Google fetes fallen UoN top linguist

Tuesday, November 9th, 2021 00:00 | By
A Google doodle of Prof Okoth Okombo, a Kenyan linguist and sign language researcher who died in 2017.017. PD/courtesy

University of Nairobi professor Okoth Okombo, who died in 2017, was yesterday feted by top search engine Google on what would have been his 71st birthday.

Google put out a doodle image of the linguistics giant founder and former director of the Kenyan Sign Language Research Project based at the University of Nairobi.

“Professor Okombo’s international contribution to the field of sign language is extraordinary, and he is one of the leading scholars of sign language studies in the world. In recognition of his accomplishments, this exhibit celebrates his life and legacy,” a statement on Google’s page stated.

His works have been archived at the National Museums of Kenya where he has been credited internationally in the field and study of sign language having worked hard to improve opportunities for deaf people.

Born on November 8 ,1950, Okombo grew up in the village Kaswanga of Rusinga Island located on the north of Lake Victoria. 

He was an only child and his aunt and foster mother raised him. He attended Kaswanga SDA Primary School and Mbita High School in Homa Bay County. 

He caught an interest in languages at an early age and wanted to pursue a career as a teacher.

As a member of the Omusuba tribe he raised during a time of British colonial rule, Okombo witnessed firsthand 

how the elevation of the English Language eroded his ethnic identity by pushing his vernacular language of Olusuba to near extinction. 

Young Okombo would help his grandfather to look after his cattle and they would spend hours talking about their Luo heritage. This inspired his lifelong mission to preserve indigenous African heritage.

He was awarded a scholarship to the University of Nairobi where he received his BA (1977), MA (1979) and PhD in Linguistics (1987).

Okombo, who worked with the university until his death in 2017, was the youngest professor to present its inaugural lecture. 

While pursuing his linguistics doctorate in 1983, Okombo published Masira ki Ndaki (Misfortune is Inevitable) in Dholuo, which is considered one of the first novels published in a local language.

He founded the Kenyan Sign Language Research Project at the University of Nairobi, and published over 30 scientific publications on the structure, vocabulary and sociological properties of the language of deaf Kenyans.

He served as chairman of the Department of Linguistics and Literature and later became Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Nairobi. 

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