Philip Ochieng is dead.
The veteran journalist breathed his last yesterday, April 27. And his death close a chapter of inimitable prolificacy and what, as ODM leader Raila Odinga put it, “unmatched prowess of the English language.”
Ochieng was 82.
Those in the journalism profession lucky to work with him will remember ‘P.O’ as a walking encyclopedia and a grey-haired Oxford dictionary wrapped in a dust-jacket called “wit.”
His ‘Mark My Word’ in the Saturday Nation gave sloppy editors sleepless days. In it, he called out the (un)glaring errors in local dailies, often to the embarrassment of Fleet Street gate keepers. Being featured on ‘Fifth Columnist’ was an editorial walk of shame.
At the Nation Centre, colloquially known as “twin towers”, he paced the newsroom with measured steps, a book in hand, narrow-lensed bifocals hanging loosely on his chest. “Young man,” he once told this writer, then honing his skills as a cub reporter fresh from the village-and college. “Central has been reflected in your copy.”
It was a tongue-in-cheek remark that played to the gallery of stereotypes associated with people from Central Kenya – inability to differentiate “r” from “l”. My copy had “royalty” in place of “loyalty.”
Hawk-eyed, Ochieng read the dailies cover-to-cover. His rise in the cadres of the professional also proved a point: Writers are born, not made.
After his education at Alliance in late 1950s (under the immortal Carey Francis), Ochieng went to the US as one of the students in the 1959 airlifts. He came back with a lot of questions (the work of journalists is to prod, interrogate, ask questions) but no university degree.
He joined Nation as a trainee reporter and shone through the ranks to become an editorial copy reviser and later, chief sub-editor. From 1988 to 1991, Ochieng was the editor-in-chief of the defunct Kenya Times, a KANU mouthpiece. This particular stint polished off the glare of his professional reputation, somewhat. The paper was derisorily referred to as ‘Kanu Times’. Ochieng’s detractors often used this stint as attack fodder.
But there was little to fault in Ochieng’s mastery of the English language. He wrote Kenyatta Succession and I Accuse the Press: An Insider’s View of the Media and Politics in Africa, and a tome of commentaries on every subject under the sun- from grammar to ‘baki’ (tobacco) in ‘Kibaki’ – former President Mwai Kibaki’s name.
Kibaki would accord him the Order of the Burning Spear (OBS) for his contribution to journalism while he was in office (2003-2012).
His death from pneumonia was mourned by fellow scribes and a cross-section of leaders.
Long live Philip Ochieng!