'Dead' Homa Bay man returns home after five decades

Man who vanished after family disagreement returns home 51 years later

Joseph Odongo was only 30 years old when he left his ancestral home in Riwa village, Homa Bay County in 1972.

For five decades, his family knew nothing about his whereabouts until September 14, 2023 when he showed up at home aged 81.

He resurfaced and discovered that all his property, including a piece of land he had inherited from his parents, had been grabbed by some members of his family who assumed he was dead.

He said his reason for going ‘missing’ for 51 years was to evade family disputes. 

Mr Odongo, who locally goes by the nickname Osir Komollo, said he was in Mombasa the entire period his family was looking for him. He said he lived in a house owned by a foreigner. 

Joseph Osongo

Joseph Odongo (centre) and some of his relatives at their home in Riwa village in Homa Bay Sub-County on September 16,2023.

Photo credit: George Odiwuor I Nation Media Group

"I worked there as a caretaker. I felt more comfortable being in Mombasa than being at home in Homa Bay," Mr Odongo said.

In the village, those aged 60 years and could not recognise him on his return.

West Kanyada Location Chief Kenneth Achieng had to seek help from elders when the man walked into his office, trying to find the exact location of his ancestral home.

Mr Odongo said his decision to vanish from the village started when he disagreed with one of his brothers who is now deceased. 

During the dispute, he claimed some members of his family died. His brother was blamed for being behind the deaths.

He wanted to go to the farthest place in the country so that his family would have difficulties tracing him. After witnessing the burial of his parents and separating from his wife, the man stayed home for a few months before he decided to take off.
He told a few family members that he was going to Sikri beach which is located a few kilometers away from his home in Mbita sub-County.

Some of them thought he would go back home after a few days, but weeks turned into months, and months into years. 

And since back then communication was a challenge, it became difficult to trace him. Eventually, the family declared him dead.

Mr Daudi Oketch, a neighbour, said villagers ruled that the man had been killed by a crocodile.

"His last message to his family was that he was going to the beach. We concluded that he was mauled by a crocodile," he said.

His sister-in-law Matasia Akelo, aged 90, however, had a different thought: "I had difficulties believing he was dead. We didn’t see a body so it was hard to believe that he was dead."

Just like the Biblical prodigal son, the old man was welcomed back, with the family inviting the whole village for a feast to celebrate.

After the reunion, Mr Odongo told his family that he had been living in Likoni, Mombasa County, all the while.  

"I had no idea how I was going to survive in the coastal town. But anger pushed me to leave home," Mr Odongo said.

While in Mombasa, Mr Odongo said he decided to visit one of the local bars that was popular with tourists. It is at the bar where he met his would-be employer, a white man he believed was an American.

"Coincidentally, the man was looking for someone to work at his home as a caretaker. I took up the job without thinking twice,” Mr Odongo said.

According to the senior citizen, life at the coast was easy. He said he soon forgot all the frustrations he was going through while at home in Homa Bay.

From time to time, he said, his employer would go for long safaris and leave him all alone in the house.

Mr Odongo said he thought of remarrying since his wife had left him before they had children. But he had a second thought. 

"The idea of having a wife came during the outbreak of HIV in 1981. I decided to stay single just to be safe," Mr Odongo said.

Joseph Odongo

Joseph Odongo and some of his relatives celebrate his return at their home in Riwa village in Homa Bay County.

Photo credit: George Odiwuor I Nation Media Group

He added that although he thought about his family back at home, he did not bother to communicate with them.

"My employer never bothered to ask me where I came from, which made me to further cut links with my family," he said.

A few years ago, his employer went to Europe, as he claimed, but the man took long before coming back to the country. Mr Odongo said he tried to reach him in vain.

“Suddenly, an idea came to me that I should return to the village. I left everything I owned, including salary, which was due," he said.

His journey back home started from Mombasa to Nakuru by bus. Thereafter, he got a lift from a lorry that was traveling to Homa Bay.

He decided to meet the area chief on his arrival. The chief said the man walked to his office located at Kabunde seeking help.

"He claimed to be from the village and could describe the geographical area. But I could not recognise him," the administrator said.

Some of the names he mentioned "are of people who had long died and were buried in the village", and the administrator sought the help of some senior citizens who recognised him.
His family was then called to take him home. The family held celebrations on September 16, 2023 to welcome their son back.

Mr Odongo, however, expressed concern about alleged encroachment on his property. He said he does not wish to go back to Mombasa and would love to have his property in his name. 

Mr Achieng promised that he would look into the matter. 

"His family should also look for a partner for him so that he does not become lonely. He does not have any source of income and should get all the necessary support," the administrator said.
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