A village of professors: Why Magoha’s village is full of 'learned friends', scholars

Former Education CS George Magoha.

Former Education CS George Magoha.

Photo credit: File

In 1915, prominent colonial chief Odera Akang’o made a trip to Uganda. The trip would years later transform his Gem constituency in Siaya County.

Chief Akang’o had been invited to Uganda, alongside his counterparts from Western Kenya, for the consecration of the Namirembe Cathedral.

He, however, caused a stir at one point when he went before King Kabaka Mutesa of the Buganda Kingdom.

As renowned historian, Prof Bethwel Ogot, would put it, the colonial chief refused to acknowledge the king by kneeling. He simply saluted, a move that angered the royalty, but clearly showed what type of a person he was — firm and authoritarian, who believed nobody was above him.

All the while, the other chiefs from Kenya were on their knees. Akang’o insisted that Kabaka was ‘just a chief like him’.

However, he was impressed with how British education had improved the mannerisms of young school children, who could also read and write.

Armed with lessons from Uganda, Chief would later transform the village where former Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha was born.

The village would later produce professors and scholars.

On returning from Uganda, Chief Akang’o decided to forcibly enrol children into primary education.

“He noticed that religion, education and infrastructure were good things he wanted to implement back home. That is why he introduced free compulsory primary education in Gem,” said Prof Ogot in an interview.

He would inspect all homes and parents whose children were not in school would be arrested and caned. 

 When the Nation visited relatives of the colonial chief, his great grandson George Nyamwanga said that his great grandfather had inculcated the education culture in Gem.

The establishment of St Mary’s School, Yala, was a result of the learning culture that his great grandfather had advocated in the community.

He revealed that most professors hail from his Kagola clan.

A rough count of current and deceased professors in the area seems to give credence to his statement.

Prof Ogot’s home is just a few metres from Prof Magoha’s. His son, Prof Madara Ogot, is also a lecturer at the University of Nairobi.

Gem boasts of being the home to the composer of Kenya’s National Anthem. Prof Washington Ambrose Omondi is associate professor of Music and Dance, at the School of Visual and Performing Arts at Kenyatta University.

The famous mathematician Carey Francis who taught the late Prof David Simon Wasawo at Alliance High School described him as the most brilliant student he had ever taught.

Chief Odera Akang’o

Relatives of the late Chief Odera Akang’o at their home in Gem, Siaya County on December 10, 2020.  Chief Kang’o is said to have pushed for formal education in Gem which has produced several professors and academicians over the years.

Photo credit: Tonny Omondi | Nation Media Group

 Alliance High School alumnus, Prof Jacob Ogweno Midiwo, who was born in Mabinju village in Gem, also rose from a humble background to attain the highest standard of education at the University of Maryland, College Park, USA to pursue PhD in Organic Chemistry, researching on fungal mycotoxins with potential in cancer chemotherapy.

Prof John Kokwaro, who died in December 2018, was a renowned African botanist of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Those who did not work on their farms would either be beaten or fined for being unproductive.

One time he arrested a district commissioner for visiting his area without a letter from the governor. This did not go down well with the British.

Akang’o was arrested and detained in Kismayu. He was allegedly murdered a day after he was released.

It is believed that he was killed by the British for fear that he would lead a revolution in Luo Nyanza,

“Up to now, we are still looking for where his body is buried. He is said to have been very strong. As he was being taken to prison he sang in Dholuo “Piny to marwa, kata unega, kata utima nade, thuon okru, Jomoko biro mane oriembu (This land is ours whether you kill me or harm me. Some people will one day come after me and evict you from this land),” Prof Ogot said.

While his death remains a mystery, his spirit is evident in every village in Gem. Thanks to the push for education under his reign, there are many professors in the region. 

Besides promoting education, Akang’o insisted that every homestead had to plant trees and bananas.

Prof Magoha’s home in Umiru village is surrounded by trees.

Prof George Magoha's home in Umiru, Siaya County.

Photo credit: Tonny Omondi

“Magoha valued trees to an extent that if there was a funeral or an event in his home, he would rather buy firewood than fell one of his trees. In fact, his farm has more than two million trees,” said Mr Francis Odhiambo, Prof Magoha’s foreman of over 15 years.

The colonial chief’s cells popularly known as ‘Odera Akang’o cells’, however, remain neglected despite the Siaya County government allocating funds every financial year for their renovation.

At some point, the project was started by a contractor, with Sh4 million set aside to construct it, but nothing was done. Another contractor was brought in and money for the project was Sh2.9 million, yet not much has been done.


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