Tribe of mentors: Reflections from a visit to Mzee Ongoya's abode


****** A select group of students had the privilege of visiting  Mwalimu  Elisha Zebedee Ongoya's home, these were their reflections from the mentorship experience***********

We often seek a guiding hand to show us where to go and stand, to shape our work, our goals and our views. But mentorship is more than this. It asks us to become a witness to stories of both old and new. It is not a map that tells us where to go and stop, or what to do or what to chase. It is a gift of stories told by those who walked the path of old and faced the challenges we face. It is a tale, of how to win and how to fail of how to work and how to dream. It is not a simple guide or rule that tells us what to learn at school, or what to choose or what to deem. In legal studies, rarely do we find a mentor who opens our mind and tells us of his journey's spell.

At Mukoko, in Kakamega's heart, a band of students got to partake in an experience so divine. Mzee Elisha Zebedee Ongoya, brave and smart, with words that pierce and motivate spoke to them with zeal benign. We present you these treasures so rare, of how he taught them and made them dare and we hope they inspire your aspiration to seek wisdom, serve the cause as a lawyer and scholar and to shine the light with your dedication.

 Of Fate

George Gor

Who we meet—intentionally or by mere happenstance—greatly impacts who we eventually become. It is undeniable that human beings depend on each other and other beings or things for their nourishment and survival. Thus, mentorship in a capitalistic world builds what we now call 'networks' that allow us to conjure relationships beyond friendship and family. The bond it creates between a senior member and junior member of the bar, a senior law student and a junior law student or in peer-peer mentorship and so on, contributes to the immense growth of great lawyers. It is no wonder that legal interns (or pupils) who are cut from the same cloth as their mentors due to the rigorous training end up becoming just like them. A clear depiction of this is Mzee Elisha Ongoya and Prof Githu Muigai. Their outstanding art in the legal profession has led them to teach generations of lawyers, both insisting to the classes they teach that 'they only need 5 lawyers' and that 'most of the students are best fit to be butcher men'.

Mzee Ongoya and Prof Muigai, through close interaction and engagements, respectively have revealed small bits of themselves that lead to the simple conclusion to 'always leave room for fate'. Fate—the belief that our life is out of our immediate control and is pre-planned—contributes significantly to our lives (whether personal or professional careers). It is not only values imbued in oneself: hard work, resilience, intentionality etc, that shape us but also the willingness to ultimately determine who we learn from, what character these people exude and their value systems. Eventually, we end up becoming just like them.

The journey of mentorship in the legal profession is beautiful, inspired with awe and leaves a great impact in the coming generations of lawyers. There's nothing to really pray for in the legal profession (and any other really) than having a good mentor. So find yourself a good one and leave the rest to fate!

The power of hope

Marion Joy

When we arrived at the Ongoya residence, we spotted a floating faucet-like water fountain in his living room. At the time, we didn't know what it was called. Everyone was trying to figure out what it was and how it works. I later asked Mzee about the tap, his response was; 'think about the good things in life'.To him, these things are possible. This message was coming from someone who grew up in abject poverty, but was determined to fight it. And so, he fought, with hope on one hand and education on the other. Today, it can be said that Mzee successfully fought poverty.

Hope, in the words of Michelle Obama, is the belief that something better is always possible if you're willing to work and fight for it.[i]Hope is very deliberate and audacious. It is the will to not park beside whatever unfavourable circumstance you may find yourself in, as Mzee often emphasises. Mzee refused to be a victim of poverty, and other unfortunate circumstances he's been in. Hope is also the belief that in due time, our dreams will see light of day, and perhaps, they will be more than we asked or imagined. Mwalimu says the future is ours for the taking and I believe him.

Back to the First Love

Lewis Morara

"…When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so." ~Chinua Achebe

Mzee Ongoya posits that the real cause of the rise in mental health and related issues is failing to allow parental authority and religion to take root in our lives. He portrays our current generation as one with a rebellious and questioning nature that has ultimately forgotten their first love. The redefining norms and cultural heritages of what is and what has always been held as sacred is attributable to what plagues our current generation. This, of course, is purely anecdotal. Ideally, our parents have always played an integral part in our upbringing and have always made a point of having us join a religion in an attempt to know our maker. This remains an integral part of our lives till a certain age when we start to question. We question not only the role our parents have played in our lives but also the need and relevance of religion and a maker. In most cases we no longer feel the need to submit to either authority. This presents a void that needs to be filled. The void many will often be filled by submission to alternative authorities. These will range from academic theories to popular social media influences. Often, these alternative authorities will fall short due to their inadequacies having not been 'tried' and 'tested'. Thus, is it time we perhaps went back to our first love?

The Feminis(m/t)

Marion Joy

A heated debate arose on why some women do not want being told to watch out for rapists within society, after Mzee asked us why he was shunned for suggesting the same. The women in the room did not have the same opinion on the matter, unlike the men, who did not seem to understand why this was a debate in the first place; after all, rapists are terrible and should be avoided!

In many 'feminist' debates, men and women do not agree, and women are barely ever saying the same thing. Mzee says that men and women and women have always partnered to solve the world's complex problems. I try believing him. I believe he also tries to understand my side of the story.

Mzee once said, 'I have de-emotionalised, I am an animal of reason'. Overtime, I have seen the sense in de-emotionalising. Emotions often prevent us from listening, and when we speak from emotions, we come across as combative, which triggers a defensive response from the equally emotional people we are speaking to. But again, why should the person not be full of emotion? Take rape for instance, how do you ask people, especially women, not to be emotional about it? As Mzee often says, life is not abstract, life is real: the reality is that such issues trigger some reflex emotions. So, what happens when both sides of the story are true?

In spite of such difficult questions, Mzee insists on always concluding with a message of hope. Women do face a different set of obstacles than men, which seem to be an issue of gender imbalance. However, women can achieve anything they put their minds to against all odds.

Competence and Confidence

Marion Bii

I have always grappled with what success means. I often ask most people that I come across what their definition of success is. As such, Mwalimu's definition of this term was of great interest to me. According to Mzee Ongoya, success is simply the ability to overcome hurdles. This definition is so simple yet so practical. The nature of life is that it is made up of a myriad of small hurdles. The accomplishment of any of these hurdles whether colossal or minute truly is success. It is no wonder that this current generation has coined the phrase, 'a win is a win' in an attempt to acknowledge even the 'small successes'.How then does one succeed?

Throughout the mentorship weekend, we were privileged to pick nuggets of what makes one successful. That first, one needs to face life's crises with confidence. In Mwalimu's words, you have to look at a crisis in the eye (mundu khumundu). Second, that we should choose hope over fear. He was keen to address the fact that most of us tread rather carefully on eggshells of fear. He reminded us that humanity is simply meant to live on hope as this is our fuel to achieve great things. Third, he emphasised on the place of competence. He said that no one can risk losing a competent person in today's job market. That to invest in competence and excellence will go a long way in creating room for you even in areas where one risks being discriminated against for one reason or another. Lastly, Mzee emphasised on resilience and the ability to handle pressure. Mwalimu kept saying that life is real, it is not abstract. That life in its very nature is full of hurdles. Success is therefore only achievable where one is able to withstand life's heat and pressure and bounce back after numerous setbacks, slowdowns and failures. This is what success is, it is a work in progress.

Being fundamentally good

Ouma Ochieng'

The term 'fundamentally good' refers to the belief that humans possess a natural moral compass, which allows us to exhibit empathy and kindness towards others. This notion suggests that we are naturally inclined to do good and make positive contributions to society. Despite arguments that humans are inherently selfish and driven by self-interest, studies have indicated that acts of kindness and selflessness are prevalent in all cultures and societies.

However, being fundamentally good does not imply that we are faultless or immune to making errors in judgment. As humans, we are imperfect and susceptible to mistakes. Nevertheless, being fundamentally good entails that we endeavor to do what is right, especially when it is arduous or inconvenient.

Moreover, being fundamentally good does not require universal agreement on ethical issues. Instead, it demands that we respect every individual's dignity and worth and collaborate towards shared objectives that benefit everyone. It necessitates acknowledging our common humanity and behaving accordingly.

In summary, the concept of being fundamentally good highlights our inherent capacity for kindness and compassion. By striving to be good, we can create a better world for ourselves and future generations. Let us embrace our inherent goodness and work towards a brighter future for all.

Parental Responsibility and Religion

Anne Kariuki

We outgrow a lot of things, almost everything. Clothes, toys, school, habits, interests and preferences. However, even at 50 or 70, we can never outgrow our parents. We remain their children till death, and they, our parents well...till death.

During the mentorship, Mwalimu maintained, that parental and religious authority is integral to our growth, progress and prosperity. We ought to always submit to our parents, with love, respect and absolute devotion in all circumstances and at all times. Regardless of how good or bad they were and continue to be, respecting and appreciating them is non-negotiable. Even at their worst, we should not disregard them or 'cut them off'. We should not decimate ties with our parents or turn our backs on them especially when we achieve great feats and are at the epitome of our success. Whether they contributed to our success and got us to where we are, remains immaterial. They are our parents and by this sole virtue, we are indebted to them for a lifetime.

On religious authority, he emphasised that acknowledging the presence and power of God cannot be understated or brushed aside in the scheme of things. A higher power that not only influences and informs our belief system and core values but also defines our purpose and the path meant for us.

Why Pragmatism?

Taita Kibet

"Life is not academic and life is not abstract, Life is real and practical." ~Mr. E.Z. Ongoya

In a heated discussion on whether the oppression of women still subsists, out of my wisdom or lack thereof, I interjected with a question on whether a boyfriend or spouse would be entitled to have a say on the dressing of their better half. Before Marion Joy could bite my head off, Mzee E.Z. Ongoya grounded the debate by employing real-life scenarios and all of a sudden, the raging debate seemed to have come to a grinding halt with the discussants reaching a point of consensus.

Pragmatism is a theory of philosophy that approaches a matter with the stance that there will always be changing needs and circumstances but the melee there is a fact or truth that does apply to provide a solution to the problem.[ii] It therefore is not limited to just being flexible with changing times but always being open to solutions that work no matter how adverse it may be.

It is important to understand that we may always get some curve balls coming our way, after all change is one of the few constants in life. Therefore, as aspiring advocates, academics and everything in between we must be open to the myriad of solutions of what works, what does not. To live a truly fulfilling life we need to let ourselves be open to new ideas or ways of doing things, so be a Tabula Rasa, and do not crucify yourself to an idea or relic that no longer work. When the time comes to provide solutions, focus on the real issues and not the not in abstract ones.

Declaring the End from the Beginning

Lewis Morara

To succeed you must have four things: Confidence, preparation and foreshadow and if all the above are absent, leave it to fate…~E.Z. Ongoya

In one of the discussions with Mzee, he stated that isolation of generational problems that can be resolved to reduce the bedeviling issues in our nation arose. In their time, one of the problems they faced was suppression of members of the public whenever they sought to stand and speak against authoritarian leaders. While it is human to be individualistic and only care about oneself, we need to develop the capacity look at society, where one grew up or where they are now and identify the problems facing or generation like the normalisation and justification of corruption by people in power. By painting who the enemy is, the image of what is being fought against is clearer and there is enough reason to wake up.

Everything that has a beginning will always have an end – a good example would be our university life. When we set out as first year law undergrads, one way to make things easier for oneself would be to visualise the end from the beginning. After all the sleepless nights in law school it is fair to presume that in our own way we all want to leave a mark in the world.

After identifying the problem, then arm yourself with confidence as it inspires confidence in other, prepare yourself and see the end from the beginning, and when opportunity presents itself finish what you had started and make your own name.

[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRakrYYtEbs, from minute 4:05

[ii] International Journal of Creative Research Thoughts (IJCRT) Pratima Chamling Rai et al: Pragmatism and its contribution to education (2020) < https://ijcrt.org/papers/IJCRT2003258.pdf> Last accessed on April 4, 2023. 

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