In Summary
  • It was a great honour for me when, towards the end of 2005, he attended the defence of my doctoral proposal in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Nairobi
  • Two years ago, as I was boarding an aircraft in Amsterdam, I received a call from Prof. Okombo
  • I was not in attendance, and he would never have guessed that I would get to hear what he said on that day, but friends of mine were in the audience, and they reported it back to me

On the morning of November 2, 2017, I checked my University of Nairobi Faculty of Arts WhatsApp group, and was hit by the horrible news that the cruel hand of death had robbed us of Prof. D. Okoth Okombo.

My grief was deep beyond description, and this for a number of reasons.

Prof. Okoth Okombo (1950-2017) had B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Linguistics and African Languages, all from the University of Nairobi. He was the 1977 winner of the Gandhi Best Student Prize in the Faculty of Arts upon his graduation with a B.A. (First Class Honours) as a Linguistics Major.

After obtaining his Masters and Ph.D. degrees, he secured a teaching position in the same university and grew in his career to become a full Professor in 1999.

He published widely on issues concerning African languages, and contributed passionately to policy debates and decisions, some of which influenced the current Constitutional provisions on language in Kenya.

Yet despite his vast learning, he was always exceptionally accessible and deeply conscious of the struggles of the masses of Kenyans who heave under the weight of a host of systemic injustices.

As high school students in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we heard Duncan Okoth Okombo present “Books and Bookmen” - a Voice of Kenya (now KBC) radio programme.

I first met him personally in an interview room at the Kikuyu Campus of the University of Nairobi early in 1992, as I was seeking to move from Kenyatta University to the University of Nairobi.

I got the job, and so began my thriving collegial relationship with this eminent don. Prof. Okombo was ever friendly, and would pause for a greeting however pressed for time he was.

Prof. Okombo read some of the drafts of my doctoral thesis on the rights of Kenyan Ethnic Minorities, and made very helpful comments. He even lent me relevant books on the nature of ethnicity, thereby significantly enriching my presentation.

It was a great honour for me when, towards the end of 2005, he attended the defence of my doctoral proposal in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Nairobi, and emphasised to me the importance of distinguishing between a research problem and a social problem.

When I embarked on my work as Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Thought and Practice: A Journal of the Philosophical Association of Kenya from 2009 to 2015, I requested Prof. Okombo to peer review an article for the Premier Issue. His review was so outstanding that I used it to prepare a template for future peer reviewers of the journal’s articles.

INTENSE INTEREST

In 2013, I co-chaired an international symposium in honour of the late Kenyan philosopher, Prof. H. Odera Oruka, best known for his Sage Philosophy Project. On that occasion, Prof. Okombo presented a paper titled “The Semantics of Sagacity and its Implications for Odera Oruka’s Sage Philosophy”.

I am deeply saddened by the fact that Prof. Okombo has left us just before the publication of Odera Oruka in the Twenty-first Century - the volume containing updated papers from that symposium, edited by Drs. Oriare Nyarwath, Francis Owakah and myself.

One of the strongest strands in the bond between Prof. Okombo and I was my disability. He had an intense interest in the numerous coping mechanisms that persons with disabilities employ to survive in this largely insensitive world.

He often talked to me about my use of the white cane, admitting to me that he enjoyed quietly watching me walk around the University of Nairobi Main Campus. His interest in disability issues first came to the fore through his involvement in the Kenya Sign Language Project hosted in the Main Campus of the University of Nairobi , thereby contributing significantly to raising the profile of this highly neglected but important mode of communication.

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