I remember vividly this particular afternoon in late 1972, in the offices of the Daily News as I sat down next to this man who was asking me funny questions about my name.
“General Ulimwengu?” he was asking. “No’,” he said, “that won’t do in a column’.”
I protested that was the name given me by my father and I had no reason to change it. At which he asked me, “How does your mum pronounce it?” and I replied, “Something close to Jenerari’,” and he said, “Then that is your name,” but it will have to be “Jenerali” to be proper.
It was Philip Ochieng, who died a few days ago in Kenya. He was looking for someone he would leave his column The way I see it, to, which he had turned into an institution. It was a must read, especially by the “illuminati” of Dar, a small, informal, ill-defined group of would-be thinkers who met quite often over beer and Konyagi to right the wrongs of the world in the heyday of Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa and African liberation.
That is the genesis of my Swahilised name, and after I’d used it for a couple of months, it became my official name, such that even as I was getting my next passport, no one required me to swear an affidavit for name change. It was taken for granted because I had earned something of a status, the man who had taken over from PO.
Philip was indeed an institution. Every Friday his writing would get the Dar “elite” chattering. For the small community of expatriates and the locals who dared to think independently outside of the “Nyerere” box, Friday evening was time for “communion” wherein drink-ups would be flavoured by aficionados who tried to grapple with the kind of English Philip used, and the avantgarde notions he espoused about the brotherhood (and sisterhood, he would add) of man, the power of the intellect and the debilitating effects of the “reactionaries” in Nyerere’s, government which would be pretty much everyone except “Mwalimu” himself.
Erudite to a fault, he still seemed to have gone through world universities without obtaining a degree, for some reason or other. He had been to the US on the Tom Mboya airlift, (alongside Barack Obama Snr) where indiscipline had his studies discontinued, and then had gone to Sorbonne, where he said he was caught up in the May 1968 “revolution” of students and workers against Charles de Gaulle’s long rule and had him expelled from France, and later, (after he had been in Tanzania) tried East Germany, which he left with a good understanding of the language of Baron Wolfgang von Goethe, but no graduation papers.
Philip was for a long time a committed Bohemian who did not believe in God, a logical enough thing for someone who thought so much and questioned everything he came in contact with. He carried his atheism on his sleeve, which caused some consternation among some of his admirers.
His particular passion was language, from Dholuo to English, to French and German, seemingly loving all three equally. He managed to find some esoteric relationship, for instance, between Dholuo and some Nordic language!
He could be arrogant too, especially with those poor Britishers who hadn’t mustered the Queen’s English. He would shout from the other end of the newsroom, “Hey, Macaulay, who taught you English? This is just no way to treat our own language, the tongue of Chaucer and Old Albion; come here, I’ll teach you!”
To paraphrase him, it was not his duty to lower his writing to a level where he could be understood by those who did not want to take the bother of learning. Rather it was the responsibility of those who were deficient in linguistic skills to bring themselves up to scratch.
He could be abrasive to a worrying extent. Such as when he attacked Sidney Poitier, the American screen star when he and Harry Belafonte were in town on Nyerere’s invitation. The slightly built Philip just pointed his crooked index finger at the African American hunk, and volunteered to inform him, “You are an Uncle Tom, you are a disgrace. You do whatever the Hollywood slavers tell you to do.”
Some of us were cringing as Sidney seethed and threatened to destroy “this little man.”
Eventually, when Philip was leaving Tanzania because the establishment could stand him no more, I wrote a farewell piece in his erstwhile column. It was titled “Be thou ambassadeur de la revolution,” which mission he obviously betrayed after he became Daniel arap Moi’s mouthpiece in the latter’s war against the Paul Muites, Gitobu Imanyaras, and James Orengos, who Philip derisively dubbed “the Young Turks.”
I have no way of knowing whether he later rued that commerce with the Devil, though he could not have missed the screaming irony of the “Uncle Tom” label plastered all over him by his compatriots for entering a Faustian compact with Moi...
Go well, Philip, with your warts and faults, a lot of times you wowed us! May you lie in the bosom of Okot P’Bitek, Tennessee William and Oscar Wilde, (y)our comrades!
Jenerali Ulimwengu is now on YouTube via jeneralionline tv. E-mail: [email protected]