On the public front, career church historian Gilbert Edwin Meshack Ogutu (GEM) was a revered leader, scholar and religious man.
His larger than life public image helped to conceal his pain of losing his first wife and his struggle with diabetes that saw him in and out of hospital in his last days on earth.
Prof Ogutu, GEM to his peers and friends, was an active Anglican Church member that documented its century-old journey in Kenya in a booklet released in 2017 during centennial celebrations at All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi.
This, he did with fervour thanks to his special interest in the church as a catalyst that promotes virtues that perpetuate peace, inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue.
But it was his love for academia that stood out from his dedication to teaching and churning out academic papers and books published locally and abroad.
Prof Ogutu’s body was found at his Wambasa home in Imbo on February 16. A postmortem result is expected in weeks.
He started off as a tutorial fellow in 1978 rising to become an associate professor at the University of Nairobi (UoN), an institution he associated with excellence.
According to his resume, Prof Ogutu never shied away from speaking his mind on a variety of topics that touched his line of specialisation. It was this generosity with his ‘rich knowledge’ that generated debate among students and fellow lecturers in responses to his academic discourses.
The scholar never feared controversy and would openly tackle issues affecting society, including retrogressive cultural practices and religion.
He published 101 academic papers, including one titled The Poor is not Scared of Death in which he tackled the HIV/Aids pandemic that was ravaging fishing communities around Lake Victoria.
In this paper published 2006, Prof Ogutu pushed for social cohesion and equity to help deal with the disease among the fishing communities while also condemning retrogressive cultural practices such as wife inheritance that, he noted, was fuelling the spread of the disease.
At that time, discussions about HIV/Aids in Western Kenya were a taboo for some. His paper also advocated for the property rights of widows within the highly patriarchal Luo community.
A review of his scholarly work further shows Prof Ogutu advocated for fairness in church, openly condemning clergy men and women who amassed wealth at the expense of the congregants.
To address this subject, he published a paper titled Rich Preachers and Poor Converts: Taking Hypocrisy, Corruption and Devil Worship Seriously in 2001.
Eulogising Prof Ogutu, environmental architect and scholar Alfred Omenya said on many occasions he disagreed with ‘GEM’ during their arguments on religion and philosophy.
“Nevertheless, he continued being my mentor and friend when I started teaching at the University of Nairobi were he had been for decades. He introduced me to the Senior Common Room,” Prof Omenya recalls.
Unlike many in academia who hide behind their closed office curtains spending days on end at the senior common room, Prof Ogutu went into the village where he chaired boards of management of two secondary schools and also spent 12 years serving as the Luo Council of Elders secretary-general.
It was during his stint at the Council that he asked prominent sons and daughters from the Luo community to invest at home.
“In Luo culture, when a son visits his father’s home, it is in order to build a house for him as he can’t sleep in his father’s house,” he said, directly referring to former US president Barrack Obama.
In his widely read book, ‘The Land is Dying’, Prof Ogutu supported a return to the ‘soil’, saying even well-educated and wealthy Christians can ‘still remain a Luo in thought and practice, aka born-again traditionalists’.
He warned against negating this norm, saying it exposed one to attacks that resulted in death from chira (curse).
“Inconsiderate variation of chike (social protocol) because one is educated or rich has led to loss of many lives in Luo society…. Our ancestors were not mad to have insisted on total adherence to these norms and values”.
Prof Ogutu’s peers and former students describe him as a man of great wit and humour.
His addresses would be littered with carefully crafted jokes which often left many in stitches.