The Late Prof. W. R Ochieng’ Opondo was a Thinker and Philosopher

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

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About African Interdisciplinary Studies Association Website

Prof. Maurice Nyamanga Amutabi is President of African Interdisciplinary Studies Association (AISA), a pioneer professional associaiton bringing together members from all disciplines in Africa and abroad. He is a former Fulbright Scholar who previously worked as Deputy Vice Chancellor at Kisii University and also Director of Research and Professor in Peace and Strategic Studies at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA), 2010-2013. He has previously taught at Central Washington University, USA (2005-2010) in African Studies Programme and Moi University (1992-2000) in the Department of Development Studies and other public universities in Kenya. Prof. Amutabi holds a PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA in History and African Studies. He received his B.A (Hons) in 1989 in Political Science and History and M.A in 1991 from the University of Nairobi, Kenya. Maurice Amutabi is co-editor of Regime Change and Succession Politics in Africa: Five Decades of Misrule (with Shadrack Wanjala Nasong’o) – in 2013. Amutabi also co-edited Africa after Fifty Years: Retrospections and Reflections (with Toyin Falola and Sylvester Gundona) in 2012. Amutabi is the author of The NGO Factor in Africa: The Case of Arrested Development in Kenya (New York: Routledge, 2006). Amutabi is co-author of Nationalism and Democracy for People-Centered Development in Africa (Moi University Press, 2000). He has also co-authored Foundations of Adult Education in Africa (Cape Town/Hamburg: Pearson/UNESCO, 2005). He has written two novels, Because of Honor (a novel on Islam in Africa) and These Good People (a novel on corruption in Africa). Amutabi is also the author of Nakhamuma Stories (a collection of short stories from the Abaluyia community of western Kenya). His chapters have appeared in over thirty books. His articles have appeared in several refereed and reputable journals such as African Studies Review, African Contemporary Cultural Studies, Canadian Journal of African Studies, International Journal of Educational Development; and Jenda: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies. Amutabi has made presentations at over one hundred national and international conferences. Amutabi is the Vice-President of the Kenya Studies and Scholars’ Association (KESSA), Kenya’s premier research and academic organization. He is the editor-in-chief of Kenya Studies Review and Eastern Africa Journal of Humanities and Sciences. Prof. Amutabi has conducted extensive research on many issues of development. He has taught courses on peace and conflict and gender and development. He teaches in the PhD and Masters Programme in the Institute of Peace and Security Studies at Kisii University. He enjoys blogging and writing and is an avid sports fan, but does not support any of team, preferring to support the team that plays well.
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6 Responses to The Late Prof. W. R Ochieng’ Opondo was a Thinker and Philosopher

  1. NDONYE M. says:

    WHOEVER SAW THIS BLOG’S POST OF 20TH DEC TITLED ” Arrogant Ochieng cannot hold candle to great writers like Ngugi and Mazrui ” AND THEN THIS POST; NOW KNOWS THAT INTELLECTUALS ARE SOURCES AND TRIGGERS OF IDEAS. OCHIENG’ WAS TO PRO. AMUTABI. IT’S SOMETHING WORTH SHADING A FACE FOR. WE WILL MISS PRO OCHIENG’S CONTROVERSIES. FOR PROF AMUTABI, YOU ARE ANOTHER INTELLECTUAL MANIAC. GIVING CREDIT WHERE IT IS DUE AND BLAME WHERE IT IS EXPLICIT; THOUGH IN THIS ARTICLE YOU HELD YOUR GRUDGES TILL LATE. GOOD ASSESSMENT THOUGH.

  2. OGOL REUBEN says:

    I’m Ogol Reuben, History teacher at Maseno school. I was one of Prof. W R Ochieng’s last Masters students at Maseno University of 2013/2014 who unfortunately he did not finish with because he was to take the four of us (Kennedy Onyango, Benard Ochieng, Nerea Liondo and I) through two more courses. For the period we were with him, he proved to be very strict but very encouraging. Prof was so fast in dictating notes that after every lecture we will sit down for about 30 or so minutes trying to put our minds together so as to fill in the gaps left during his lectures. ‘Pardon’ was a vocabulary to him so we tried in the first days of our interaction but proved futile so we left. One day I asked him whether he had written his Biography, his answer buffled me, ‘That is for people who have failed and wants to justify their failures.’ I did understand the answer till I read his book, ‘The Place of Biographies.’ We miss him to date. To Prof. Amutabi, thanks for this work. We have not interacted at closer range but have read some of your ideas in Prof Ochieng’s works. Am doing some work which will need your views, kindly accept me in when I knock at your office which will be very soon, of course for a good reason.

  3. Ochieng Khobe says:

    Reblogged this on SCORKblog and commented:
    Re-blogged in Memoriam!

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