Arrogant Ochieng’ cannot hold candle to great writers like Ngugi and Mazrui

ali mazrui

(Prof Ali Mazrui, foremost scholar reknown in fields of History and Economics globally. Mazrui is one of the three mega professors from Africa, the others being Wole Soyinka and Ngugi. They are icons and have contributed immensely to African scholarship. PHOTO/ANTHONY KAMAU/FILE)

I read last week’s Saturday Nation story entitled “Ochieng’ has no regrets working for Moi” and was disappointed that the professor avoided answering most of the questions, choosing instead to embellish his side of the story.

That is vintage William Ochieng’ for you! He will go to great lengths to dismiss everyone apart from himself. While growing up, I enjoyed reading Prof Ochieng’s column in the Sunday Nation and admired his articulation, analyses and interpretation of issues. Although he sometimes came across as arrogant, his arguments were grounded in facts.

Prof Ochieng’ still remains academically arrogant, but facts have long ceased to be part of his forte and academic mantra. He has become more abrasive and assumes that scholarship in Kenya ended with him and those of his generation. There is evidence that he has read some of my commentaries in newspapers, but I doubt if he has read any of my books.

I was astonished to read Prof Ochieng’ tear into Kenya’s two most prominent scholars, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ali Mazrui, the way he did. I do not regard Ngugi as a tribalist simply because there were more Kikuyu students graduating with Masters degrees in Literature when he was head of the Department of Literature at the University of Nairobi.

They say those who live in glass houses should not throw stones, because Prof Ochieng’ has similarly been accused of presiding over a Luo hegemony when he headed Maseno University in the 1990s. It was said some meetings were conducted in Dholuo when the only non-Luo member of management was absent.

The role of the Mau Mau in the liberation of Kenya cannot be gainsaid and Prof Ochieng’ should not dismiss it as a mere peasant uprising, which he alleges had nothing to do with our independence. He should settle his personal scores with Ngugi without distorting history.

Prof Ali Mazrui is one of the three mega professors from Africa, the others being Wole Soyinka and Ngugi. They are icons and have contributed immensely to African scholarship. I was, therefore, taken aback when I read the unkind words Prof Ochieng’ was hurling at these great scholars.

Do not misunderstand me. Prof Ochieng’ is a good scholar, but his academic prowess cannot compare to Ngugi or Mazrui’s, for while Ochieng’ has remained Kenyan, writing about Yimbo and Kadimo ruothdoms (kingdoms) and Abagusii, Ngugi and Mazrui have engaged in greater questions and discourses such as decolonisation and statecraft in Africa and the wider world.

He may want to know that since he wrote the history of the Abagusii in the 1970s, other scholars have since emerged in Kenya, writing on other interesting subjects and not just migration. They include Maurice Amutabi, Eunice Kamaara, Godwin Murunga. John Mwaruvie, Kenneth Simala, Mary Nyangweso, Kennedy Onkware, Shadrack Nasong’o, Peter Odhiambo Ndege, Anne Nangulu, Adams Oloo, Frank Matanga and Oscar Mwangi.

The fascinating part of the interview is when Prof Ochieng’ was asked: “Prof Maurice Amutabi has projected you as old school, a defender of professors who use yellow notes to lecture since you yourself never mastered the Socratic method of teaching.” His rather shallow and mundane response was terse and dismissive and made no reference to me.

I got numerous calls on Saturday with a lot of my former students telling me how my Socratic style of teaching inspired them, while some friends and former students of Prof Ochieng’ confided in me how I was right about his lack of mastery of the Socratic method.

While studying at the University of Nairobi, I admired teachers like Prof Mwangi wa Githumo, Prof Korwa Adar, Prof Njuguna Ng’ethe and Dr Katete Orwa, who came to class with only chalk, and sometimes with cards. They had confidence in what they taught and we admired and applauded them.

Reading Prof Ochieng’s comments last Saturday, I was reminded of the time last year when he tore into me, with bare knuckles, for daring to speak about lecturers who read yellow or brown notes to students. In a piece mischievously entitled “Amutabi talks tough, but show us his books” in the Daily Nation, Prof Ochieng’ suggested he has published more books than me, which is inaccurate.

On that occasion, he came out as an unapologetic defender of bad lecturers who shamelessly embarrass those of us who prepare adequately before a lecture.

Many scholars know that Prof Ochieng’ loves nasty and ugly fights, especially in public. Like the vintage Ochieng’, he skipped the important topic of bad teaching, the subject of my article, and moved to a different subject on books, where he mistakenly thought he might have an advantage over me.

For the record, I have published more and better books. If he wants to contest this, our academic peers can be asked to compare our works. I wonder if he considers his little pamphlets titled First Word, Second Word and Third Word that were churned out of his polemical and unsubstantiated articles in the Sunday Nation, as books!

What is more, Prof Ochieng borrowed the titles of these little books from Taban Liyong’s book, The Last Word, which he tried to rubbish, unsuccessfully. This may explain why Liyong was at the receiving end from Prof Ochieng’ last week.

Prof Ochieng’ used some unsavoury words to describe Liyong, including calling him a liar and blaming him for being a refugee in Kenya.

The professor did not come out clean whether he is a user of yellow notes (brown notes) or not. He asked to be shown my books, and said that he would come to Nairobi to see them. Well, Prof Ochieng’ should be advised that in this day and age, my books are just a mouse click away.

He only needs to search for ‘Maurice Amutabi’ on any academic search engine and the books are there, ready for him to order.

To be kind, it may help the old professor to know that I am now in Kisii Town, less than 150km from Maseno, and he is free to come and see my books.

By Maurice N. Amutabi. Prof Amutabi is deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic and Student Affairs) at Kisii University.

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I enjoy reading about Africa. New books. Old books. By African writers. By non-African writers. Novel. History. Travel. Biographies. Autobiographies. Politics. Colonialism. Poetry.

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