48 years in the making
by John Bach
Samuel Ochiel Obura's journey to the May commencement ceremony at the University of Cincinnati took him nearly 8,000 miles and 48 years.
A native of Kenya, Obura finished his master's degree requirements in political science at UC in 1967. But due to an upheaval at the African Students Association, which helped sponsor his education, he had to cut short his pursuit of a doctoral degree to leave campus and return to Africa or risk losing his return ticket to his wife and children in east Africa.
Obura, then 34, had already spent several years away from his young family back home to pursue his bachelor's degree in Canada followed by his master's at UC.
Though he would go on to a long and successful career as a government official in Kenya, Obura left Cincinnati in such a rush that he never even took his trunk full of books, or — even more disheartening — the dissertation he had written on the "Constitutional Development in Kenya." His thesis had been sent away for binding when he departed, so he was forced to leave it behind and would spend the next half century longing for the important document.
It was, therefore, of little surprise when the 82-year-old's eyes lit up upon the surprise presentation of his 1967 thesis — only moments before also having the opportunity to walk in UC's commencement ceremony on May 1, 2015, another long-awaited celebration.
"I'm really happy to have it again," Obura said through a thick accent while clutching the custom-bound book and waiting for his turn to cross the stage and receive his degree. "To have a chance to hold it again makes me very proud. I knew it was somewhere. I'm just happy to have it. It was a long time coming."
Obura and family traveled to the United States to be a part of UC's graduation in large part because UC made it possible. The lengthy journey back to Cincinnati actually started months earlier when his youngest daughter, Sally Mallowa, contacted UC in search of her father's dissertation. She was nearing her own graduation from Iowa State University and wondered if maybe, just maybe, UC might still have a copy of her Dad's thesis. Her ultimate goal was to find the paper, then have her father visit UC to pick it up before coming onto her graduation in Iowa. As it turned out, the trip would involve two graduation ceremonies and an even larger traveling party.
Within minutes of Sally contacting the university in February, UC Archivist Kevin Grace had located the document and started the wheels turning on making one man — and one family — very happy. Grace, along with Marshall Montrose, dean of UC's graduate school, and Richard Harknett, professor and head of political science in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, teamed up on getting the thesis custom bound. They turned to UC's Preservation Lab, which bound the dissertation in a cloth binding and placed in a red clamshell box.
After being told of the find, Sally shared this e-mail: "I'm so impressed by what your institution can come up with for an alumnus 50 years down the road!"
And weeks later, after finding out that UC was also inviting her Dad to walk in the commencement ceremony he had missed, she shared this: "I am happy to report that the University of Cincinnati is going to graduate my Dad! They got visas so my two sisters and I— along with my father-in-law, husband and kids — will be able to cheer him on. It is truly amazing."
Harknett said he was proud of the university for its response to Obura.
"We all have culminating moments in our life," he said. "It meant so much to the family to relive their father's accomplishment. It just struck me as the right thing to do, and they were overwhelmed by all of it."
UC President Santa Ono even paused during the ceremony to share Obura's story with the crowd and asked the family to stand from their place in VIP seating to be recognized.
"It hurt my Dad so much when he couldn't make it back to finish his doctorate degree," said his daughter Mary Obura Walker. "But now he gets to share this moment with his family almost 50 years later. He has been so excited. Since February he has been saying, 'I get to return to America.'"
Obura and his wife, Hannah, had seven children and 10 grandchildren and six great grandchildren. Among his accomplishments during a long career, Obura coordinated the campaign in the 1970s when East Africa converted to the metric measurement system. He would later rise to undersecretary of the Ministry and Commerce Industry in Nairobi and traveled the world on government business.
He retired in 1988, two years before his wife retired after 40 years as a teacher. Today, he and his wife have a passion for helping others gain an opportunity to get an education and they have helped about 30 students in their pursuit of knowledge. In honor of his unexpected and belated graduation from UC, his family will set up the Samuel and Hannah Obura Education Award at Mudhiero Secondary School, which will assist the tuition of three students.
Obura points out all the help he had growing up to pursue his education — including that of UC professors Dieter Dux and Paul Power in the '60s. And prior to that, since his family couldn't cover school fees, his high school principal used to allow him to attend in exchange for staying over during the holiday hot seasons to water the eucalyptis plants. The Kenyan remembers asking God to allow him to pursue his education and get his degree.
For Obura, walking across the UC stage as part of commencement with his thesis in hand, was God's way of fully answering that prayer.