On day one of my first job, the revered Professor of Law, Joe Oloka-Onyango, found me pacing the hallways, looking for the office of the Research Fellow for whom I had been hired as Research Assistant.
He showed me the suite and after I had cradled my laptop and folder, he asked me to join him for a faculty meeting, a stroll away.
The subject matter revolved around an assessment of the School of Law’s course outlay and how to improve the same. Everyone in the room held a doctoral, postdoctoral, or professorial accomplishment of some sort. It was a melting pot of all breeds of scholars: balding pates, wire-rimmed spectacles, refined dispositions, traces of social awkwardness, poring and deep-set eyes.
And as if the glossy expanse of the massive teak wood conference table, replete with digital conferencing equipment, and the regal artwork that adorned the room’s walls weren’t intimidating enough, Joe announced to the room that I was there to record the minutes of the meeting.
The only minute-taking experience I had was from the weekly meetings we convened as prefects—back in high school—to decide what the coming week would look like and who would be responsible for what.
Here I was, wet behind the ears, attending a meeting of published dons, tenured academics, and intellects of note.
Since I had no idea what to write and what I shouldn’t have written, I decided to write nonstop throughout the meeting. Later in the day, I typed everything out, entered page numbers, justified the paragraphs, highlighted what I thought were useful points, and created subheadings. The final record spanned about fifteen pages.
I enthusiastically emailed the document to Joe with the self-assurance and confidence of Hercules.
Joe called me to his office the next morning, and after thanking me for sending the Minutes, asked me to take his seat. I hesitated, thinking I’d misheard him and then he motioned me, with a wave of the hand, to sit in his office chair. He stood and I sat; it must have taken several minutes for me to let my weight settle fully into the cushion because I felt misplaced.
“So, Andrew,” his modest baritone began, “this is not how Minutes are written…scroll back to the top of the document and let’s go through together.”
For more than an hour, Joe guided me on what to delete, how to sequence the content, how to frame my headings better, and with which format to conclude the document. As the minutes ticked by, I felt growing guilt enveloping me for keeping this distinguished savant standing by me, correcting my work—of all things, meeting minutes!
Surely, this man who has served as a UN Special Rapporteur, consulted for the UNDP, WHO, UNHCR, sat on the boards of human rights organisations in North America, Europe, and Africa, is a visiting professor at Oxford, Cape Town, was Dean of the School of Law at Makerere, and Director of the Human Rights and Peace Centre, has published miles and miles of juristic scholarship, and litigated successfully in the public interest on several occasions, had better things to do with his time than walk a kid through such a mundane task.
Next time you have an opportunity to be a judge, mentor, supervisor, or hold any position of authority or power, be kind. By lighting another candle, Joe Oloka-Onyango did not diminish his flame.
You can be firm, but gentle.