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Ochieng: Scribe whose language mastery could not be matched

Friday April 30 2021
Ochieng pic
By Abdi Sultani

Philip Ochieng has died, aged 82. That happened on Tuesday evening at Awendo in Migori, his birthplace in Western Kenya. That very day, East Africa’s electronic/social media went into overdrive, announcing the passing of arguably one of our region’s most brilliant journalists.

Ochieng (pictured) was a man that, I bet, every journalist admired, openly or secretly. Even when you didn’t subscribe to what he said in some of his writings—and he could be quite controversial—you felt obliged to respectfully say: let it be.

The consummate reader that he was, Ochieng would always support his views with reference to some literature. In one of his articles in the Sunday Nation ‘Fifth Columnist’ column, he admitted that he was certain he would die a poor man. The main reason, he said, was that he spent most of his income on books.

His constant reminder to journalists or readers who wrote to the editor to criticise him was that it was an exercise in futility to argue when one didn’t have well researched facts to back one’s argument.

Over the years, Ochieng served the media industry, not only in Kenya, but in Uganda and Tanzania as well. While at the Daily News in the 1970s, he penned a weekly column, ‘The Way I See It’ which tackled societal and (mainly) political issues.

In his writings then, he clearly demonstrated his socialist orientation of the far left. Indeed, there is a claim he made in some of his articles that he left Tanzania when he did because some senior persons in the newsroom expressed open discomfort over his “communist orientation” that seemed to go against the grain of Mwalimu Nyerere’s brand of African Socialism—Ujamaa.

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Otherwise, Ochieng remained a staunch admirer of Mwalimu to the very end, regularly admonishing his vitriolic critics by invoking the name of his political idol: “…As Mwalimu Nyerere always reminded us: argue; don’t shout.”

Tanzanian veteran journalist who at some stage left the media to join diplomatic service, Ulli Mwambulukutu, worked with Ochieng in the early 70s at the Daily News. Despite the man’s very wide knowledge and intellectual acumen, he says, Ochieng was amiable and helpful to the our up-and-coming journalists. “Philip was many things rolled into one: journalist, columnist and human…his presence in Tanzania was felt in his loved column, ‘The Way I See It’”

Another veteran journalist-turned-diplomat, Scholastica Kimaryo, also worked with the departed scribe at the Daily News during his time in Tanzania. She says: “Philip was not just a journalist; he was a thinker, a man with a global outlook, very progressive and with clearly Marxist-Leninist views who believed Tanzania should adapt scientific socialism, not Ujamaa.”

In his book, I accuse the Press: An Insider’s View of the Media and Politics in Africa, he sees the media on the continent as playing into the hands of rulers, serving them at the expense of the people.

Journalist Liz Gitonga-Wanjohi, who penned an authorised biography of him, entitled, The Fifth Columnist: A Legendary Columnist, writes: “To many, Philip Ochieng is that proud atheist and relentless social critic with an unmatched grasp of the English language…To others though, he is undoubtedly a media giant and a journalist of great repute. Having served in various capacities in the media industry, Ochieng has earned both praise and condemnation from, not just the readers, but also from his employers, colleagues and the powers that be.”

Standard newspaper Editor-in-Chief Ochieng Rapuro described Philip Ochieng as “an exceptional member of the Fourth Estate, someone who was sharp, witty and deep”.

In the same vein, ODM leader and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga tweeted: “Through the power of the pen, Philip spoke to the most powerful and moved the society to action.”

Ochieng was keen on using the power of his pen to teach his readers “good English”. When in the 1990s he worked with the Kanu-owned Kenya Times, he penned the column, ‘Language Clinic’. I am a language fanatic and this column was a must for me.

Years on, I was to follow his yet another language review column in the Nation on Saturday, ‘Mark My Word’. And as a journalist, this one was to me an essential read as well.

Ochieng was always categorical about the essence of language mastery for members of the Fourth Estate. He used to say: “If you don’t know English, you have no business being anywhere near a newsroom!”

Rest in peace, older brother Philip Ochieng.