The extraordinary career of COO, sensei columnist in rumpled jeans

The veteran American broadcaster Larry King interviewed astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson recently and asked him one of the more obvious questions that one would ask the African-American director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York.

Who were his role models growing up, since physics as a field is not exactly teeming with “looks-like-me” options for aspiring kids of his ethnicity?

To which DeGrasse Tyson replied that the point of role models is that you have to pick your own based on the qualities in them that you admire, and that admiration transcends such superficial details as race or gender or age or even being alive.

After all, one of his personal heroes is Isaac Newton, the brilliant if extremely dead English scientisthilosopher of the 17th and 18th centuries. Never underestimate the wisdom of a man who has spent his life collecting space-themed waistcoats and ties.

This year has been characterised by heartbreaking shifts in my media pantheon. David Letterman and Craig Ferguson have announced their retirement from American late night television, signalling a significant drop in the supply of grown up acerbic wit and tomfoolery. Stephen Colbert is leaving the Colbert Report.

Charles Onyango-Obbo formally announced his departure from the Nation Media Group in his article titled “Restless Ear-to-the-Ground goes on the road journey to rediscover Mother Africa,” which ran in the Monitor, because: where else?

A friend warned me when I was just starting out with The EastAfrican that Charles has allegedly never missed a deadline, and he submits to several publications every week in addition to his day job. In other words, this was the standard by which all we other peons were going to fail.

Maybe it is an urban legend, who knows, and frankly who cares. The fact is that Charles makes it look easy and even manages to bring his sense of humour along for the ride no matter what the topic. He has done so for decades.

As someone who grew up secure in the knowledge that he was one of the writers whom I could depend upon to show up every week to tell me what is going on in the world, I have come to appreciate the work that goes into such steadfastness. It gives a rather severe meaning to the concept of “duty.”

Consider the practice of weekly column writing. There are 52 weeks in a year and not all of them are created equal. Writers have bad days, bad weeks, bad years. We lose laptops and get our tablet computers stolen or confiscated, we travel and forget to carry the charger, we get stranded in the middle of country where even the bravest Internet connection fears to tread.

We run out of inspiration and motivation. We regularly make stupid decisions. And at the end of the day, we live and die by the knowledge that deadlines just don’t care. This is not a metier for thin-blooded types.

The thing about Charles is that he is so deceptively modest and unassuming it took me a while to catch on to his way of teaching the subtler lessons in the craft. In all the years I have worked for him, we have met precisely twice.

The first time I walked past him in the lobby of a Dar hotel. Although he looks like his pictures in photo ops and online, he certainly doesn’t come across as a powerful executive in one of the world’s more respected media houses. He’s just a guy in slightly rumpled jeans radiating calm and inviting confidences from presidents and paupers alike until they eventually remember they are talking to a journalist.

For a guy who has been there and done that and seen everything besides, the joviality can be surprising. The vocational, public service-oriented aspect of journalism demands that one finds the constructive thing to say, the humane angle, the alternative perspective, a way to tease out a smile or a chuckle where possible.

As you can imagine, this philosophy and praxis is decidedly hard to live by. Yet he makes it look easy. Because that’s what masters at their craft do.

There are only two pieces of aice he has ever given me directly, both of them wise of course, but I will only share the one for the benefit of all you hopeful young men and women who e-mail to ask for help.

Charles likes to remind me to be a “good gaw” in that thick, lazy Ugandan drawl of his, by which he means “keep giving them hell, kid.” He probably says that to all the baby scribes he has adopted and groomed over his long career, even if we all know he set the bar a bit too high since not everyone can get away with the feats of quietly determined rebelliousness that he performed in his heyday.

If you don’t mind, I would like to propose a toast. Let’s all raise our favourite tabloid and cup of organically-grown East African tea to one Charles Onyango-Obbo: Journalist par excellence, beard enthusiast, technology addict, goodhearted man and pan-Africanist in spirit and in practice.

See you next week, same place, same time as always, for a good long while to come I hope. Cheers.

Thank you, Sensei.

Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report, E-mail:

SOURCE: The East African