Prof Okoth Okombo: The aca­demic who made learn­ing an en­joy­able ex­pe­ri­ence

Uni­ver­sity of Nairobi pro­fes­sor had a unique way of break­ing down com­plex the­o­ries

Daily Nation (Kenya) - - WEEKEND - Prof. John Habwe is a Kiswahili writer and lec­turer at the Uni­ver­sity of Nairobi

Ifondly re­mem­ber my pro­fes­sor, Okoth Okombo, as a man who men­tored my lin­guis­tics en­deav­our and that of many who passed through his skilled hands. Prof Okombo had a pro­found, vast, lofty and com­plex un­der­stand­ing of lan­guage and lin­guis­tics phe­nom­ena only com­pa­ra­ble to very few African schol­ars of his day and time that I know of.

When think­ing about Prof Okombo, names like Fran­cis Katamba and Kwesi Prah come to mind as ex­am­ples of lan­guage pro­fes­sors of ex­em­plary merit in Africa. He amazed his stu­dents and col­leagues alike be­cause of his in­tel­lec­tual ge­nius that was al­ways on the cut­ting edge and one which was al­ways the­o­ret­i­cally in­formed. There was no known lin­guis­tics do­main that Prof Okombo did not have a pe­cu­liar un­der­stand­ing of, from the­o­ret­i­cal to ap­plied lin­guis­tics. Many times he posed a great chal­lenge to cer­tain field ex­perts where he did not be­long di­rectly.

Prof Okombo was in­formed, fo­cused, ar­tic­u­late, and log­i­cal in his pre­sen­ta­tions in class and in in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ences. He of­ten looked shy as he made a pre­sen­ta­tion. It was when one was in­ter­ro­gat­ing and seem­ing to chal­lenge his view or per­spec­tive that he came out of his hid­ing to charge like a wounded buf­falo. His ex­cep­tional bril­liance would be re­vealed and his chal­lenger would be made to bear with his aca­demic prow­ess which even great schol­ars in the West and his teach­ers ac­knowl­edged.

What shocked many of his stu­dents was how he of­ten turned what would oth­er­wise have been bor­ing me­chan­i­cal sub­jects like syn­tax or even phonol­ogy or mor­phol­ogy into very in­ter­est­ing en­gage­ments. He made stu­dents laugh time and again as they looked for­ward to an­other ses­sion with him. His use of anec­dotes and un­par­al­leled hu­mour at­tracted thou­sands of stu­dents to his lan­guage and com­mu­ni­ca­tion classes at the Uni­ver­sity of Nairobi and in other places where he taught. In­deed he was a good pub­lic speaker and crowd puller.

Many African schol­ars of­ten look sub­dued at the men­tion of giant names like Noam Chom­sky, John Searle, Michael Hal­l­i­day, Ran­dolph Quirk, etc.

Not Prof Okombo. He openly chal­lenged dom­i­nant western tra­di­tions em­a­nat­ing from out­stand­ing schol­ars like Chom­sky and the rest and went ahead to es­tab­lish al­ter­na­tive thought that was ap­peal­ing to lis­ten to. This ex­plains why he wrote his doc­toral the­sis us­ing func­tional lin­guis­tics the­ory that was lit­tle known then when gen­er­a­tive gram­mar was fash­ion­able. He liked ex­per­i­ment­ing and go­ing for new fron­tiers of knowl­edge. As stu­dents at the Uni­ver­sity of Nairobi, we saw him chal­lenge big names in lan­guage stud­ies like Eug­ine Nida and Ge­of­frey Leech when they came vis­it­ing us­ing African data and thought sys­tems. This turned him into a role model for many stu­dents. I am one of those stu­dents who were his great ad­mir­ers. Though I talk a lot some­times, be­fore Okombo I would be no­tice­ably quiet and strug­gling to look so obe­di­ent as I fol­lowed his elo­quent ar­gu­men­ta­tions that were laced with sto­ries.

I came into con­tact with Prof Okombo as a first year stu­dent in the early 1980s at the Uni­ver­sity of Nairobi when he taught me an in­tro­duc­tory course in lin­guis­tics. His abil­ity to ex­plain some­thing sim­ply with lo­cal ex­am­ples left his stu­dents quite amazed. Prof Okombo would later teach me at my Mas­ters level and doc­toral level, thus pro­vid­ing a foun­da­tion for my lin­guis­tics knowl­edge.

He was a well pub­lished scholar with many books and ar­ti­cles in rep­utable jour­nals in the world. He has great in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion that many of us can only dream of. He has worked on many ad­vi­sory pro­grammes in Africa and par­tic­u­larly in South­ern Africa and the rest of the world. He has run nu­mer­ous train­ings in pub­lic speak­ing and ne­go­ti­a­tion skills in the coun­try in many sec­tors and abroad.

Many times I sought to know from him why his pre­sen­ta­tions were very good and he jok­ingly told me he pre­pared them when his spirit was charged, though later he can­didly told me it was be­cause of the level of in­vest­ment he put in them. A look at his home and of­fice li­braries can at­test to this. Prof Okombo owned some of the most rare and ex­pen­sive books in lin­guis­tics. En­ter­ing his of­fice, you would ad­mit you have en­tered the of­fice of a pro­fes­sor of re­pute.

I re­mem­ber vividly his pub­lic ad­dress about his teacher, Prof M.H. Ab­du­laziz in Mom­basa be­fore he was taken ill. It was an in­tel­li­gent, in­ter­rog­a­tive, provoca­tive and im­pres­sive key­note ad­dress.

I read his in­au­gu­ral lec­ture at the Uni­ver­sity of Nairobi twice each year and it is still mem­o­rable to me to date, just like all the classes he taught me. He had a way of mak­ing im­pact which only gifted brains like his could do suc­cess­fully.

Sur­pris­ingly, he also had a witty and in­tel­li­gent in­ter­pre­ta­tion of po­lit­i­cal, so­cial, cul­tural and eco­nomic is­sues and life in gen­eral as his close friends in the Se­nior Com­mon Room would at­test to. He had a good work­ing knowl­edge of math­e­mat­ics as well. He was an all­round scholar with an ir­refutable, solid and amaz­ing grasp of many things in aca­demic cir­cles and life in gen­eral. Many times I thought I had a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on mat­ters him and I dis­cussed, but on many oc­ca­sions his logic and con­fi­dence was so com­pelling that my rea­son caved in.

This was in­deed a great pro­fes­sor and scholar. He is the kind of pro­fes­sor I had in mind when I was in school, who made me wish to go to uni­ver­sity against all odds to meet and to be taught by.

Prof Okombo was in­deed an ea­gle that soared great aca­demic heights and who has left a gap in African and world schol­ar­ship, whose fill­ing is gen­uinely dif­fi­cult.

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