Book Review

Philip Ochieng: The journey of a veteran journalist


The 5th Columnist by Philip Ochieng. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU

The Fifth Columnist, a Legendary Journalist, is one of the very few books written about the media scene and professionals in Kenya. It is certainly a book whose time has come or, indeed, which should have come earlier than its date of publication three years ago.

It tells the story of veteran journalist Philip Ochieng, who beat many odds to become one of the most celebrated media personalities of his time. He schooled deep in the village in present-day Awendo, Migori, and got admitted to the iconic Alliance High School, then under the unforgettable Carey Francis. We learn that Francis at one time had to go to Ochieng’s rural home to persuade him to go back and complete school.

Ochieng had been a smoker and fell into bad company, the writer of the biography, Ms Liz Gitonga-Wanjohi tells us, quoting a letter that Ochieng wrote to Francis. The first time he ran away from school, he had been caned — a colonial practice that is now outlawed — and had bolted in protest. Francis had to drive all the way from Kikuyu to Awendo to speak with Ochieng’s father to implore him to persuade his son to go back to school.

The author, who is also a journalist and academician, writes that a look at some correspondence revealed a boy who did not have it easy in high school.

In 1957, Ochieng’ wrote a letter asking to be re-admitted, promising to abandon his “foolish ways” and follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. How ironic for the youngster who decades later would swear by all printing presses in Kenya that God did not exist, and declared that he was an atheist. That is the Ochieng who had adopted some key tenets of Marxism that has labelled religion the “opium of the masses”.

Ochieng was among the top 10 performers at the end of his schooling at Alliance and got admission to a university in the US.

He was in the first student airlift to the US in 1959. The airlift was organised by politician and union leader Tom Mboya and his parliamentary colleagues, Gikonyo Kiano and Muriuki Njiiri, with the first flight involving 81 students. Ochieng was close to Mboya before and after the airlift.

“Ochieng was having lunchtime beer (typical of journalists then) at a place [then] called Siqueras, right opposite Jevanjee Gardens, when somebody told him that Mboya had been assassinated.

“He was devastated. Mboya was not just a friend but a mentor, the hand of providence in the Fifth Columnist’s life.”

But Ochieng never completed his studies in the US and elsewhere.

The author gives this issue quite some prominence, but stresses how the journalist’s achievements and writing have all along shown incredible erudition.

It is a worthy read for those who want to learn how the Kenyan media has evolved since the early post-independence days. Having worked elsewhere in the world – including Tanzania, Uganda and in Europe – Ochieng also shares views on the East African and global media scene.