The Late Prof. W. R Ochieng’ Opondo was a Thinker and Philosopher
By Maurice N. Amutabi
I have received many calls and messages from friends and colleagues asking me why I did not write anything about the death of Prof. William Robert Ochieng’ Opondo, one of the most famous public intellectuals in Kenya. I first met the late Professor William Robert Ochieng’ in the 1980s, while I was a student at the University of Nairobi. He never taught me but was already famous and one of the distinguished faces of the Kenyatta University College, then a constituent college of the University of Nairobi. I admired his views at seminars, particularly his tendency to disagree with everyone. I had been a great admirer of his column in the Sunday Nation, Ochieng’s View’. His commentaries on topical issues in this column in the 1970s and 1980s influenced and shaped public opinion in ways that few intellectuals have done. I admired his writing style and in many ways has influenced by writing.
Prof. Ochieng’ was a great author, intellectual, thinker and philosopher. He was one of the most prolific writers on the Kenyan intellectual circuit. His books such as Themes in Kenyan History, A Modern History of Kenya, An Economic History of Kenya, The First Word, The Second Word, The Third Word, provide useful signposts into Kenya’s past in ways that are original and creative. He had a great mind and creative in the way he went about his profession as a historian, always using historical facts to inform his commentaries.
Prof. Ochieng’ liked the media. He defended the right of lecturers to write in newspapers, a practice that is often dismissed by scholars who think writing in newspapers is not for intellectuals. He was the master of micro-history in Kenya, penning stories of unknown places such as Yimbo, and remembering defunct little kingdoms such as Kadimo. He also used reminiscences as a historical device better than any professor I have known. His reminiscences about his time in Kenya’s colonial primary schools, growing up in Yimbo, his times at the regimented Alliance High School, exchanges with colleagues in the Senior Common Room at the University of Nairobi, and challenges of Kenya’s past have been well captured and articulated in his articles.
Great minds such as Prof. Ochieng’s are rare. He was a fiery public intellectual who was feared and admired by friends and foe in equal measure. His departure is a great loss to Kenya’s public intellectual debates. He had the knack of igniting public debates on many issues. He was a controversial figure and sometimes rubbed people the wrong. He commented on many issues, and made bold assertions and claims which he was always ready to defend. He was brave and would accuse his colleagues of laziness, for not publishing. He also called for abolition of dowry, among other controversial declarations.
Kenya has lost a great person, because Prof. Ochieng’ was a public intellectual per excellence and had a retinue of converts and followers who strongly believed in all that he said and wrote. I recall the There was something about Prof. Ochieng’ that many scholars admired, his style of writing. He was a good story teller. He knew how to make narratives interesting, how to capture the reader. Many of his scholarly works had witty titles and phrased in interesting phraseologies. Many greatly admired how he deployed and weaved anecdotal facts and issues in his grand and meta- narratives.
Prof. Ochieng’ embraced interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches in the production of knowledge very early and wrote on almost anything, from literature, business, religion to music and from dowry to fishing. This was at a time when few scholars could dare venture outside their disciplines. He was a post modernist and post colonialist in his views, before these theoretical imperatives became commonplace. He hated pigeonholing of subjects and shunned little disciplinary turf wars, and believed that one could write on any subject.
Prof. Ochieng’ was an avid reader and this contributed a lot to his broad understanding of issues. I believe that there was no intellectual article in the daily newspapers that the great professor did not read. He was a great and prolific writer, who produced leading books in historical studies of Kenya. Many students of Kenyan studies read his books. I had a chance to contribute two chapters in books that he edited.
Prof. Ochieng’ was courageous and took on the mighty and powerful without fear or favour. His commentaries in newspapers often attacked uninformed positions of politicians and leaders who were against the poor. He critiqued policies that were anti-poor and stopped short of calling for an uprising to stop some of the ills that afflicted the Kenyan society. He even took on his mentors. In 1994, at a UNESCO a conference in Kericho, Prof. Ochieng surprised all of us when he picked on a paper presented by his mentor. He picked out some inconsistencies and told the senior professor, “This is not what you taught me, Professor.” People were shocked and exchanged knowing glances. There was no other comment on the paper.
When Prof. Ochieng’ moved to Moi University in 1986, Prof. Ochieng was admired as one of the senior professors on campus and made Dean of the School of Arts and Social Sciences. Prof. Ochieng’ knew me when I joined Moi University in 1991. He was social but one needed to be careful what you said to him, because it could easily end up in the media, in his commentaries. Prof. Ochieng’ was vociferous and strong critic of many scholars, which made him to be feared. I was at his receiving end many times, for reasons that were purely intellectual and scholarly, especially in the volatile 1990s and 00s.
In 1992, I was at the receiving end of a scathing remark by Prof. Ochieng’ on my conference paper which I presented at a Kisumu Hotel at a conference on Thirty Years After Mau Mau’ and which was organized by Maseno University. My paper made a connection between the rise of independent churches in Western Kenya, and Mau Mau. Prof. Ochieng’ thought that I was overstretching historical connections. What saved the day for me were the interviews I had done with Luhya men who had taken Mau Mau oaths in central Kenya such as Abednego Mukalo and Harrison Ngota from Ebunangwe, Bunyore and their pictures and those of their homemade guns and copies of Mau Mau songs taught in Karinga schools, translated in Luhya.
In as much as he was a great intellectual, Prof. Ochieng’ had some weaknesses. He sometimes came across as rude and arrogant, and some of his criticisms would sometimes degenerate into personal attacks, such as his exchanges with Ali Mazrui and Taban Lo Liyong. He was intolerant of views of younger scholars, whom he assumed knew little. He did not embrace digital advantages and remained analogue, which may have diluted his contributions. He made some intellectual somersaults. For instance, many admired his liberal ideas, and Marxist and anti-bourgeoisie discourses of the 1970s, but were dismayed when his views became conservative and strongly pro-establishment. He served the Moi regime, as Permanent Secretary which was the clearest indication of his shift. Prof. Ochieng’ will be greatly missed.
Prof. Amutabi is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic and Students Affairs) at Kisii University. Amutabi@yahoo.com