When Wambui Otieno took the Umira Kager clan by the horns

“Bold spirit” describes the life and times of Virginia Wambui Otieno, who died of heart failure last week.

Bold is what you are when you marry someone young enough to be your grandson, which is what Wambui did when she wedded Peter Mbugua in 2003.

But above all, love or hate her, Wambui Otieno lived her life the way she wanted to, paying scant attention to what sticklers for tradition held dear, family members included.

Wambui prepared her grave 22 years ago in Upper Matasia, Ngong, likely to forestall a situation that arose soon after her death.

Joash Ochieng’ Ougo, a brother of her husband Silvano Melea Otieno, popularly known as S.M. Otieno, wants her buried in Nyalgunga in Alego, Siaya County, because “she is our wife”.

Says Ougo: “Unless my brother’s children decide otherwise, we will welcome Wambui’s body with open arms…. but if the children decide to bury their mother at Ngong in Nairobi, then we shall not attend because this (Nyalgunga) is her home.”

Barring any last-minute changes, Wambui will be buried at the family farm at Upper Matasia this Thursday.

Her husband’s clan, Umira Kager, was quoted threatening to disown S.M. Otieno’s family if she is not buried at Nyalgunga, next to S.M.

Ougo’s sentiments resurrect memories of a celebrated court battle that pitted Wambui against the Umira Kager clan in 1986.

She wanted her husband buried in Ngong according to his wishes but the clan would hear none of that.

“To bury me in Nyalgunga away from my children,” S.M. Otieno often told family and friends, “is to throw me a way,” writes Blain Harden in Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent.

The clan wanted Otieno interred in Nyalgunga, hence the ensuing sensational legal tussle for his body that lasted five months to May 1987.

The argument was that the clan “owns” the body, irrespective of the wishes of the dead.

“Wherever I go,” Ougo told John Khaminwa, Wambui’s lawyer, during cross-examination, “my clansmen will spit on me and say I am bure. The spirit of the dead will follow the whole family of Jairo (their father)... if S.M. Otieno is not buried at home (Nyalgunga).”

Khaminwa: Can you not explain to these ghosts and spirits that it is not your fault?

Ochieng’: No…. You cannot catch these spirits or talk to them.

Wambui told the court that as a Christian, she was not bound by tribal customs that she found repugnant and primitive.

The stage was set for a bruising battle. S.M. Otieno’s brother Ougo, a senior Kenya Railways foreman, and Omolo Siranga, the Sunglasses sporting car spare parts importer, were the face of the clan. Richard Kwach was its lawyer.

The burial dispute remains a landmark in Kenya’s legal history.

Clan spokesman Siranga, philosophy lecturer Henry Odera Oruka, a medicine man, and 76-year-old gravedigger Albert Ong’ang’o testified.

Ong’ang’o gave his testimony in a hospital bed. German teacher Juta Johanna Adema and vegetable seller Jane Njeri Muchina would be summoned to explain, under oath, what it meant to be an African.

The death, ethnic rivalry, and court drama sold out newspapers by 10am every morning during its duration. Press re-runs before noon were not uncommon.

Kenyans devoured verbatim reports of the trial in search of answers on how they should live and what to teach their children in the wake of vanishing customs.

But beneath the veneer of a court case that blew open the clashing of cultures in 20th century Kenya and pitting two of Kenya’s largest communities, were political undercurrents.

Then Kisumu Town MP Ndolo Ayahsaid the Luo, S.M. Otieno’s community, had three goals that year: To bring Omieri back to Kisumu, Gor Mahia to win the Africa Cup Nations Cup, and the Umira Kager clan to win the burial case.

All three goals were attained: Omieri, a revered python said to bring blessings, had been burnt in a fire started by villagers clearing land.

The government moved it to the Nairobi National Park for treatment. But after a sustained campaign, it was returned to the Kisumu Museum for recuperation.

Gor Mahia, on its part, became the first Kenyan club to lift the Mandela Cup. Consequently, the club’s anthem “Gor Biro, Yawne yo!” was tweaked to “Gor Biro, Nyalgunga!

And chanted in frenzy outside the City Mortuary, where S.M. Otieno’s remains lay under police guard for 154 days as the case dragged on.

Songs were composed by prominent musicians like D.O. Misiani, whose Otieno Waiko Nyalgunga (We are burying Otieno in Nyalgunga), became popular.

Kenyans were fascinated by the case due to the interplay of factors, among them the ethnic power struggle.

At the centre of it all was Wambui Otieno’s challenge to patriarchal supremacy and customary law.

In sharp focus was the place of women’s rights, class, and cross-cultural marriages.

Wambui claimed that Luo burial customs were repugnant to justice. Clan lawyer Kwach dismissed her thus: “My lords, one swallow does not make a summer. Wambui is that swallow.”

The Moi administration used the burial saga to enhance its divide-and-rule strategies by playing the two communities, whose political sympathies lay elsewhere, against each other.

“Testimony for the clan became the vehicle for anti-Kikuyu sentiments and Luo ‘chauvinism,’” notes Canadian scholar Patricia Stamp in Burying Otieno: The Politics of Gender and Ethnicity in Kenya.

As the Luo community rallied behind the Umira Kager clan, Siranga, Ougo, and Kwach, the doyen of Kenya’s opposition politics, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, went against the grain.

At the time, Kenya was a single party dictatorship. Dissidents were detained without trial, and party politics was under the stringent control of the president.

Kikuyu politicians, knowing which tree to bark, hardly supported Wambui, at least in public.

Two Kikuyu MPs termed the dispute “bizarre” and a “promotion of tribal chauvinism at the expense of national integration and harmony”.

Then President Moi, who always had something to say about most things happening in the country, kept mum regarding the burial dispute that had kept Kenyans talking in offices, bus stops, homes, and every corner duka.

Wambui told Stamp that the atmosphere of repression prevented Central Kenya from supporting her openly.

“Moi’s challenge,” notes Stamp in Burying Otieno, “had been to contain the formerly dominant Kikuyu without arousing them to revolt, while maintaining the Luo as quiescent allies, supportive of his regime but not so powerful as to defy it… the burial saga carried considerable economic and political freight in this context.”

Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who attacked Moi’s political ideologies, however, used opportunities during funeral invites in Siaya District to criticise Umira Kager’s position on the S.M. Otieno matter.

Peter Oloo Aringo, then Siaya Kanu branch chairman, wondered why Jaramogi, an elder, was misleading his community.

Hitting back at Jaramogi for supporting Wambui, lawyer Kwach described him as a “disgraced and slow-punctured politician.”

Oginga Odinga and first President Jomo Kenyatta had been close friends of Apa Saheb Pant, the Indian High Commissioner.

When Jaramogi asked Pant to grant scholarships to Kenyan students in the early 1950s, S.M. Otieno was one of the beneficiaries.

Otieno, the seventh in a family of 12 children, would study law at Bombay University and Ephinstone College, where he was called to the bar.

He returned to Kenya in 1961, after six years.

A decade earlier, Wambui’s father, Tairus Munyua Waiyaki, one of the most high ranking court officials in colonial Kenya invited, S.M. Otieno to serve as an interpreter. That was how he met Wambui, a 26-year-old mother-of-four.

Waiyaki had rejected the father of three of his grand children, who was also from Nyanza.

He had betrayed Wambui to the colonial authorities, leading to her three-year incarceration in Lamu until 1961, according to Wambui Otieno’s autobiography, Mau Mau’s Daughter: A life History.

That was the year Wambui and Otieno bumped into each other, again, this time at the entrance of the Princes Hotel on Victoria Street, now Tom Mboya Street, and one thing led to the other.

Marriages between the Luo and Kikuyu were atypical and outrageous at the time. The Luo Council of Elders disapproved of Wambui and Otieno’s.

To quote Blaine Harden’s Dispatches, “Virginia Wambui was rich, college educated (diploma in leadership and community development, Tangera College Tanzania), well connected... politically ambitious, aggressive, disputatious…”

Not wanting to be “owned”, Wambui took advantage of a 1931 statuette, the African Christian Marriage Act, under the colonial Marriage Act, and said no bride price would be paid to her family.

Or any other marriage rituals performed. Wambui’s family was not clapping either, but Otieno was educated, ambitious.

He had prospects. Her folks swallowed their pride and showed up at their nuptials in 1963, when Kenya was at the cusp of independence.

No member of Otieno’s family attended.

Undaunted, Otieno made a name for himself in the legal circles. Towering and grey-haired, S.M. Otieno had a melodramatic presence at the Nairobi law courts where he made fools of clueless Kenya policemen appearing as witnesses for the prosecution.

He made money too. The Otieno’s lived well in the then upscale Lang’ata estate, where he read George Bernard Shaw, Perry Mason, and watched soccer on TV seeing as it is, Wambui told the court, that live matches at City Stadium often degenerated into violence.

He whiled most evenings at the nearby Bomas of Kenya, swilling fine whisky at the “S.M. Corner” while spicing bar talk with quotations from Shakespeare and Shaw.

Otieno took his family of 15 children (including six adopted ones from a friend) and gave them a solid education.

Gladwell Otieno went to Freie University, Berlin, Germany, Patrick Oyugi to Morehead State University, USA, and Jairus Ougo Otieno, economics major, William Paterson State College, Wayne, New Jersey, USA.

Over the weekends, though, he inspected his goats at his six-acre spread in Upper Matasia, where he was taken ill five days to the Christmas of 1986. He suffered from hypertension.

But heart failure, doctors said, was what he succumbed to that Saturday after sons Frederick Otieno and Patrick Oyugi Otieno had rushed him to hospital in his Mercedes.

When they got married, according to Dispatches, Otieno had told his wife that “our clan begins with us” and thus, he didn’t care about Luo customs.

He never built a house in Nyalgunga, never allowed his children to sleep, eat, or drink anything there.

Besides funerals and emergencies, he rarely visited his ancestral home, the last one being in 1979 during the unveiling of his father’s cross.

With the mzee dead, “kwisha!” he was done.

But the protracted burial case exhumed one grave issue: “Should an African be compelled, in death, to comply with customs he denounced while alive?”

The clan argued that S.M. Otieno was bound by customs, dead or alive.

And by marrying Otieno, Wambui was told in court, she had “walked out of her tribe and become a Luo” and was thus supposed to “take Luos as she finds them” and she was not supposed to demand rights which “other Luo widows could not ask for”.

S.M. Otieno had a premonition of his death and the burial spectacle that was sure to follow. He, thus, did not write a will because of “Umira Kager clan’s propensity to contest wills for financial gain,” Wambui alleged.

A 1981 Kenyan law allowed widows to inherit their husband’s property, and “Every woman in Kenya should look at this case keenly. There is no need to get married if this is the way women will be treated when their husband’s die,” Wambui said at a press conference on January 12, 1987.

The case was taking place in the backdrop of the 1985 United Nation’s International World Conference on Women in Nairobi, aimed at assessing the progress of womankind.

Wambui, who had contested but lost parliamentary elections in 1969, 1974 (and later 1997 and 2007), was a Kenyan delegate during the 1975 conference in Copenhagen, Finland, where the UN hoped to promote “the advancement of women by opening a worldwide dialogue on gender equality.”

But four years after the conference, the Kenya Parliament rejected an amendment to the marriage law that would have empowered wives to reject a co-wife. “Un-African” it was called.

It was into this society, patriarchal in attitude and law, that Wambui Otieno, a women’s rights activist, was confronting the Umira Kager for the right to bury her husband.

Retired Judge Frank Shields ruled in Wambui’s favour, stating that the clan’s case was “neither strong nor compelling” as he had found nothing in Kenyan law granting burial rights to representatives of a dead man’s tribe.

The other side protested. Later, Kwach filed an application at the Court of Appeal, which overturned Justice Shield’s ruling and ordered a full trial that was handled by Mr Justice Samuel Bosire, who ruled in favour of the clan on February 13, 1987.

Wambui appealed and lost, putting the matter to rest.

During the ruling anti-riot police cordoned off the High Court. Police watched over the twice-embalmed Otieno, the unwilling luminary of a morose soap opera.

Patricia Stamp notes that, “It was the regime’s interest to see yet another curtailment of Kikuyu potency, especially at the hands of the Luo. Furthermore, Wambui’s defeat (in the case) was part and parcel of the regime’s suppression of dissent.”

After the verdict, Harden recalls a lithe greying fellow purporting to be a Daily Nation journalist approaching Khaminwa, who had been detained in 1982 by the Moi regime and held without trial for a year.

The “reporter” wanted to know whether Khaminwa thought Justice Bosire had been fair. “He was trapping Khaminwa into bad-mouthing Judge Bosire. Or the president.”

Khaminwa had the actual Nation reporter doing the court beat in his office. Cornered, the “reporter” identified himself. He was from the Special Branch.

Wambui and her children skipped the burial in Nyalgunga. That meant under Luo customs that he was to be buried like a bachelor.

In Mau Mau’s Daughter, Wambui writes that a female delegation from retired President Moi paid her a call, urging her to attend S.M. Otieno’s burial. If need be, Wambui was told, “the government would import a dress from Great Britain for the occasion.”

In Burying Otieno, Wambui told Stamp that she knew “the trick Moi wanted to play on me, first, to show the world that I had no principles. Second, he knew if I went to the burial, it would stop the matter from being discussed as a violation of human rights and as discrimination against women.”

Politics aside, elsewhere, ethnicity continued to rear its ugly side. Wambui was slapped with a Sh2 million tax assessment against her late husband’s estate — from a clan member who worked in the revenue department, according to Stamp.

S.M. Otieno’s funeral ceremony was to be held at Nairobi’s All Saints Cathedral.

But the provost, the Reverend Peter Njenga, rejected Umira Kager’s plans to hold a funeral service there. They had booked the church late, he said.

Reverend Njenga, reported the Nation, received a threatening note: “Peter, I want you to know that I do not love you. I want you to know that I am the persecutor and tormenter of provosts, the clergy, and the Christians.”  

The funeral service was held at the St Peter Anglican Cathedral in Kisumu.

The eventual burial in Nyalgunga was treated as a triumphal validation of Luo customs and values, with presiding Bishop Henry Okullu lauding the return of Otieno’s body by saying: “Even a bull, no matter how ferocious, is always tethered in the homestead.”