Philipo: The trailblazer wordsmith remains unequalled even as his pen finally runs dry

BY KEN OPALA

I visited Philip Ochieng, fondly known in newsrooms and within the journalism fraternity as “Philipo”, on January 12, 2010 at his home in Ogata Rongai. I was accompanied by legendary journalist of the Washington Post David Maraniss and his wife Linda. We were researching on Barack Obama Senior, for Maraniss’s eventual blockbuster, Barack Obama: The Story.

Our visit happened on a sunny afternoon, and Philipo was in his elements; he easily ventured into his past and reminiscing his friendship with the would-be father of America’s first black president, Barack Obama.  Philipo was not just very skilled a writer. He was a great reader, quite knowledgeable. He was extra-ordinary in thought – although sometime a very avant-garde thinker.

Anyway, as we chatted away, he mentioned the fabled Mr Toad, the excitedly reckless character in Kenneth Grahame’s novel, The Wind in the Willows, and also in the play, Toad of Toad Hall. Philipo, in his own wisdom, felt that Mr Toad’s character depicted Barack Obama senior. A very boastful and mischievous fellow, Mr Toad was easily excitable to the point that his driving exploits left him dealing with myriad car crashes. And he loved the bottle!

It’s an open secret that Obama Senior liked his tipple. And, just like Mr Toad, he was involved in a number of car crashes, the last one in November 1982 that left him dead. Tellingly, Obama and Philipo were very close. They met at Nairobi’s Church House, in 1959, and immediately became bosom friends. They later left to study in United States, from 1959. (Philipo was a beneficiary of the Tom Mboya airlift; Obama made his own arrangements and won a scholarship that took him to Hawaii).

Philipo joined the Roosevelt College but exited in 1962 before completing his studies. “It was because of cultural differences and financial problems; I asked to be brought home,” he told me during the January 2010 meeting at his place outside Ongata Rongai Town. While in the US, he discovered that race “is mainly about fear rather than colour”.

Of course, later in life, Philipo gave up on alcohol. But Philipo’s friends and colleagues are aware that he at times regretted plunging into alcoholism during his youth. As such, it is difficult for the indefatigable journalist to entirely escape Mr Toad’s depiction, when he mercilessly ravaged the bottle. When, during our January 2010 meeting, I asked him whether Obama was a drunkard, he responded, thus “not any more than I was!”  In fact some people believe that his involvement with the infamous “KANU Briefs” in the early 1990s was a Mr Toad moment, for he irresponsibly attempted to defend a political monolith that was obviously very autocratic.

Anyway, I got into journalism inspired by Philipo, Hilary Ng’weno, and later Kwendo Opanga. Philipo’s book, The Kenyatta Succession, got many of us into dreaming about investigative journalism. Certainly, The Kenyatta Succession was – and remains – one of the most revelatory, even investigative books by a Kenyan journalist. In the book, Philipo and his co-author Joseph Karimi detail the then President Jomo Kenyatta’s death in August 1978 and the politics of denial, deceit, double-speak and half-truths that clouded the transition from the old man (Uhuru Kenyatta’s father) to Daniel arap Moi.

As a student at Moi University, I only knew about the title; but once I got to the Nation Media Group as a cub reporter and made acquaintances with Philipo, I borrowed the book from him and really relished it.

I first met Philipo when he returned to the Nation Media Group for what would be his last call in journalism. At the time, Editor Mutegi Njau and I, in the two-man makeshift Investigative Desk, were busy kicking up a lot of dirt that was President Moi’s administration. I always thought at the time that I was a great journalist until one day Philipo appeared with three books on journalism. “Opala, take this and make sure you return them to me”. They were invaluable.

He remained a mentor, and when I joined The Nairobi Law Monthly as its Chief Editor sometime in October 2013, I convinced the magazine’s publisher Senior Council Ahmednasir Abdullahi to give up the last page column to Phillipo. Wordsmith Ochieng never missed contributing hard-hitting pieces. I recall one of the pieces in which he ravaged MPs, almost questioning their mental propriety.

“The only reason the proposed Mental Health Bill may not prove too heavy on the Exchequer is that not too many of our leaders will openly seek to personally benefit from it. Why not? Because to try to exploit it overtly is to announce to all and sundry, that you are “mad”. Mad? Yes, quite literary.” I gave it the headline, ‘Mental Health Bill: Why MPs may not legislate against themselves’.

I also ran a two-part series of an autobiography he was constructing then. I cannot tell whether or not this first person from Rusinga Island to ever join Alliance High School, ever managed to complete it.

But one of the memorable pieces I recollect appeared in The Nairobi Law Monthly’s special edition of December 12, 2013, to mark Kenya’s 50th birthday.  The article was titled: Why ‘50 is an epoch’. Philipo wrote succinctly about the vices that cripple Kenya and what the country’s focus should be as it embarks on the next 50 years of its journey.

“For, as the philosopher George Santayama points out, it is often our failings — rather than our successes – that determine our ideals … we have also signally failed to annihilate hunger, defeat tribalism, fight crime, provide quality education, tame deathly misbehavior on our roads, conquer Aids and so on. That’s why, for the next 50 years we must commit ourselves anew to the task of ridding ourselves of all these scourges.

“(December 12 2013) is a day on which we must … be completely honest by reminding ourselves of our numerous failings during those 50 years”.

Ochieng’s thought was unconventional, his writing definitely that of a Fifth-Columnist. He relished in ravaging the controllers/owners of politics and the destructors of Kenya’s socio-economic fabric. At times his enthusiasm for proper and ethical journalism led him to the same path with the fellows whose transgressions he often fought against. Unfortunately, once or twice, he went to bed with them and got his name, character and personality soiled. As stated earlier, his dalliance with KANU in the early 1990s is a story to forget very fast.

I made subsequent visits to his home in Ongata in 2013 through to 2017, and during one such I got to know that he was the first person from Rusinga Island to join Alliance High School. He joined the Daily Nation in 1966, and four years later, he moved to Tanzania. “(The then President Julius Nyerere) insisted that I join the Daily News,” Philipo opened up to me during the January 2010 meeting at his place in Rongai.

Now, 55 years since he joined the Daily Nation as a journalist, his pen has run out of ink – forever. But Philipo will remain a towering figure in Kenya nay, Africa. His unconventional thought made him a colossus. And this giant of journalism traversed the width and breadth of the continent. The trailblazer wordsmith remains unequalled.

Fare thee well, indefatigable Philip Ochieng. (First published in the People Daily)

Writer currently works with an international organization that fights organized crime

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