In 1981, Daniel arap Moi had been president of Kenya for three years, having taken over after the death in office of Jomo Kenyatta.
Kenya had one university — the University of Nairobi. Its education system was still the one the British had left behind at independence, nearly 20 years earlier.
Then Moi had a dream. He wanted to shake up things a little bit, actually a lot. He wanted a second university and a completely new education system.
To take his education dream forward, Moi constituted the Presidential Working Party in 1981 that led to the establishment of the 8-4-4 education system after collecting views from many Kenyans during visits across the country.
Moi, who started his presidency as a nationalist, dreamed of an education system that would foster national unity, strengthen mutual social responsibility, accelerate industrial and technological development as well as enhance lifelong learning and individual growth. He favoured a home grown system as opposed to what the British had left.
Earlier, in 1976, the Gachathi Report had recommended that the country needed a second university in order to produce the required human resource capacity to stimulate industrial take-off and spur the much-needed socio-economic development. This ideal, the Gachathi Committee noted, could not be achieved with only one institution of higher learning in Kenya.
It was to take the recommendation of this report forward that in 1981, Moi brought in Colin Mackay, a Canadian educationist, to help him shape up his plans for the establishment of a second university. Dr Mackay was to chair an 18-man commission.
Prof Douglas Odhiambo was his deputy and effectively the highest ranking Kenyan in the team. Dr Mackay became the titular head of this commission while Prof Odhiambo embodied and personified its Kenyan identity. The commission toured many parts of the country, listened to the views and aspirations of Kenyans on the education system they envisaged.
They eventually submitted a report to the President, not just recommending the establishment of a second university, but also restructuring the entire education system giving us the 8-4-4 model. The changes saw the scrapping of the ‘A’ level classes, Forms Five and Six, and simultaneously adding an extra year to primary and university education.
With the drastic recommendations that the committee presented to the President, Moi could not imagine a more qualified person than Prof Odhiambo to spearhead the establishment of the university whose creation it had recommended. He appointed him the first vice-chancellor of Moi University in 1984.
Prof Odhiambo became head of a virtually non-existent institution as it did not have a single student, staff or structures. Prof Odhiambo took 83 students from the University of Nairobi’s department of Forestry, put them on a bus and drove down to Eldoret and pitched three tents on the lawns of Kaptagat Hotel on the outskirts of the town. This is how he started Moi University. With two tents serving as lecture rooms and one becoming his office, Prof Odhiambo started teaching his cherished students deep in Kaptagat forest. The former Permanent Secretary for Education, Prof James ole Kiyapi, was one of these pioneer students.
From here, the university moved to Kesses to sit on 3,000 acres of land from where it has grown and given birth to institutions such as Maseno University, Masinde Muliro University and the University of Eldoret. Prof Odhiambo’s vision for Moi University was that it be a world class technology-driven institution. He established the faculties of engineering, information sciences, agriculture, forestry and wildlife resources, applied sciences, environmental studies, medicine as well as social sciences. To date, Moi is ranked as one the finest learning institutions in Africa thanks to the solid foundation he laid.
Prof Odhiambo, who died of a stroke this week aged 89 years, remained a true scholar and dedicated all his breath to university service. After his retirement from Moi as VC, he served as chairman of council at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology and a member of council for Rongo University.
Born in Uriri, Migori, Prof Odhiambo went to Maseno School and Alliance High before joining Makerere University where he studied Education between 1948 and 1950. He obtained his Doctor of Philosophy in Chemistry from Bristol University in the UK.
A man of many firsts, he was the founding Chancellor of the Technical University of Mombasa. His academic odyssey through various universities lasted nearly 50 years from the time he joined the Royal Technical College, now the University of Nairobi, in the late 1960s.
A giant of a man, Prof Odhiambo flew to the highest peaks of achievement as effortlessly as a bird. Now he has flown to heaven.
Mr Oluoch is the Director Privately Sponsored Students Programme, Rongo University.
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