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Meticulous wordsmith Philip Ochieng’s alluring legacy

Philip Ochieng, the veteran journalist, who died on Tuesday evening, was a meticulous professional. He had an amazing grasp of the English language and enjoyed getting to the roots and origins of English words in French, German, Latin and even Dholuo.

He was obsessed with the dissemination of knowledge, drawing from the rich classical times to the present.

This talent apparently runs in the family, as his younger brother, Robert Otani, got out of Ochieng’s shadow to stand his own ground as a sub-editor.

Paraphrasing Wole Soyinka, Ochieng would proudly declare that a pengler cannot pengle his penglitude. He sometimes called himself Pengele.

He appreciated talent and was respectful. Ironically, he was a soft-spoken gentleman behind the hard-hitting articles that many remember vividly.

As impeccable as his writing was, Ochieng was also a sharp dresser. He wore expensive three-piece suits. The waistcoat was ubiquitous when he was in the office.

The dapper in him must have been sharpened when he lived and studied in the United States. He was, of course, one of the beneficiaries of the Thomas Joseph Mboya, aka Tom Mboya airlifts of Kenyan students to pursue university studies in the US in the 1960s.

Studied at University of Chicago

Ochieng went to the University of Chicago, where, he once told me, he studied Literature and English.

Incidentally, he flew on the same plane with Pamela Odede, future wife of the mercurial trade unionist, freedom fighter and top Mzee Jomo Kenyatta Cabinet Minister Mboya.

Ochieng and Pamela remained friends until she died in January 2009. But as would become characteristic of Ochieng, he never completed his university course, and would find his way to East Germany during the Cold War. Ochieng was fluent in German and French.

After being tapped in 1988 to replace Ted Graham, an Englishman, who was the Group Managing Editor of Kenya Times when the Mirror Group of the UK was in partnership with the then ruling party Kanu, there was an exodus of journalists towards Kingsway House, overlooking the University of Nairobi and Central Police Station.

Ochieng got along well with the young and old. He was comfortable with his old namesake Philip Wangalwa, a veteran news editor, as much he was with a young and extremely talented feature writer, Makena Aritho.

Some of the biggest writing assignments I did for the Daily Nation were his ideas. I remember a special report on the changing face of Nairobi city centre, with embassies moving out and the emergence of our own capital hill. He personally edited those articles.

Ochieng was a workaholic. On his return to the Nation after a stint overseas, he became the Chief Sub-Editor and would later be promoted to Associate Editor. Then he became the Managing Editor, Daily Nation, before accepting the invitation to Kanu-owned Kenya Times.

Deep sense of humour

He enticed good journalists to join him. Ochieng loved competing with the Nation on well-written and edited stories in hard news and features.

I’ve never seen a spirited campaign such as his long-running treatise in defence of single-party rule that he penned for weeks, sometimes beginning on the front page and turning into two or three inside pages. Whenever Ochieng put his mind to something, he did with unparalleled commitment and finesse.

Ochieng was a football lover who supported Gor Mahia fanatically. But he was full of respect for their arch-rivals, AFC (formerly Abaluyia Football Club) Leopards, because he cherished the competition between the two giants of Kenyan soccer.

He would never miss a Gor Mahia match in Nairobi. I remember this one day, when he started writing an editorial, and left it halfway done on his typewriter. I was then the production editor at Kenya Times. Realising that we were getting late, I grabbed his typewriter and completed the editorial. When he came back, he read it and thanked me for it.

There was never a time that Ochieng was not reading or writing. Besides regular columns, he would churn out well-researched articles on any of his pet subjects.

And he had a deep sense of humour. Before he gave up alcohol, Ochieng enjoyed his whisky, and often spoke about having two eyes (a double tot) that reminded him of his swallowing sessions with Ugandan writer Okot p’Bitek, of the Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol fame. He explained that one eye should not cry while another is shut. Both had to be open, hence the need for double tots.

Never learnt how to drive

Surprisingly, Ochieng was a technophobe. When computers arrived at the Nation Centre, he was perhaps the last convert.

He had this little typewriter with fine soft keys that he treasured. After the other editors and writers had been trained to work on the computers in the old Atex system, Ochieng still continued typing his work and having someone else key it into the computer. But he never looked back once he got going.

All these years, he never learnt how to drive a car. He treasured his drivers. There was a chap at Kenya Times called Njenga, whose services Ochieng valued, especially in those days, when he would have one for the road and be delivered home safely.

Ochieng was a well-travelled man, who often spoke of his exploits overseas. His legacy would be incomplete without mention of his American daughter, who several years ago, came to Kenya in search of her roots and was reunited with him and the extended family.

Ochieng was first and foremost a true East African, who had remarkable stints as a journalist in Nairobi, Kampala and Dar es Salaam.

He ended up in Kampala after denouncing Kenya’s supportive role in the 1976 Entebbe raid, in dictator Idi Amin’s Uganda.

He was outraged as a matter of principle about the violation of the neighbouring country’s territorial integrity and not any support for terrorism or plane hijackings.

Many remember his “nation of sheep” statement that outraged many. Fare thee well, wordsmith Pengele.