Accountants at Nation Media often warned new journalists against living the life he had led despite his intellectual arrogance
By Undercover Reporter
He never believed in God, thought the bible an ‘interesting’ book of enriching anthropology. He hated Luo traditions, wrist watches too. But he loved whiskey, elegant clothes and books. He always carried a book. When renting a house-for he never owned one in the city despite being in the money-one room was for his 3000 strong book collection.
He never learnt to drive a car, preferred taxis, when not being gassed around in his old white Toyota AE 90. His second wife was chosen by his first. Of the under five thousand Kenyans who earned ‘Air-Lift’ scholarships to America in the 1950s, he was the only one who never graduated. He had zero interest in personal wealth, and like most journalists, was poor with money.
Philip Ochieng, the veteran maverick journalist of ‘difficult English’, succumbed to pneumonia at his rural Awendo home, Migori County. One of Kenya’s finest homespun newspaper men, authors and wordsmiths, was 83.
Head teacher Carey Francis, drove his Beetle all the way to Awendo to plead with Ochieng, the school smoker
Widely read and with scholarly interests sweeping across religion, philosophy, politics, literature, linguistics, science and history, Ochieng carried himself with the learned air peculiar to arrogant intellectuals.
Never mind to complete studies at Alliance High, head teacher Carey Francis, drove his Beetle from Kikuyu all the way to Awendo to plead with the school smoker who had ran away after being punished when he was caught puffing at cancer sticks!
Without academic papers, and for over 50 years, Ochieng, one of 10 siblings from different mothers, still went ahead to cement his place in East African journalism through searing writing, philosophical musings and in columns like The 5th Columnist, Mark My Words, Language Clinic, The Way I See It and Ochieng on Sunday. He wrote books too; The Kenyatta Successionand I Accuse the Press.
Ted Graham began running topless page three girls in Kenya Times not knowing Moi was a staunch Christian
From his writings, Ochieng read like he had pumped a great deal in acquiring knowledge, nuances of grammar and the structure of an impeccable English sentence. His elegantly written pieces starred complex syntax and pompous, bombastic language-the only investment he ever made.
Indeed, accountants at Nation Media Group often warned new journalists against living the life Ochieng had led: no tangible investments.
Yet, as Editor-in-Chief of Kanu owned Kenya Times, he lived like a pasha in Nairobi’s upscale Runda where one misguided relative went visiting ‘Uncle Ochieng’ without an appointment. The gateman told the blood relation that Ochieng could not be disturbed from his siesta-without advance notice.
Hemptone termed Ochieng ‘as full of shit as a nine-pound canary!’
Ochieng had been hired and would later be fired by President Daniel arap Moi. But while the job lasted, Ochieng was a frequent visitor at State House and he would later say “Moi was good to me all the way till his departure” meaning he never left the House on the Hill empty handed. But Moi still fired Ochieng for running a ‘roll-call’ of absentee MPs and giving space to the Opposition.
Ochieng returned to the Nation Media Group as an editor, columnist and reservoir of its institutional memory. He also moved from Runda to Kikuyu township where matters came to a head during the 2007 post-election violence.
Kikuyu town is Kikuyu community dominated but being the revered man of letters, was escorted out in peace and guess who accommodated Ochieng in Ongata Rongai during his hour of need? The relative he could not see while enjoying his siesta in Runda!
Ochieng lived in Rongai where makangas often refunded after absent mindedly paying his entire salary as bus fare for the Sh100 journey.
The first Luo to study in America later became Minister for Education
It is impossible to believe this was the same Philip Ochieng who left Kenya, one among a golden cohort of ‘Air-Lift’ students who left Kenya in 1959 and later changed the country irrevocably when they returned after independence in 1963.
And there were touching stories from Air-Lift beneficiaries: Joe B Wanjui wanted to study ‘industrial engineering’ when there were no industries in Kenya, but would later head East African Industries, now Unilever, for 18 years on his way to coining his billions in insurance and hospitality.
Another beneficiary was ambassador Nicholas Mugo-who was joined by wife Beth Mugo who cleared high school there and graduated from Wilmington College in Delaware.
Ochieng, the atheist, now knows whether God exists
SK Macharia earned his scholarship but had no fare. He went to America by bus from Kenya through Uganda, Sudan, Egypt, a boat ride to England and on to the USA-where he arrived after three months!
Most returned home and left indelible marks as technocrats, scholars, entrepreneurs, doctors, captains of industry, Cabinet Ministers, politicians, journalists like Ochieng.
Philip Ochieng Otani, the atheist, now knows whether God exists or not-wherever he is.
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