Monday, October 26, 2020
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In Honor of Kenya’s Living Grammarian, Literary Doyen Philip Ochieng

By Adan Makina

The name Philip is derived from Greek and it means “fond of horses” or “horse-loving.” In other languages, Philip is equivalent to Filippo or Filip. There was the historical Saint Philip who is mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels especially in the Gospel of John (1:43–51). Our own Philip Ochieng is a former editor of the Daily Nation and still, keeps on watching over the use of grammar in his “Mark My Word” column.

Philip Ochieng, former
Daily Nation Editor

 A prominent linguist and a true Kenyan, African and a distinguished journalist of literary repute, Philip Ochieng, like his namesake Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great and Phillip III who ruled the Kingdom of Macedonia from 359 BC until his assassination in 336 BC and was the mastermind of what we know militarily as Phalanx, has been accused by his opponents as a bigot who defended the government of the day. The boy who experienced rural life finally got the chance to attend Alliance High School–the only of its type those days. However, his move to the United States to pursue a BA degree at Roosevelt University failed to materialize, since, out of 1,000 students, Ochieng was the only one who never graduated.[i] Since you don’t need ‘As’ and assortments of degrees to climb the ladder of success in life, I wish to honor him in this essay while he is a living legend contrary to the human traditional concept of showering praises after the departure of the souls of their key prominent figures.

Going by the Prophet Muhammad’s saying, “He who does not thank people, does not thank Allah” (Ahmad, Tirmidhi), is a testament to Islam’s respect for every human being regardless of religious beliefs. The saying is not limited to only Muslims but to everyone and that’s why I have taken to the keyboard to thank the greatest grammarian and editor in Kenya Yetu (our Kenya). For over thirty years, though I did not follow up with his literary contributions frequently, Philip Ochieng has been in my heart mainly because of four favors he provided me back in the early nineties. It was an era when few Kenya Somalis contributed to the media. However, we had our own Mohammad Warsama who was a towering, prolific writer. He was honored in the early eighties for being the best correspondent in Kenya by the newspaper he served with dignity and respect to the satisfaction of his superiors. 

Philip Ochieng deserves showers of praise for being impartial in his selection of essays or articles and “letters to the editor section” respectively. After publishing my first short letter to the editor in the early nineties with the title “We Need Water” that I wrote with the help of my childhood friend Abdisatiir Warsame in the middle of the night when the taps ran dry even though the meandering Tana River was a walking distance from Garissa, I felt relieved with the feeling that the concerned authorities would take action to overturn the rampant water shortages. As noted in my letter that “we have no technical or hydrological reasons not to have water”, unfortunately, due to the poor leadership and administrative styles that were common those days, my grievances fell on deaf ears.

Unbeknown to the water department, by then, I and my buddy, were fully-trained Water Resources Engineers. Under the auspices of the West German Gesselschaft Fur Technische Zussammenarbeit (GTZ) popularly known as the German Technical Cooperation, the intensive training that we benefited in the early eighties could have made remarkable contribution to the hydrologically ineffective and retarded water department of that time.

Though I can’t recall the chronological order of my letters, one was related to the burning of Soko Mjinga aka Suuq Mugdi (dark market). Since it was the eighth time the decrepit market got engulfed in flames intentionally or unintentionally, those who knew before it was turned into a makeshift market will attest to the fact that the place was a graveyard for local saints who passed away at unknown varying dates. Even though you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out how to extinguish fire, still, you’ll need to have knowledge of the different types of fires and the right way to suffocate flammable and inflammable materials and their levels of combustibility.

Fifteen years earlier, I had mastered the ABCD classes of fire extinguishers where ‘A’ stood for extinguishers for putting out combustibles such as wood and paper, ‘B’ for gasoline, grease and oil that are flammable liquids, ‘C’ that is exclusive to electrical fires and the major extinguisher being foam, and ‘D’ for metallic elements that are flammable. On the other hand, I was also taught a different type of ABCD that stood for Atomic Biological Chemical Defense together with NBCD for Nuclear, Biological, Chemical, and Defense.

My third letter was on the resettlement of the newly arriving refugees from Somalia at the sparsely populated village of Ifo. My greatest fear was the unexpected deforestation that was to follow after the refugees got resettled in a new landscape that was lush green and teaming with wildlife. My previous experience with Africare Incorporated in Somalia allowed me to put together a strongly worded letter that attracted little attention from the authorities in Kenya. The knowledge I gained from our former American Foresters and the only sole sociologist I was assigned to work with as a Social Science Field Assistant who is currently a Professor Emeritus allowed me to refocus on the imminent repercussions of deforestation and the social absurdities that were to follow afterwards.

Philip Ochieng did not discard any of my contributions to the daily newspaper at any time, for he was, to my belief and conviction, an editor whose editorial focus on subject matters appeared succinctly defined and entirely peremptory. Thus, in an era when modern Information Technology (IT) had not infiltrated Kenya, on my part, the only means of communication with Philip was through handwriting and letter mail delivery. Even though “I had no penny to my name” due to the encompassing unemployment in North Eastern Province (NEP) followed by years of deliberate brutality and massacres that were orchestrated by heinous successive dictatorial civilian regimes, the concept of “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”–a phrase taken from America’s 33rd President Franklin D. Roosevelt during his inauguration day in 1933 when the current mighty but declining  America was in deep depression and the identical Qur’an (Al-Maida 5: 44) and Biblical exhortations “Fear God, and not man” (Matthew, 10: 26-28) were entombed in my mind and heart.

“Miraa Should Be Classified Illicit” was my fourth letter Philip posted on Kenya’s most prestigious newspaper. The article started with the decrying message: “the major factor hindering development in Garissa District is the high consumption of Miraa. “Miraa is considered to be a nutritious stimulating herb that is capable of easing frustrations and uncontrollable obstacles facing a consumer.” The article, despite attracting the wide attention of readers, did little to reduce its consumption to this day despite the current global COVID-19 pandemic. Consumed since the era of ancient Egypt when pharaoh’s reigned supreme for elevating the consumer to a god-like stage known as Apotheosis, Miraa whose botanical name is Catha edulis, remains endemic to Yemen, Ethiopia and Kenya respectively.

Little do many Kenyan’s know about Ochieng’s biography, The 5th Columnist: A Legendary Journalist (Longhorn, 2015) by Liz Gitonga-Wanjohi.The former editor-in-Chief also authored: I accuse the press: an insider’s view of the media and politics in Africa (Nairobi: Initiatives Publishers: ACTS Press, 1992). Though I have never read any of those books before, in the meantime, what matters most to me is to pull up my socks, wrap up my hands as a pugilist to strangle the sudden hand strains and stiffening tendons when punching the keyboard, and tell the truth about Philip Ochieng.

To wrap up my prolonged article, allow me to seek the helpful hands of Kenyans and international readers to support me in honoring our living grammarian and literary doyen, our Fidus Achates Philip Ochieng whose name has been in circulation for several decades because of his awesome literary apabhramsa.

Adan Makina
Email: [email protected]

[i] Tom Odhiambo (July 17, 2015).Unravelling the life of Philip Ochieng, the grand old Kenyan media maverick. Retrieved from

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