The good, bad and ugly sides of Philip Ochieng’s life are human. That was my first thought after reading the first few chapters of Liz Gitonga’s biography of Philip Ochieng, The 5th Columnist: A Legendary Journalist. The journalist who awed me and stimulated my grammar senses in equal measure comes to life in one of the most brutally straightforward biographies I have ever read.
The book does not wax lyrical about Mr Ochieng, but instead paints him as he is, flaws and all, which makes for a very interesting, if not extremely disturbing read.
Interesting because his history is traced not just from his perspective, but from those of his peers as well, who often contradict what he says.
A case in point is when Ochieng alleges that Carey Francis , a Church Missionary Society evangelist and headteacher at Alliance, once drove all the way from Kikuyu to Luo Nyanza to look for him, a claim that one of his peers, lawyer Duncan Mindo, refutes, saying Carey was on his way to pick up other students as well.
The author backs Mindo’s claim by saying that records are available showing the letter Ochieng’ wrote the headteacher asking to be readmitted, which is full of “boyish confessions”.
Ochieng, says the author, invoked the name of God in every paragraph, a stark contradiction to his atheistic beliefs later in life that would see him write an article titled “Thank God I’m an Atheist”.
His colourful life as a journalist, not just through his eyes but also those of his colleagues at the time as well, all make for a very interesting read.
A disturbing read too, especially to learn that his love for whiskey far overrode his role as a father, with his children, although all grown now, lamenting having grown up with an absentee father.
To his credit, Ochieng said goodbye to the bottle in 2002 due to liver issues. He is today said to be a doting grandfather, perhaps to make up for time lost with his children.
If there is any quality that I found most attractive in this book, then it must be its rawness, how emotions boiling over and under the surface of the book and in between sentences are brought to life in ways that only a good journalist asking the right questions can.
One of the issues I had reading the book was how a Q&A session on being a good journalist was planted in the middle of the book. “Qualities of a good reporter”, for example, is planted right in the middle of the biography followed quickly by “What should be the attributes of a journalist?”, which I found quite out of place as this is textbook information that can be accessed by anyone at the simple tap of a phone or by a visit to the bookshop.
If at all it had to be included, seeing as the book is about a journalist, then it should have come at the very end, as an appendix, perhaps.
The cover design, too, is nothing to write home about. Are there no creative book designers in Kenya or are Kenyan publishing houses just unwilling to invest in hiring them?
I am a book lover and so poor packaging hardly puts me off but how about the man or woman who is considering buying such a book and refuses to touch it fearing being seen carrying around such an uninviting package?
Read the book if you want a real glimpse into the life of this legendary journalist. It is available in local bookshops for Sh1,000.