MEMOIRS OF AN INTELLECTUAL

Prof Charles Okidi: Cheers to a scholar per excellence

One needs to read Prof Okidi's memoirs to understand the making of a man of superlative fortitude

In Summary

• Prof Okidi charted an alternative route to some of the world's top universities.

•  He is a former bicycle repairer and a policeman who became an expert in international law, environmental law, and the law of the sea.

University of Nairobi's Prof Charles Odidi Okidi memoirs In Pursuit of Excellence.
University of Nairobi's Prof Charles Odidi Okidi memoirs In Pursuit of Excellence.
Image: COURTESY

The Covid-19 gloom shouldn't blur the retirement of Prof Charles Odidi Okidi from the University of Nairobi, and the release of his memoirs, In Pursuit of Excellence.

This inspiring account of the struggle for an education was to be launched in March —  the week Kenya reported the first case of coronavirus.

Prof Okidi charted an alternative route to some of the world's top universities. He is a former bicycle repairer and a policeman who became an expert in international law, environmental law, and the law of the sea.

 
 

Kanjira, where he was born, is the village of the legendary freedom fighter Ojijo Oteko. Ojijo Road, which connects Westlands and Parklands estates in Nairobi, and Ojijo Road in Eldoret are monuments for Ojijo Oteko Polo Mor Imbo. He is Prof Okidi's uncle.

One needs to read Prof Okidi's memoirs to understand the making of a man of superlative fortitude. He is an institution builder, and a mentor of scholars. The scholar is honoured abroad but hardly celebrated in Kenya, after 50 years of unparalleled contribution to academia.

When the retired professor was soaring globally, custodians of opportunities at the only local university in the 1970s hardly responded to his letters of intention to return home. At the same time, he was rejecting tenured hire at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. He is the vice-chancellor University of Nairobi never had.

Prof Okidi is the founding dean Moi University School of Environmental Studies, and  founding chairman of the council of Karatina University. He is also the founding chairman of the Kenya Water Institute, as well as founding director of the Centre for Advanced Studies in Environmental Law and Policy, University of Nairobi, among other milestones.

UoN's Institute of Development Studies is synonymous with him. This is where I first met him decades ago during freshers' orientation week. He was later to introduce me to Dr Polycap Ochilo, a longtime lecturer at UoN's School of Journalism.

Prof Okidi, known to his peers like Prof Shem Wandiga as COO, is the chairman of Integrity School in Ndhiwa, Homa Bay county. The school symbolises the guiding principles of Okidi's life: Integrity, accountability, and social responsibility.

COO rejected a prime plot, which came with a buyer in Sabaki/Malindi, when a 80-acre Indian Ocean frontage was parcelled out for a field research station for the Moi University School of Environmental Studies. This was the 1980s of the Moi era when land grabbing was standard practice.

 
 

COO was among the few who had the temerity and integrity to reject a 'presidential appointment'. He did when he was appointed deputy vice chancellor of Kenyatta University in 1987. He was busy building the Moi University School of Environmental Studies.

He quit the police force as a senior officer when he was due for promotion. Independence came with opportunities for educated Kenyans to replace colonial officers. The force offered a ready income to relieve costs for his elder brother who was paying school fees for his other siblings. He recalls his elder brother with gratitude, knowing the present is a child of the past.

COO has hundreds of publications to his name, with a curricular vitae as rich as that of Education CS Prof George Magoha. The two are among top-grade professors, way above the 8-4-4 generation.

Born in 1942, the year the colonial government assassinated Ojijo Oteko, Okidi studied in the US in the 1960s, when such adventures were rare. America SDA church stands in Okidi's village in memory of Ojijo Oteko's US adventure, which is how COO knew about US education.

With Ojijo Oteko, they are alumni of Maseno, sorry The Maseno School.  The emphasis is deliberate: COO repeated Standard 8 at Ongalo Intermediate School in Karachuonyo, to get a ticket to The Maseno School. This was his gateway to US, first at Alaska Methodist University, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The naughty boy joined Maseno School in 1959 through sheer grit. Naughty is deliberately used, drawing from an incident in Okidi's memoirs. Then Sandard 8 graduate, while waiting for Kenya African Primary Examination results, teamed up with two others for mischief. They had been denied a chance to dance in the neighbouring village of Wagwe Wasome. They stepped out behind the homestead, armed with stones. They aimed the stones at the pressure lump, the source of light during that dark Karachuonyo night.

Instead of fleeing the wrath of dancers, the offenders hid behind a house in the homestead, as mob sped along their home path baying for the kill. One of the mischief makers was Sinyo Awaro, who became a neighbourhood 'terrorist'.

Sinyo would steal and slaughter a bull on his own. Sinyo graduated into crime, while COO took the highway to academia.  Choices had consequences even then.

Young people will find this book a huge inspiration, which is COO's purpose.

In Pursuit of Excellence: Memoirs of Professor Charles Odidi Okidi is available at Prestige and University of Nairobi bookshops.