By: MBUGUA WA MUNGAI
He writes well, though it is not always that you agree with his conclusions,” author Liz Gitonga-Wanjohi quotes lawyer Paul Muite saying of Philip Ochieng, the industrious journalist whose illustrious career dates back to 1966 when he was hired at Daily Nation as a reporter. However, most readers only know of Ochieng through his newspaper columns; this biography enables one to get to see the man’s human side. The Fifth Columnist has chronicled in elaborate detail the myriad surprising twists and turns in Ochieng’s rather colourful career. What comes across clearly in this simply written book is that its subject is not just any other journalist.
As Muite’s statement above suggests, one of the core distinguishing traits of Ochieng the journalist is his dazzling deftness with language; another is his deep knowledge of not just how English works but also how it constitutes systems of thought. His grasp of history and science has also been demonstrated throughout the book.
To her credit, Ochieng’s biographer does a commendable job digging deep into his background to present readers with a fuller picture of him than one might ever piece together from his newspapers articles. Thus the narrative unfolds of the little village boy from Awendo whose craving for knowledge drove him to walk seven kilometres to school. Might this fact have subconsciously led to his shunning of any athletic exertions in later years?
We are presented with the image of a boy who was keenly aware right from the beginning that the pursuit of knowledge would be his ticket to a world outside the village, and to great self-fulfilment. Hence, while his village mates aspired to not-so-outstanding village schools, Ochieng knew that the famous Alliance High School was his passport to the future; he walked through the institution’s hallowed gates in 1955. One question that remains about his Alliance days, though, is what really drove Ochieng to become a rebel? The chapter on Alliance also has interesting details about the bigotry of the famous school head Carey Francis.
Ochieng’s engagement with the world is anchored upon his questioning the order of things. It might also explain why in later years Ochieng kept resigning from the many jobs he held; a junior officer at the UN, teaching, a protocol officer at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the many positions he held as a journalist. If something does not make sense to him, Ochieng walks away; he claims he has only been sacked once, in 1992, from the Editor-in-Chief’s position at the KANU-owned Kenya Times newspaper. It is in this same fashion that he walked out of his first marriage to an African American woman while studying at Roosevelt University.
Nevertheless, even as it is possible to explain some of his unfinished projects — such as his incomplete degrees — by citing this need to walk away from things that no longer make sense to him, it is also quite possible that his impatience, and being taken in by distractions, leads him to abandon his work midstream. The hoisting of independent Kenya’s flag certainly led to heady moments, but reading through The Fifth Columnist, Ochieng’s citing patriotism as the reason for abandoning his undergraduate studies in France is not convincing. Many other patriotic Kenyans still went to pursue their university education after 1963 and their patriotic duty always saw them come back to play their role in nation-building. In similar manner, one wishes Ochieng would have supplied more concrete reasons for quitting his undergraduate studies at Humboldt University in the then East Germany.
One of the most admirable things about Ochieng is that he is a self-taught journalist who excelled in the craft and bested many who had been trained in it. However, as the book shows, this achievement has its own problems. On the one hand, it has made Ochieng appear arrogant and domineering to those he evaluates as incompetent. On the other hand though, and I think quite crucially, it has continuously led him to the awareness that book knowledge isn’t enough to shape an individual.
Thus his questioning of the fetishization of degrees in Kenyan society, especially given the fact that quite a bit of the information we pick up in school ends up being useless or it is imperfectly imparted thereby rendering such products of the school system half-baked. This raises an important philosophical question: Why do we take people to school?
At another level, readers who are familiar with The Kenyatta Succession — co-authored with fellow journalist Joseph Karimi — and Ochieng’s I Accuse the Press will be riveted to particularly chapters 22 through to 24, which are packed with incredible details regarding his stint at Kenya Times, perhaps with good reason. Intuitively, even the biographer knows that this is the period of Ochieng’s professional life that many people still wonder about — and some are unlikely to ever forgive him for it.
His sometimes three page-long commentaries in the paper have justly been characterised as ‘unprofessional’ even by his own colleagues quoted in the book. The amazing thing is that Ochieng still believes he was right in having lent his skills to defending Moi’s tyranny and demonising everyone that was opposed to the Kanu regime whose paper he was editing. These three chapters particularly show one of Ochieng’s character flaws — He seems to believe that by taking the side of tyranny, only he was right and everyone else wrong. What is even more puzzling is that in the book he admits to his being a leftist yet the party whose newspaper he was working on could very easily have been described as fascist.
POINT FOR REFLECTION
Ochieng’s biography also has some interesting tid bits. Not many Kenyans know that either the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson or, more intriguingly, the Argentine Marxist guerrila Ernesto Che Guevara came calling to Nairobi, and that in his capacity as protocol officer Ochieng received them. I would be curious to know if ever Ochieng considered the possibility of breaking protocol and having a word with these gentlemen.
Like or hate Ochieng, it is impossible not to agree with him when he upbraids many print journalists for their poor skills. He is particularly offended by the poor grasp of English by reporters. Rooting for investigative journalism, Ochieng has argued quite convincingly, that research is core to any good writing.
Liz Gitonga-Wanjohi has shown what the contribution of one man to his profession has been but in a sense the book also offers glimpses of some of the quantifiable achievements of the Kennedy Airlifts of the 1960s by showing what some of the beneficiaries did for the country after their return.
This work also raises an important point for reflection: Where are the biographies of Hillary Ng’weno, Joseph Karimi, Joe Kadhi, Catherine Gicheru, Pius Nyamora, Roy Gachuhi, Gitobu Imanyara, and Njehu Gatabaki, among others? These individuals have a treasure trove of knowledge about how the media in this country works — they owe Kenyans their stories.
I know many Kenyans are uncomfortable about their stories being narrated before their death, but Philip Ochieng has shown that there is nothing to be afraid of, and there is nothing so odious that it cannot be explained. Ochieng admits to having done some bad things but with uncharacteristic grace he has allowed readers to get a glimpse of what some of these might be.
I consider Liz Gitonga-Wanjohi’s an important serving to our search for some answers about a man whose dance with words, even in retirement, continues to dazzle readers.