Obituary

Prof John Kokwaro: Why Luo Nyanza is a granary of professors

 Parents were canned at the homestead of Chief Odera Akang’o for not taking their children to school

Brain box: Prof John Kokwaro hailed from Gem, Siaya County, the stronghold of academic giants. Throw a stone there, and you will most likely hit a professor’s head.

By Undercover Reporter

@Undercover KE

He has a plant named after him, a road as well at the Chiromo Campus in Nairobi.

 Prof John O. Kokwaro who withered from the garden of life on December 13 aged 79, was a professor of botany at the University of Nairobi-where he was the first to earn a Doctor of Science in 2008-exactly 40 years after he joined it as the first Kenyan with a PhD in plant science.  

  Doctor of Science, a higher doctorate after a PhD, is earned for outstanding scholarship in a field where the recipient has published original research conferring authoritative standing among global peers. The research must also have significant contribution to knowledge.

Prof Kokwaro’s specialty was botany, specifically, traditional herbs and their efficacy in the treatment of cancer and high blood pressure.   

Surveyed closely, how we turn out is greatly influenced by our beginnings.

Prof Kokwaro hailed from Gem in Siaya, a county that churns out the most educated in the Luo Nation-including the late Prof G.E.M. Ogutu, 78, an associate professor of religion at the University of Nairobi, but who was on February 16, found dangling on a rope at his Wambasa village home, Siaya County.

The root of that academic excellence was two-fold:  Luo Nyanza’s proximity to Uganda’s Makerere University, the best in pre-colonial East Africa and where many aspired admission.

Some of the most educated Kenyans are from Chief Odera Akango’s Gem area in Siaya  

Then there was Chief Odera Akang’o who forcibly enrolled his subjects to compulsory primary education from 1915.

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It so happened that Chief Akang’o was invited for the consecration of the Namirembe Cathedral in Uganda and was so blown away by the effect of British education evident from the row of trees, roads and hygiene of the educated Baganda, he vowed to zealously duplicate the same in Siaya.

By the time Prof Kokwaro was born in Gem on December 27, 1940, he found a culture of education which had been streamlined via parents being flogged for caning at the homestead of Chief Akang’o for not taking their children to school.

This early head start made a world of difference which was buttressed by geography: Luo Nyanza was far from the vagaries of the Mau May war of independence and education thrived in relative peace conducive to scaling the highest level of academia.  

Indeed, some of the most educated Kenyans are from Akango’s Gem area in Siaya:  eminent historians Prof Bethwel Ogot (who donated the land on which Odera Akang’o Campus stands) and Prof William Ochieng, former University of Nairobi VC Prof George Magoha now CS for Education, Kenya’s first African lawyer CMG Argwings-Kodhek and arguably the brightest Kenyan who ever lived- the late Prof David Wasawo.

Prominent lawyer PLO Lumumba, the Odingas and half of all distinguished media practitioners of Luo descent are from Siaya, where Akang’o was instrumental in the founding of the Christian-fronted and reputable St Mary’s School, Yala.

It was then with an easy transition that young Kokwaro, son of Mama Prisca and James Kokwaro, the bursar at Maseno School, was educated at St Stephens ACK Primary in Kenya and Bugema Mission, an intermediate school, today the Bugema University in Uganda.  

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Higher learning: Chief Odera Akang’o is the reason Luo Nyanza churns out more professors than any other area in Kenya. Prof Kokwara’s funeral service will be at the grounds named in honour of this once ruthless colonial administrator.

Chief Akang’o also introduced agriculture in Siaya, arresting idlers, caning and forcing them to his shamba for rice, sugarcane, beans and maize farming.  Little wonder that Kokwaro studied agriculture as an undergrad, but specialized in botany.

Kokwaro had won a scholarship to the University of British Columbia in Canada but the air fare, Sh700 was half his salary in 1961. Ethiopia was thus closer home and cheaper hence his Bsc. in plant sciences from Addis Ababa University.

Being the pioneering cohort of botanists, Kokwaro was awarded another scholarship to Uppsala University, Sweden for his Masters and PhD in the flora of East Africa and on whose petals his academic legacy flowered. So bright was Kokwaro he was the first Kenyan awarded a senior post-doctoral Fulbright Fellowship at Harvard University, USA in 1973. 

Enroute to publishing Medical Plants of East Africa, one of ten such books, Prof Kokwaro exposed the potency of traditional herbs in the treatment of Leukemia and Maytansine, was later isolated from the same plants in the United States and turned into a cancer drug.

Since Prof Kokwaro earned his Doctor of Science, only five other Kenyans have managed the feat

For his contribution and discoveries of the flora of East Africa, the Turraea kokwaroana plant was named in his honour by Professors  F. White and B. Styles of Oxford University in 1989, the same year Kenya Medical Research Institute codenamed KOK 1351 in his name for herbal remedy that treats  high blood pressure and which Kokwaro first reported about in Medical Plants of East Africa.

Prof Kokwaro was from a family of scholars. His wife, Elizabeth Kokwaro, a professor of zoology at Kenyatta University, his brother Gilbert Kokwaro, a professor of health systems research.  

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Since Prof Kokwaro earned his Doctor of Science in 2008, only five other Kenyans have managed the feat at the University of Nairobi: Prof Gilbert ole Maloiy (animal physiology), Prof David Ndetei (psychiatry), Prof JB Ojwang (law), Prof Julius A Angeng’o (human anatomy) and Prof Patricia Kameri-Mbote, the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a Doctor of Science in law.

Prof John O. Kokwaro retired in June 2001 after 33 years and became a contract lecturer by the time of his death of cancer on December 13, fourteen days short of his 80th birthday.

He was a father of eight including; Dr Alfred Kokwaro and Dr Flora Kokwaro, both medical doctors of internal medicine in Florida USA and Cardiff in the UK, respectively.

His funeral service was slotted for December 21 at the Odera Akang’o University grounds before his burial at his rural home in Gem, Siaya County.

16 Replies to “Prof John Kokwaro: Why Luo Nyanza is a granary of professors

  1. It’s a good article although some corrections must be made. ICIPE founder,the late Professor Thomas Odhiambo Nande was not from Gem,he was from Alego Mur Malanga,he is the great grandson of luo hero Tao Kogot and his founding of ICIPE is an inherited trait from Tao Kogot who waged war on Gem people because of tsetse fly.
    The Late economist Barack Obama Senior was also not from Gem. He was from Alego Kogelo. He’s in the lineage of Ruoth(Chief) Kisodhi. I’m sure because I can trace President Obama lineage all the way to Ogelo and Kisodhi.

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