Service above self: Tribute to Yusuf Dawood (1928-2023)

He was one of the finest surgeons in our motherland

In Summary

• My father used to make me read his column out loud, then explain the story to me

Yusuf Dawood
Yusuf Dawood

Like many Kenyans of a certain age and beyond, the news of the death of Dr Yusuf Dawood, a revered leader in the health sector and national writer, has opened my week with a dark cloud. He died on Sunday night. Tributes have been flowing since then, narrated in language full of nostalgia, admiration and respect.

A good man has left us, four years after he left Kenya for retirement and family reunion in the United Kingdom and eight years since he put down his tools of trade as one of the finest surgeons in our motherland – for decades. May God rest his soul in eternal peace.


Yusuf was not born here. In the year he arrived in Africa as a youthful medical doctor in 1961, Kenya was two years shy of gaining Independence. This year, it shall celebrate 60 years of independence (1963–2023). He arrived as a young doctor from his natal land of India to pick up a job at the Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi.

Miles away in the western part of Kenya, a different, determined young man was about to finish his elementary education on the slopes of Mount Elgon, in the sleepy old village called Sirisia. He later completed his secondary education in 1967 at Bungoma High. Let us call him Makokha after his own father, who inherited the name from his own father.

Makokha would go to Nairobi for training and later begin a long career with an automobile company called Marshalls (East Africa). He served diligently for years in different towns. By the mid 1980s, he had risen to become the North Rift regional manager of the company, with his base in Eldoret.

Like most successful Kenyan men born before Independence, he joined a charity organisation. It was called the Rotary Club of Eldoret. 'Service-above self' is its motto.

As I grew up as his second son and became literate by and by, my old man took to sending me to buy Sunday newspapers for him. I love reading from childhood.

Many are the occasions he would ask me to read articles aloud for him. He would recline on the long orange sofa and correct me, his personal reader.

He loved the article penned by Yusuf Dawood. It appeared weekly in the Sunday Nation under the title: 'The Surgeon’s Diary'. I read it out to him for aeons. I loved the explanations my listener gave me to empower my understanding of the stories in the readings.

As I grew up, I went to the same Bungoma High, exactly 30 years after Makokha was there. He would visit me and tell me tales of places I knew in the same boarding school, which he knew, too, albeit in another era.

He would come visiting in an old navy blue Rotary T-shirt on weekends. Once, I asked him why wore it repeatedly. He responded pensively that it was a cherished old gift from a senior Rotarian. He told me I knew him. I wondered.

He told me it was given him by the man who pens the article I used to read to him in the Sunday Nation. Yusuf Dawood. It awed me that my old man had finally met a man he admired for decades.


Flash-forward, many years passed. I grew up and went to Kenyatta University, where I became a literary scholar. I met a man who took me under his patronage and trained me to be an unrepentant bibliophile. His name is Prof Michael Wainaina. He urged and nurtured me to become a lecturer. I became.

One of the people I met at KU was a man called BK Kamau. He was a former classmate and bosom friend of my mentor. He had written in 1998 a research thesis for his Master's degree on structure and style in the novels of Yusuf Dawood.

Rare are men in Kenya as eloquent as this scholar. He told me his was the first thesis in Kenya on a writer of Indian descent. He talked to me in many sittings on the importance of doing more research on writers of East Africa who have ancestral origins in the Indian subcontinent. I listened.

Seven years later, I graduated with my MA degree. I did the research guided by two researchers. One of the supervisors was the good Prof and former classmate of Dawood's Dr BK Kamau.

Is it shocking, really, that my own research was on another major writer born in Kenya with roots in India? He is called MG Vassanji.


On the day I graduated in 2006, my old father Makokha could not make it. I took two books to him later. One was an unpublished spiral-bound copy of my Vassanji thesis, and another was Dawood’s autobiography. He read them both in totality in due course.

How can I forget the aged, stammering, happy voice of old Makokha reading in his retirement, aloud, to me, the introduction of Yusuf Dawood’s life-story; a person whom he considered his personal role model in matters selfless service to the society?

On Monday, my first phone call of the week was bad. It broke the news of the death of the famous Dr Yusuf Dawood, an inspiration to Kenyans across the generation, to one of his longest readers — octogenarian Makokha of Bungoma.

WATCH: The latest videos from the Star