Growing up in Kaswanga, a village on the remote Kenyan island of Rusinga, during colonial rule, Duncan Okoth Okombo saw how his Suba people were losing their cultural identity thanks to the rise of the English language. Okombo’s mother tongue was Omusuba but this was dying as people learned English. He was through these experiences inspired to preserve indigenous African heritage through academia with his main focus being on educating children in their native languages.
Becoming a professor of linguistics and literature at the University of Nairobi, he would find the Kenyan Sign Language (KSL) Research Project in 1991. Thanks to this project, the KSL was widely adopted across Kenya, giving the deaf community in the East African country the opportunity to overcome incredible challenges and chase their goals with even more fervor.
Okombo implemented similar projects in other African countries including Tanzania, Swaziland, South Africa and Uganda before his death in November 2017.
On Monday, Google Doodle honored the Kenyan sign language creator on what would have been his 71st birthday. Here are four interesting facts about the Kenyan author regarded as the founder of the scientific study of sign language in Africa and one of the leading scholars of sign language studies in the world.
Born on an island home to one of Kenya’s founding fathers
Okombo was born on Rusinga Island on November 8, 1950. The island is famous for being the home of one of Kenya’s founding fathers Tom Mboya. Okombo, who is proud to have been born on that island, was raised by his aunt and foster mother. A proud Luo and Suba and an only child, Okombo would help his grandfather look after his cattle, with the two mostly talking about their Lou heritage.
It was this and other experiences already mentioned that got Okombo interested in languages at an early age. With a desire to become a teacher, he paid close attention to his education, studying at Kenyatta College from 1971 to 1974 and then obtaining his Secondary Teachers Certificate. He earned a scholarship to the University of Nairobi, where he received his B.A (1977), M.A (1979) and PhD in Linguistics (1987), according to Google Arts and Culture. He became the youngest professor to present the university’s inaugural lecture.
He published one of the first novels in a Kenyan language
While pursuing his linguistics doctorate in 1983, Okombo published Masira ki Ndaki (“Misfortune is Inevitable”) in Dholuo. It is seen as one of the first novels published in the Kenyan language. And after founding the Kenyan Sign Language Research Project at the University of Nairobi, Okombo published over 30 scientific publications on the structure, vocabulary, and sociological properties of the language of deaf Kenyans, Google Arts and Culture said.
Not too long after, schools, hospitals, churches, courtrooms and the media as well as other organizations started implementing the Kenyan Sign Language.
He became a pioneer of the Nilotic language
Okombo is remembered as a pioneer of the Nilotic language, including Dholuo, of the Luo community of Kenya and Tanzania. He did so while at the University of Nairobi, where he did not only become the Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences but was also Chairman of the Department of Linguistics and Literature. The Kenyan professor also helped further the research and reach of indigenous African languages and got engaged in creating guidelines on language policy in Africa while working with UNESCO and government institutions. He also helped Malawi develop the formulation of a national language policy.
He owned only one car all his life and was a great dancer
The father of three children, Okombo loved classic European cars. A white 1973 Peugeot 504 saloon car (KLB 868) was the only car he owned all his life, according to Google Arts and Culture. The Kenyan educator and author was also a great dancer and loved rhumba music. He believed that dance helps build confidence and is one of the best conversation starters.
While celebrating his life and legacy following his death in 2017, Dr. James Oranga, a journalism teacher at the University of Nairobi, said Okombo has left an intellectual vacuum that will be difficult to fill, The Standard reported.
“Like some other great men who have gone before him, his story emphasizes the greatness of education. With education, all of us can conquer our obstacles at birth,” said Oranga.