In Summary
  • Prof Okombo was informed, focused, articulate, and logical in his presentations in class and in international conferences. He often looked shy as he made a presentation.
  • It was when one was interrogating and seeming to challenge his view or perspective that he came out of his hiding to charge like a wounded buffalo.
  • His exceptional brilliance would be revealed and his challenger would be made to bear with his academic prowess which even great scholars in the West and his teachers acknowledged.

I fondly remember my professor, Okoth Okombo, as a man who mentored my linguistics endeavour and that of many who passed through his skilled hands.

Prof Okombo had a profound, vast, lofty and complex understanding of language and linguistics phenomena only comparable to very few African scholars of his day and time that I know of.

When thinking about Prof Okombo, names like Francis Katamba and Kwesi Prah come to mind as examples of language professors of exemplary merit in Africa.

He amazed his students and colleagues alike because of his intellectual genius that was always on the cutting edge and one which was always theoretically informed.

There was no known linguistics domain that Prof Okombo did not have a peculiar understanding of, from theoretical to applied linguistics. Many times he posed a great challenge to certain field experts where he did not belong directly.

Prof Okombo was informed, focused, articulate, and logical in his presentations in class and in international conferences. He often looked shy as he made a presentation.

It was when one was interrogating and seeming to challenge his view or perspective that he came out of his hiding to charge like a wounded buffalo.

His exceptional brilliance would be revealed and his challenger would be made to bear with his academic prowess which even great scholars in the West and his teachers acknowledged.

What shocked many of his students was how he often turned what would otherwise have been boring mechanical subjects like syntax or even phonology or morphology into very interesting engagements. He made students laugh time and again as they looked forward to another session with him. His use of anecdotes and unparalleled humour attracted thousands of students to his language and communication classes at the University of Nairobi and in other places where he taught. Indeed he was a good public speaker and crowd puller.

Many African scholars often look subdued at the mention of giant names like Noam Chomsky, John Searle, Michael Halliday, Randolph Quirk, etc.

Not Prof Okombo. He openly challenged dominant western traditions emanating from outstanding scholars like Chomsky and the rest and went ahead to establish alternative thought that was appealing to listen to.

This explains why he wrote his doctoral thesis using functional linguistics theory that was little known then when generative grammar was fashionable. He liked experimenting and going for new frontiers of knowledge.

As students at the University of Nairobi, we saw him challenge big names in language studies like Eugine Nida and Geoffrey Leech when they came visiting using African data and thought systems.

This turned him into a role model for many students. I am one of those students who were his great admirers.

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