Philip Ochieng: He lived like a Pasha, died like a pauper

Accountants at Nation Media often warned new journalists against living the life he had led despite his intellectual arrogance

I Accuse the Press: Despite holding big positions in Kenya’s largest media houses, veteran journalist and columnist Philip Ochieng was a habitué of the accounts department where he camped at mid-month for ‘advance payment’ against columns he was yet to write. 

 By Undercover Reporter

He never believed in God, thought the bible an ‘interesting’ book of enriching anthropology. He hated Luo traditions, wrist watches too. But he loved whiskey, three-piece Savile Row suits with paisley kerchief at the pocket, the gleaming Crocket & Jones shoes polished to a mirror finish clear enough to apply makeup.

He was a sucker for books; Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, P.G. Wodehouse. He always carried a book, ate alone at the same time, same restaurant, reading a book. When renting a house-for he never owned one in the city-one room was for his 3000 strong book collection.

He never learnt to drive a car, preferred taxis, when not being gassed around in his old white Toyota AE 90. His second wife was chosen by his first. Of the under five thousand Kenyans who earned ‘Air-Lift’ scholarships to America in the late 1950s, he was the only one who never graduated. He had zero interest in personal wealth, and like most journalists, was poor with money. “An entrepreneurial idiot,” he called himself.

Philip Ochieng, the veteran maverick journalist of ‘difficult English’, succumbed to pneumonia at his rural Awendo home, Migori County on April 27. One of Kenya’s finest homespun newspaper men, authors and wordsmiths, was 83.

Head teacher Carey Francis, drove his Beetle all the way to Awendo to plead with Ochieng, the school smoker

The Prodigal Dad: Philip Ochieng attended Roosevelt University but never graduated , veering off to a life on the fast lane, fathering a daughter, Juliette Achieng (above) with Nova Diane, a family he later abandoned after facing financial headwinds. She would come searching, and found him, over 40 years later.

Widely read and with scholarly interests sweeping across religion, philosophy, politics, literature, linguistics, science and history, Ochieng, the contrarian thinker and provocative polymath carried himself with the learned air peculiar to arrogant intellectuals.

 Never mind to complete studies at Alliance High, head teacher Carey Francis, drove his Beetle from Kikuyu all the way to Awendo to plead with the school smoker who had ran away after being punished when he was caught puffing at cancer sticks!

Without academic papers, and for over 50 years, Ochieng, one of 10 siblings from different mothers, still went ahead to cement his place in East African journalism through searing writing and philosophical musings in columns like The 5th Columnist, Mark My Words, Language Clinic, The Way I See It and Ochieng on Sunday. He wrote books too; The Kenyatta Succession and I Accuse the Press.

Ted Graham began running topless page three girls in Kenya Times not knowing Moi was a staunch Christian

Tits for tat: The late Keneth Matiba and President Daniel arap Moi- who hired and fired Philip Ochieng as Editor-in-Chief of Kenya Times then owned by ruling party Kanu.
Not knowing who Moi was and wanted had its hazards.
The late British media mogul Robert Maxwell bought into Kenya Times and shipped editors to replicate the success of the Mirror newspaper in Kenya. One of the editors was the adventurous Ted Graham who began running topless page three girls in Kenya Times not knowing Moi was the Kanu chairman,  a staunch, conservative Christian-who hit the roof at the sight of pointed tits. Ted Graham was shortly whisked off to the airport on a one-way ticket to Fleet Street, UK. Ochieng would also be fired for featuring Opposition politicians like Matiba.

You could tell from his writings, Ochieng had pumped a great deal in acquiring knowledge, nuances of grammar and the structure of an impeccable English sentence. His elegantly written pieces starred complex syntax and pompous, bombastic language-the only investment he ever made.

Indeed, accountants at Nation Media Group often warned new journalists against living the life Ochieng had led: no tangible investments.

Yet, as Editor-in-Chief of Kanu owned Kenya Times, he lived like a pasha in Nairobi’s upscale Runda where one misguided relative went visiting ‘Uncle Ochieng’ without an appointment. The gateman told the blood relation that Ochieng could not be disturbed from his siesta-without advance notice.

Hemptone termed Ochieng ‘as full of shit as a nine-pound canary!’

Rogue Editor: For his closeness to President Moi, Ochieng became overzealous, calling people who attacked Moi and his ignoble regime names. He once described American ambassador Smith Hempstone (above) as “a vagrant, the epitome of the Ugly American, an out-and-out enemy of Kenya and an international diplomatic terrorist.” Not one to take blows lying down, Hemptone termed Ochieng ‘as full of shit as a nine-pound canary!’

Ochieng had been hired and would later be fired by President Daniel arap Moi. But while the job lasted, Ochieng was a frequent visitor at State House and he would later say “Moi was good to me all the way till his departure” meaning he never left the House on the Hill empty handed. But Moi still fired Ochieng for running a ‘roll-call’ of absentee MPs and giving space to the Opposition.

Ochieng returned to the Nation Media Group as an editor, columnist and reservoir of its institutional memory. He also moved from Runda to Kikuyu township where matters came to a head during the 2007 post-election violence.

Kikuyu town is Kikuyu community dominated but being the revered man of letters, was escorted out in peace and guess who accommodated Ochieng in Ongata Rongai during his hour of need? The relative he could not see while enjoying his siesta in Runda!

Ochieng lived in Rongai where makangas often refunded him after absent mindedly paying his entire advance salary as bus fare for the Sh100 journey from Nairobi.

The first Luo to study in America later became Minister for Education

Brain Box: Philip Ochieng was part of the American Air-Lift program of students who left Kenya for further studies in 1959. Others included Barrack Obama Sr, above (who later gave USA its first black President) on his way to wasting himself. There was also Prof Wangari Maathai, Prof George Saitoti, Hillary Ng’weno, Maina Wanjigi, Arthur Magugu, Wilson Ndolo Ayah and Samuel Ayodo, the first Luo to study in America and who later became Minister for Education.

It is impossible to believe this was the same Philip Ochieng who left Kenya, one among a  golden cohort of ‘Air-Lift’ students who left Kenya in 1959 and later changed the country irrevocably when they returned after independence in 1963.

And there were touching stories from Air-Lift beneficiaries: Joe B Wanjui wanted to study ‘industrial engineering’ when there were no industries in Kenya, but would later head East African Industries, now Unilever, for 18 years on his way to coining his billions in insurance and hospitality.

Another beneficiary was ambassador Nicholas Mugo-who was joined by wife, now Senator Beth Mugo, who cleared high school there and graduated from Wilmington College in Delaware.

Ochieng, the atheist, now knows whether God exists

So long a letter: Ochieng marking his 80th birthday. He lived long enough to see media shift from print plates, photography dark rooms, special editions to digital platforms in which news look for readers not the other way round. In his time, Breaking News moved from newspapers to Twitter and Bloggers are mini-media houses, citizens with camera phones are now reporters.
With all these shifts, Ochieng held his own as among Kenya’s most revered print journalists. He had no heart burn for writing in difficult English and once explained how  “I cannot stoop down to your level (of ignorance), bring yourself to my level (by reading widely), then maybe we can deal.” Celebrated author Malkiat Singh confessed he read Ochieng to discover new English words.
In short, Ochieng did not write for every Tom, Dick and Harry Shikwekwe but for brain box sophisticates who have ‘chewed’ books.

SK Macharia earned his scholarship but had no fare. He went to America by bus from Kenya through Uganda, Sudan, Egypt, a boat ride to England and on to the USA-where he arrived after three months!

Most returned home and left indelible marks as technocrats, scholars, entrepreneurs, doctors, captains of industry, Cabinet Ministers, politicians, journalists like Ochieng-who was buried at his rural home in Manyatta village, Awendo constituency on May 14.

   Philip Ochieng Otani, the atheist, now knows whether God exists or not-wherever he is.

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