Unravelling the life of Philip Ochieng, the grand old Kenyan media maverick

Kenyans are bound to have sharp opinions on him. So, there will be admirers and haters of Liz Gitonga-Wanjohi’s biography of Ochieng, The 5th Columnist: A Legendary Journalist (Longhorn, 2015). This book is a remarkable attempt to get to know Philip Ochieng and to tell the world about this eccentric man. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Wanjohi shows us Ochieng’s early life — a rural life, in a polygamous home; a life built around European-introduced religion, education, administration, economy and social changes that extremely remake Ochieng’s community; a life from which a brilliant young man is set to depart, into unknown lands of Alliance, Nairobi and America.
  • Ochieng is presented as naturally intelligent, topping his classmates at primary school until he arrives at Alliance, where he meets more gifted students. Probably because he was upstaged by cleverer students or for being away from home, Wanjohi writes that records show Ochieng having “difficult years at Alliance”.
  • Then there is the Ochieng who goes to America in the same period as Barack Obama Snr to study but never gets a degree. The author writes: “He never completed his BA degree at Roosevelt University. In fact, out of the nearly 1,000 students who left the country between 1959 and the mid-1960s, he is the only one who never completed his studies.
  • Yet Ochieng stands accused, by many Kenyans, of several ills that he allegedly committed as a journalist. He is accused of having used his time as the editor-in-chief of the Kenya Times to harangue those opposed to the government of the day.

How does one tell the story of a person variously described as proud, bigoted, eccentric, conservative, and a show-off?

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