for language and the need to use it precisely and responsibly.

I wholeheartedly endorse Ochieng’s insistence that we should use English, for example, correctly if we want to use it at all. Lame excuses, like claiming that we are not English after all, will not do. Mastering languages has nothing to do with genes or “sucking it from the breast”. Language is an acquired skill at which you have to work consistently and continuously, and which you have to apply with deliberate accuracy in every situation. This goes for all languages, including our so-called “mother tongues” or home languages, as I prefer to call them.

That said, however, I differ with the late maestro in that I rarely prescribe what should and should not be said, as he used to do. Insightful articles on his life and practice by my colleagues, like Edward Mwasi and John Mwazemba, underlined Ochieng’s unfailing concern for the “inevitable” usage, to borrow French stylist Gustave Flaubert’s term. The difference between Ochieng’s prescriptive approach and my own more laissez-faire one is generational, academically speaking.

Exceptional inspiration

Marehemu Ochieng was apparently raised in the “grammar” school that required and expected the user to know the rules and logic of language, like cases and etymology, and observe them strictly in usage. We latter-day linguists, however, adopt a more descriptive and flexible approach to usage. Grammar is, as the late Duncan Okoth-Okombo would tell you, “what people do when they speak their language”.

From that point of view, it is futile to prescribe, as Ochieng would, that we should not use “can” and “be able” in the same context. After all, many people, including professors, are doing just that. What we can try and do is to expose our users to as many prevalent usages as possible and hope that such “patterns” will sink into the user’s consciousness and become second nature. But maybe the jury is still out on that.

Further to my relationship with Ochieng and the reasons why friends reached out to me on his passing on, I realised that I mentioned him recently as one of my significant teachers. This was in my virtual chat with the scholars of the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology (JOOUST) in mid-March this year. My claim was genuine although I had never sat in any kind learning session with him. Indeed, the last time we met was on my sixty-seventh birthday, ten years ago and we only exchanged pleasantries.

Still, Ochieng was an exceptional inspiration to us slightly younger and aspiring “intellectuals” in the late 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. His lucid writings and professional tenacity did a lot to guide us through the torturous paths of post-independence excitement, subsequent disillusionment with the promises never kept and the hard-headed determination to keep talking to those powerful ones who never seem to listen.

I will leave you with my simple-tongued Pentecostal prayer for the weekend. “Spirit of God, Spirit of power, Spirit of life, Spirit of light, Spirit of love, come into me, live in me and guide my being.”

Share it with me and with all our friends, and you will feel the synergy. Blessed Whitsun.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature. [email protected]

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