Benjamin Kipkorir, 1940-2015

Published: Monday 8 June, 2015

I was very saddened to learn of the passing of Dr Benjamin Kipkorir on 20 May 2015. Born in 1940 in Kapsowar, Elgeyo-Marakwet District in Kenya, Ben was the pre-eminent Marakwet intellectual. Through his work on the Marakwet, he made an enormous contribution to the history and anthropology of Kenya, championing oral historical techniques as well as ‘ethnography of the self’ in the days beforepostcolonial reflexivity had become established. Ben’s support and astute critique has been present from the very beginning of my academic career, when I arrived in Kenya as a PhD student. In fact, in 1981 he convened the conference at the University of Nairobi where I gave the very first paper on my Marakwet research, and his edited collection The Kerio Valley contained my first publication. It’s hard to believe that his kindly, wise, critical voice will no longer be heard.

Ben was a member of the Independence generation of Kenyan intellectuals and, like many others, completed his BA at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. The Makererian nationalists went on to become significant figures in independent Kenya, shaping the intellectual, economic and political horizons of their new country. Ben was very much a part of this, not only teaching at the University of Nairobi for many years but also becoming Chairman of Kenya Commercial Bank and eventually Kenya’s Ambassador to the USA between 1994 and 1997.

Ben completed his PhD in History at Cambridge in 1970, where he was supervised by Professor Ronald Robinson. His awareness of the power of colonial education systems in shaping Africa’s new leaders was illuminated in his thesis which focused on the history of Alliance High School and the shaping of Kenya’s African elitebetween 1926 and 1962. In 1963, whilst still a young undergraduate, Ben received funding from the Central Research Grants Committee of Makerere University to undertake a study of his own people. This fieldwork was conducted during his university vacations, under guidance from Frederick Welbourn, and was later supplemented with research completed during and after his PhD studies. Based on this work, Ben published his most significant book, The Marakwet of Kenya: A Preliminary Study. In his forward to the publication, Welbourn observed that Ben’s study constituted “the beginnings … of the sort of study of their own people which may come, in increasing volume, from graduates of the East African universities”.

In 2008 this invaluable study was republished, and I was delighted to be invited to write an introduction for the new edition. What struck me as I returned once again to his text was the freshness and continued relevance of Ben’s reflections on the role ofthe indigenous researcher and the politics of field research. His prescient remarks prefigured the more reflexive turn in anthropology that did not take place until the 1980s.

As a young PhD student doing fieldwork in the Endo location of Marakwet in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I carried The Marakwet of Kenya everywhere with me. It was guidebook, reference book and field bible all in one, and I checked my own observations against its accounts. Like the best guidebooks, it accompanied me up to a certain point and then left me to explore for myself, to find new terrain and alternative pathways amongst the rapidly changing social organisation and ritual life of the Marakwet. As fellow scholars of the region, I came to know Ben well over the years, and I owe him considerable thanks for his wise words and constructive criticism. We were not always in academic agreement on our assessments of the origins of the Marakwet people nor the verifiability of certain myths and oral histories, but I hope he would have agreed that we shared a deep commitment to recording, understanding and learning from the rich cultural, social and political life in Marakwet – a commitment that Ben’s own work helped to foster in me. For that I am deeply grateful.

He will be deeply missed by old friends, colleagues and scholars of Marakwet, as well as Kenya more broadly. How strange it is to think he will no longer be around when I pass through Nairobi. My condolences are with his family and friends. As the Marakwet saying has it, “Tare yu”, “finish it here”.

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