By Alexander Opicho
On Wednesday November 1, 2017, news trickled into social media forums that Okoth Okombo, professor of Linguistics at the University of Nairobi, had passed away. The gentle giant was at home not only in the area of Linguistics but also had a knack of extending linguistics to serve other disciplines. In other words, there are professors, and then there is Prof Okombo.
About two decades ago, I was a fresh at the University of Nairobi. Most students were interested in building their image while my burning desire was to be an agent of change at the university and the Kenya at large. I caught the eye of seasoned students activists and found myself attending several leadership conferences organized by the students’ union, SONU. That is where I met Professor Okombo, a favourite of student leaders for his well-articulated and intellectual speeches. I learned that he had been nicknamed “Professor of Words” because he was a master communicator.
I would later find myself in the SONU executive committee, where my first task was to organise the orientation conference for the new SONU Congress. I slotted the conference on the day Prof Okombo was available because I knew with him as the keynote speaker, I would be excused if other aspects of the conference did not work out as planned. The tall man from Kaswanga in Rusinga Island did not disappoint.
I have come to learn that it doesn’t matter how much you learn or read; what you can explain later to someone is what you learned. Every time I met him on the streets of Nairobi, I could only recall two things from his many talks and speeches I had attended: how he rose from an S1 Mathematics teacher to a professor, and what he told us at the conference mentioned above – minimising internal noise. Prof Okombo urged us to “minimise internal noise” if we wanted to achieve our goals as leaders in our one year tenure.
I dare say that, as a committee, we managed to minimise internal noise within the team because of Prof Okombo. In our intense youthful passion and interests, even when we disagreed or failed to reach a consensus on an issue, we remained united. Those who did not support an initiative kept off instead of sabotaging colleagues. The University administration and the government only knew “divide and rule” as a tactic to keep SONU in check – as a case in point, in the year 2000, all the members of the executive committee bar two were suspended and expelled.
Let me highlight two things to Kenya as we mourn the good professor, at a time when the country is navigating stormy political waters. One, Professor Okombo did not perform well in his O-Levels, so he missed a chance to join the university directly. He joined Kenyatta College, now Kenyatta University, for teacher training, specialising in Mathematics. But he had to become a professor, he repeatedly told us. He proceeded to The University of Nairobi for his undergraduate where he scored a first class honours in Linguistics. He acquired his masters and PhD from the same institution.
Life is not static
Prof Okombo reminds us that our current state is not our destiny. We can decide what type of Kenya we want then throw our weight and sweat behind it, and we will make Kenya the nation it is supposed to be. We don’t have to dig in on our current state for selfish interests and political expediency. The experiences we have gathered over time will come in handy in future. Prof Okombo was not only a towering academician but also a teacher per excellence, something I am sure he picked from his short stint as a Math tutor.
The second point is minimizing internal noise. We will achieve nothing with the kind of noise generated from our national political space. I remember Prof Okombo telling us that when you generate noise, you spend a lot of time, energy and resources fighting the noise at the expense of the challenges that led to that noise. As a tribute to the good professor, we can minimise the noise that has become a national pastime and focus on our challenges.
We will be cheating ourselves that the current standoff and political posturing is beneficial to our country. The disjointed noise of “the law is clear… winners… perennial losers… secession and legitimacy…” from all over the country will never yield any positive results for Kenya. Let us find a way of building consensus and when we cannot, we can find other ways to accommodate divergent opinions. Murang’a Senator Irungu Kang’ata and nominated MP David ole Sankok were with me in SONU; I hope they remember the late professor’s message and pass it on.
Richard Anderson and colleagues opined in 1997 from observations that change in political regime is reflected in the language of politicians. This is not only in the language as a medium but also in how the said language is packaged in tone and structure when politics is discussed. Colonialists spoke English to Kenyans in a different way from our independence leaders. How something is said is as important if not more, as what is being said. This is why we hire PR experts. We owe it to the departed professor of linguistics to minimise the noise in this country and watch our language as we discuss our political and social challenges.
Lastly, Professor was a defender of people with disabilities. This he did by being a champion of sign language in Kenya. To Prof. Okombo, language went beyond spoken words. He is reported to have pushed for the hiring of a visually impaired lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Nairobi when his colleagues had doubts in his abilities. In our winner-take-all kind of politics – also based on tribal numbers – let us remember and identify with those who are not endowed like .us’. They have something to offer.
Fare thee well Jachula. ^