His political analysis was often incisive, even abrasive sometimes, writes Stephen Ssenkaaba.
It takes courage to publicly come out about a painful, wasting disease as cancer. More so if you are the sufferer. But for people like Jerry Okungu, a leading East African media consultant and commentator who died of prostate cancer last week, courage is not a particularly alien trait.
He embraced his own disease and all its effects with fervor. He spoke about it, as if it were a familiar friend, except in more poignant terms. “In May 2011, —I was diagnosed with prostate cancer at an advanced stage, he wrote on his website: http://www.jerryokungu.org/my-story. shtml.
“Because the disease comes like “a thief in the night”, it is imperative that all men get regular medical examination… the price you pay for failing to go for regular prostate exams is shock and devastation…” he wrote on May 26, 2011.
He later described the news of his diagnosis as “the most harrowing moment” in his family’s life. “We did at first not know how to handle it because in our family, we had never gone through this experience…” he said of the effect the news of his cancer had on his family.
Okungu was under no illusion about the devastating effects of cancer seeing as it was diagnosed quite late. Sometimes he perhaps feared for his own life (hence the telling Biblical allusion of the disease coming like a thief in the night).
And yet he soldiered on, traversing the world for treatment, researching about the disease and educating all who cared to listen. By the time of his death on Tuesday, January 21 at the MP Shah hospital in Nairobi, he had collected a wealth of information on cancer. Okungu turned this into a massive awareness campaign on the killer disease.
On his website, he shared personal experiences, medical tips and useful resources on fighting cancer. His newspaper columns in The Star and New Vision newspaper sometimes told of quest for a recovery that he never quite achieved.
“I left Nairobi three weeks ago to seek further treatment for my prostate cancer in America’s advanced cancer institutions,” he wrote in New Vision of 2011.
He later launched the Jerry Okungu Prostate Cancer Forum, which has since turned into a fund. The campaign aims at raising funds for treatment and screening of cancer for those that cannot afford it.
His death, will hopefully give a chance for many people to live a longer, healthier life. Okungu gave life to many things in his lifetime from the media; to successful marketing ventures.
His political analysis was often incisive, even abrasive sometimes. He never shied away from thorny subjects if only to bring out pertinent issues.
According to his website http://www.jerryokungu.org/, Okungu cut his professional teeth as a marketer, having completed his postgraduate studies in communications for national development informatics and marketing at the institute of social studies in the Netherlands in 1985.
He subsequently served as head of marketing in several leading companies in Kenya including Eveready Batteries East Africa Ltd, The Nation media Group, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation before becoming a communications advisor for the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) office in Kenya.
At NEPAD Okungu took on advisory and advocacy roles as Andrew Kanyegirire, a colleague and friend there recounts. "He played a key role in advocating and publicising issues concerning the partnership and the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) particularly within the East African region,” Kanyegirire said, adding that Okungu represented a “core set of individuals that started telling the 'Africa Rising' story well before many charlatans jumped onto the bandwagon.”
Kanyegirire remembers a daring, sometimes outspoken man who stood for the truth. “I found him to be vocal, firm and yet also fair.
He did not mince his words and was critical where relevant, for instance in highlighting the failures of our leadership in East Africa. And yet, he would also highlight positives and offer solutions.
He did not criticise simply for the sake of it. He was good at getting messages across and he knew the region well,” Kanyegirire said.
From 1994 to 2000, Okungu played a key role in the growth of the media in East Africa. He helped in the launch of the East African newspaper in the region going on further to establish the international Advertising Association in Kenya in 1996 and the first World international Advertising Association in Kenya the following year.
He has served on several international and national and continental bodies including as member of the World Rotary President’s Media and Communication Advisory and the African Council for communication in Education.
Okungu also headed, the Kenya Journalist of the Year awards committee and served as Vice president of Public Relations Society of Kenya and was as a member of Marketing Society of Kenya and the East African Public Relations Association, the American Management Association and the Federation of the African Public Relations Association.
He has consulted widely for the media and public Relations across different parts of Africa.
According to his website, Okungu was born in Awasi, Kochongo village in Central Nyanza, Kenya. He was 61. He attended Wang’anga, Nyangoma and Awasi Primary School before joining Kisumu Day High School in Kisumu.He attended and graduated from the University of Nairobi in 1976 with a degree in Arts (Education).
Because of his inspirational work, Okungu has touched many people. Ken Okoth, an admirer of Okungu said will become a volunteer for the African Cancer Foundation in memory of his fallen hero and mentor.
Kanyegirire says Okungu’s awareness campiang on prostate cancer opened his eyes to the disease.
“More recently, I for one got to know more about prostate cancer when he started the Jerry Okungu Prostate Cancer Forum.His message was very clear - he called upon more and more men to go for regular prostate cancer exams,” he says.
Such was the impact of Okungu.