OBITUARY

Prof John Kokwaro, pioneer in African botany, dies at 79

UoN’s landscape is dotted with numerous trees and shrubs that are labelled with their scientific and indigenous names.

In Summary

• Prof Kokwaro may have breathed his last on December 13 aged 79 but memories of his humility, thoroughness and selflessness remain etched in the minds of all those who interacted with him.

•  Born in 1940, Prof Ongayo first stamped his mark in botanical issues as a trainee botanist at the East African Herbarium at the young age of 24.

Prof John Ongayo Kokwaro
Prof John Ongayo Kokwaro
Image: COURTESY:

“Like people, plants respond to extra attention.” Albeit this quote by H. Peter Loewer may sound absurd, a seasoned botanist such as Prof John Ongayo Kokwaro would tell you this is true.

Prof Kokwaro may have breathed his last on December 13 aged 79 but memories of his humility, thoroughness and selflessness remain etched in the minds of all those who interacted with him.

The verve with which Kokwaro sought to contribute to better understanding of botany was a reflection of his dedication to his other duties as a father, brother, son and uncle.

 

His wife, Prof Elizabeth Kokwaro, paints a picture of a man content to sacrifice personal ambitions for the sake of others.

“When I was pursuing my PhD in Science at the University of Nairobi in 1977, Prof took up household duties so that I could concentrate on my studies. This is against popular belief in African traditions that men should not assume household chores,” Elizabeth said.

Household chores were not an alien activity to Kokwaro, it seems, as his in-law Rosselyn Olela recalls.

“When we were young, we would see him doing household chores like slashing and sweeping around the compound. It used to make us wonder because we always thought that professors are not supposed to do such activities,” she said.

Born in 1940, Prof Ongayo first stamped his mark in botanical issues as a trainee botanist at the East African Herbarium at the young age of 24.

He was to rejoin East African Herbarium in 1966 after attaining a BSc. (Agriculture) degree from the University of Nairobi. Shortly thereafter, he went for his postgraduate studies at Uppsala University in Sweden.

Back home in Kenya in 1968, he became a tutorial fellow at the Department of Botany at UoN, then known as University College Nairobi.

 

He quickly rose to become a lecturer, a senior lecturer, associate professor and professor at the same institution where he served for 33 years before his retirement in 2001.

During his stint, Kokwaro helped shape the understanding of botanical issues by introducing and teaching various courses related to botany.

Many prominent personalities also attest to his fatherly and academic tutelage that forged them into formidable citizens who have contributed to nation-building in different capacities, such as researchers and policymakers.

No one understands this better than Prof Gilbert Kokwaro, his youngest brother, who owes his academic exploits to him.

“After our mother died, Prof took me to Form 3 all the way to Form 6,” Gilbert says.

Keen to transfer his wealth of knowledge on botany to upcoming generations, Kokwaro has authored numerous publications, including journals and conference papers.

His academic steps guided by his eldest brother,  Gilbert is now a professor of Health Systems Research and Director of the Institute of Healthcare Management at Strathmore University.

As an author of four parts (books) of the Flora of Tropical East Africa, he stands out as the most published African botanist.

That his publications have been cited approximately 3,247 times on Google Scholar (as at December 20) is evidence of a man whose passion for botany fueled his attention to detail.

“He was a fine and thorough scholar. If there was even a comma missing, that work had to be retyped,” Prof Bernard Aduda, the principal of the College of Biological and Physical Sciences (CBPS), recalls.

Turraea kokwaroana, a Kenyan plant named after Kokwaro, represents his footprints in botany as far as the flora of East Africa is concerned.

UoN’s landscape is dotted with numerous trees and shrubs that are labelled with their scientific and indigenous names.

Kokwaro is the brainchild of this venture aimed at enlightening visitors to the university on the taxonomy of various plant species.

His worldwide plaudits for his work in botany shines through in an encounter between his son, Dr Alfred Kokwaro, and a patient’s relative in Connecticut where he works.

“The patient’s relative asked me, "Do you know a John Ongayo Kokwaro?' after noticing my surname.  'Yes, he is my father, I replied proudly. And the relative says he is a dentist who used my father’s articles on medicinal plants when he was working on my pre-medicine dentistry,” Dr Kokwaro recounts.

Yet for all his colourful CV, Prof Kokwaro came across as a reserved and humble man who only spoke when necessary.

While at home, as Rosselyn attests, Kokwaro wore a different demeanour from the lecture rooms.

“While at home and not in the lecture halls, he would be dressed in a simple t-shirt and shorts,” Rosselyn recalls.

Prof Ongayo is survived by a wife, and eight children.