Odongo Omamo: Life at Egerton, Tom Mboya’s death and political aftermath

Odongo Omamo

Mr Odongo Omamo (right) with Mr Mwai Kibaki, the Minister for Finance and Planning (second right), at a harambee during the Kenyatta era. 


Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • The Path to Kaliech are the memoirs of Dr William Odongo Omamo, a member of the first generation of Kenyan African technocrats. In it, he describes his journey from childhood, to his struggles to acquire education as part of the pioneer O-Level class of Maseno School, to his rise to Cabinet minister in both the Jomo Kenyatta and Moi governments.
  • In the book, released posthumously by his son Robert Omamo, he opens up on his much-talked-about relationship with Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, untold stories of the Jomo Kenyatta and Moi government political intrigues, as well as his well-known oratory during his public life, and the origin of his popular nickname, Kaliech.

My last 10 months at Egerton College saw dramatic political changes taking place in the country and their ripples impinging on us.

I began to feel that my contribution to nation-building as a principal of Egerton had been tangible and very satisfying.

Towards the end of 1968, therefore, I did not see any totally new line of development that I could initiate at Egerton College, which would not rub the wrong way the financial controllers at the ministry headquarters.

No one was interested in developing Egerton College beyond a diploma training institution.

So, as 1968 was wearing out, I had a chilly feeling that it was about time I looked farther afield and did something else in the vast landscape of nation-building.

Dr William Odongo Omamo

The cover of 'The Path to Kaliech'  the memoirs of Dr William Odongo Omamo.

Photo credit: Pool

I stumbled on good luck when before the end of December 1968, I was invited as a guest of honour to address the Luo Students League at the Kisumu Social Hall.

The league had been formed by Luo students studying in universities across East Africa. It was also open to Luo graduates and other prominent leaders who gave support.

The theme of the address was, “Post-independence agricultural development in Nyanza Province.” My address was aimed at provoking the Luo elite in their home ground and for sure, all the prominent Luo political leaders were present. 

They included MPs Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Tom Mboya, Okello Odongo, Oselu Nyalik, Okuto Bala, Joseph Odero Jowi, Luke Obok, Ondiek Chilo, Omolo Agar, John Okwanyo, Mbeo Onyango, Achieng Oneko, Samuel Onyango Ayodo, Odero Sar and Argwings Kodhek.

There was also Mr Samuel G. Ayany, Mr Otieno Jinga, Dr Titus Obwaka, Mr Boaz Owino, Dr Orie Abwonji, Mr Barrack Obama Snr and Mr Barrack Odinge Odera, among others.

I decided not to mince words and called a spade a spade. The message sank and I was treated to a standing ovation. At the end of the speech, I conducted an impromptu funds collection (harambee) to assist the league.

I contributed not only my own money but also greetings in monetary form, from Joyce, who was on a study tour in the US. The evening was capped by a gala dance, which I formally opened as a guest of honour. I had brought along my sister-in-law, Mrs Theresa Kira Owiti, as my dancing partner.

We danced gracefully. I have no doubt in my mind that Theresa will never forget that occasion. She was extremely shy at the start, but I was there to encourage her to carry on. When she settled and got used to the floor, she acquitted herself as a more polished dancer than I.

The Kisumu Social Hall where the dance was staged, was fully packed with league members, invited ladies and gentlemen, plus the political big shots – all dancing, joking and merrymaking. As the event transpired, friends mobbed me to congratulate me on my keynote speech.

Some went further to suggest that my intimate knowledge of the Nyanza rural scene should not just be contained at Egerton College. That kind of remark kept me guessing as to what they actually meant. I didn’t grasp it fully then, but this day was to go down as a momentous one, and a tide in the turn for me.

A week later, while sitting to take 10 o’clock coffee in a Nairobi restaurant, I overheard Mr Obama Snr remarking loudly to a group of his friends that my talk in Kisumu was the speech of the year.

Friends that care to trace my political ambitions all agree that I launched myself into the political arena through that keynote speech I delivered. Two weeks after the speech, Mr Mboya rang me from his office in Nairobi requesting me to send him a copy of the speech, which I did. 

The larger part of the following year, 1969, was not the best year for the Luo community nor for me at Egerton College. I was working as hard as usual, but deep down in my heart was the intermittent feeling that it was time for me to move on.

I shared these feelings with my friends; some agreed with me, and others did not. To stop daydreaming, I fixed an appointment in Nairobi with Mr Mboya and discussed with him a possible roadmap for me, after Egerton.

At the time, I had no idea or plans of jumping into the political arena. Mboya observed that the Economic Commission for Africa, based in Addis Ababa, was looking for a scientist to head the research division and that I should consider that position.

I wrote to the commission, got and completed the application form and sent it back. I was thus beginning to build my own castles with a base in Addis Ababa.

But the castle building and daydreaming did not last long, because in January that same year, MP and Foreign minister Argwings Kodhek was involved in a fatal road accident in Nairobi. The accident occurred late at night when he was alone in his car.

The post-mortem revealed that he had died due to internal bleeding. It was an irreparable loss, not only to the Luo community but to the Kenyan nation.

Mr Mboya represented the government at the funeral, which was a very sad affair. Although I was not at the funeral on burial day, I found time later to pay my last respects to the grave in line with the Luo saying, ‘liel ok ringi’, ‘a grave does not run away’.

 Because of the neutral political stand Mr Kodhek had taken in the fight between Kanu and KPU and because of the respect, he commanded among the rank and file of the Luo community, his loss and departure from the political arena were keenly felt.

The government and parliament missed his quick wits and sense of humour. The Irish girl he had married as his first wife, Marvis Tate, had left Kenya just before independence. She never returned to attend the funeral, but the children she left with him remained in Kenya as orphans to be looked after by Kodhek’s second wife, in line with Luo traditions.

He had joked that he married the Irish girl mainly to prove to the colonial powers that Kenyans as men were equal to the Europeans in every respect. 

 Mr Kodhek’s second wife was called Joan. She was a typical thoroughbred Luo girl from Yimbo location. She had been brought up in the respected Christian home of Mzee Timotheo Omondo and managed to step into the shoes of the Irish girl and acquitted herself with distinction, particularly during the sad period, when the whole nation was mourning.

Matters connected to his death distracted Mr Mboya from following up my application in Addis Ababa. However, in June 1969, I extended an invitation to him as the Minister of Planning and Development to come and address Egerton College students and staff on the “Functions of the East African Community”.

Without written notes, Mr Mboya spoke fluently and presented the clearest picture of the EA Community as a regional vision. The audience at Egerton was held spellbound for nearly one-and-half hours. 

When I stood up to give the vote of thanks, I praised him and asked him to return again to the college. Since it was rather late in the evening, I offered the minister and his wife, Pamela the principal’s guesthouse to spend the night. The following morning, they left pretty early but only after assuring me that the greener pastures he was looking at in Addis Ababa were becoming a reality.

Little did I know that the hearty handshake, and the infectious smile he wore on his face that morning, was the last I would see him alive. Egerton College itself was destined to go down in the history of Kenya as the last place he spoke. In the trail of Mr Mboya, bloodthirsty political sharks were scheming to finish him brutally, for good.

For a while, Mr Mboya, through the dint of his sharp tongue, had been able to cut his way through, left, right and centre, keeping his political detractors at bay. His position in Kanu as the secretary-general posed a threat to many of his colleagues. He was able to dwarf them all on every issue fought in the political arena. 

Pulled the trigger

The official opposition party, the KPU, was ill at ease because of the political antiques and somersaults that Mr Mboya was capable of performing. His arch enemies decided to stop him by eliminating him altogether. Indeed, the cruel hand of an assassin pulled the trigger on Saturday, July 5, 1969. Tom was gunned down!

The sad news of his assassination was received in Kisumu first as a rumour. I received it very hot. We were at the Kisumu Municipal Stadium, now Moi Stadium, attending the ASK show. As we were watching arena events from the VIP stand, MP Nyalik, walked in and signalled me to come out.

I went over to him, and in a voice full of anger, he said that a telephone message had been received from Nairobi to the effect that Mr Mboya had been assassinated! I was tongue-tied and didn't know how to react for a moment. When I spoke, I said that the Kisumu Show should be interrupted. But who was to do it?

A public announcement would cause a shock, followed by a possible stampede likely to cause a breach of the peace. I, therefore, told Hon Nyalik that he should tell a few others, and in the same manner, he broke the sad news to me. I left the VIP lounge and went to my car, a Citroen KMD 447, and drove off. 

As the Principal of Egerton College, with such a mixture of students and staff from different racial and ethnic groups, I smelt trouble and felt duty-bound to rush back to the college. On arrival, I found the college tense with emotions. Joyce and several other members of the staff met me. We shed tears uncontrollably.

The memory of Mr Mboya addressing the staff and students less than a month before was still vivid. Mr Mboya meant many good things to different people in Kenya. Many students mourned the untimely loss of Tom Mboya Okew Godhiambo, as he known.

In Nairobi, the reaction was vitriolic. The following morning, which was a Sunday, I spent the whole day making sure that no student and staff member was going to be swayed by emotions that could precipitate a demonstration.

I tried many times to ring friends in Nairobi, but my attempts were all futile. I concluded that Nairobi telephone lines were jammed. Only scanty radio news got through from Nairobi, the capital city that was Mr Mboya's second home, for all intents and purposes.

On Monday, having made sure that Egerton College was coping with the bitter pill, I drove to Nairobi and headed to Mr Mboya's house on Covenant Drive in Lavington. I ran into the wailing crowd, which was a mixture of men, women and children. 

Dr William Odongo Omamo

Dr William Odongo Omamo addressing a gathering.

Photo credit: Pool

For reasons I cannot explain, the crowd gave way and I walked into the bedroom where I found Mrs Mboya being comforted by a group of women and close relatives. It was no small coincidence that in the same room, I found Mr Nyalik, this time weeping.

In the heat of the moment, somebody shouted to Pamela saying, “Odongo Omamo has arrived”.

She quickly jumped up, fell on me and shouted, “Take over, your friend has fallen. Take over.” That appeal by Pamela only served one purpose, it opened the floodgate of more tears and thunderous mourning. Yes, there she was, Nyachianda, Nyowila, Nya Lowo Rateng’– bereaved and touched to the bone marrow.

She repeated the appeal several times, “take over”. I wept dry. When the women helping her managed to hold her down, I move out of the room to join other mourners outside the house. It is out there that I met among others, Z. Ramogo, Prof Bethwell. A Ogot and Wycliffe Onyango Ayoki, all mourning .

Push for revenge

It is not easy to give a complete picture of the confusion in the aftermath of Mboya’s assassination. There was an atmosphere of anger and a push for revenge. Different people had their own theories of who the assassin was. However, to the ordinary Kenyan on the streets, the assassination was politically motivated.

The question was, “What did Tom do in the political arena to deserve such a cruel death?”

A few days later, his body was taken to the Holy Family Basilica for the requiem mass. There was widespread anger. Some people used their shoes to pelt government vehicles while others lost them while running to get a glance to view the casket in which the body of Mr Mboya was lying mute.

If the Nairobi of July 1969 was to reappear today, Mr Mboya’s requiem mass would trigger a nasty showdown between men and women armed only with stones, pangas and shoes against security officers.

But it was the Kenya of July 1969, and the aggrieved ethnic group was the calculating, law-abiding Luos. Back at the college, I organised a memorial prayer meeting for Mr Mboya and his family. 

A day before his burial, Joyce and I made special arrangements to travel ahead of the funeral cortege which took the long route by road, Nairobi/Naivasha/Nakuru/Kericho/Ahero and then back to Sondu/Oyugi/Rodi Kopany and to Homa Bay Catholic Church for the night stop.

The convoy was such a spectacle that had no precedence in the history of independent Kenya. Long black flags with the writing ‘Why,’ hang at strategic points along the route. The convoy was much longer than the one which had escorted the body of Mr Kodhek back home in Gem, Yala. 

Whenever the funeral cortege halted, thousands of people thronged for a chance to view the casket. Yes, that was Mr Mboya making his last journey to Luo-land and to his Rusinga Island home. The Roman Catholic Church at Homa Bay, where the body was taken, accommodated relatives and friends who spent the whole night keeping the vigil. The following morning a requiem mass was held, conducted by Rt Reverend Cardinal Otunga. 

Although I was not a Catholic, I knelt down to partake of the holy communion and to plead with the Lord Jesus to have mercy on Mr Mboya and receive and rest his soul in eternal peace.

From the church, mourners embarked on the last leg of the sad journey. The cortege snaked its way through downtown Homa Bay, crossed the lower part of Kanyada location and descended into Lambwe Valley, leaving the ragged Ruri Hills to the North. There was a brief stop at Mr Mboya’s small farm in the valley. The journey continued past Got Jope, Got Min Aloo and on to Mbita Point. From there, the body was ferried across to Rusinga Island. 

Traditional Luo style

Since Joyce and I had travelled ahead, when the cortege reached the home, we were already there to weep again and receive the body in the traditional Luo style. Emotions flowed faster than the waters of River Nyando. 

The body was left for viewing for the whole day and night. The burial took place on the third day after the body had arrived in Nyanza. Different people spoke at the funeral. I noticed that people of different political and religious persuasions all dropped their differences to mourn Mboya. They all queued and marched along to bid him farewell. 

Before the casket was moved to the graveside, Pamela requested to be allowed to remove the wedding ring from Mr Mboya's finger. She did it with all the courage she could muster. Then and only then, was the hero’s body lowered into the grave for the long march to eternity.

The Assistant Commissioner of Police, Mr Michael Arum, who had been assigned to take charge of the security at the burial, did his best. Another assistant commissioner of the police, Mr Peter Okola of the Criminal Investigations Department, was also there.

I remember going to him and telling him, “Peter. Please do your best to bring the culprits to book.”

He assured me that investigations were already at an advanced stage. One month after the burial ceremonies, the students and staff of Egerton College officially returned to Rusinga Island to pay their last respects at the grave. That was very much in line with Luo traditions. We bought two fat wool sheep for Mzee Ndiege, Mr Mboya's father. We also gave cash donations to help the family cope with the stress and the many mourners.

As I returned to Egerton College that evening, I knew that Mr Mboya's efforts to look for greener pastures for me could no longer materialise. There was no one to chase after my application that had gone to Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa. 

It took seven good months for me to learn that Mr Mboya had finished discussions about my intended posting to Addis Ababa. A letter offering me the post as the Director of Natural Resources Division of ECA arrived. However, the matter had been overtaken by events as I was already the MP of Bondo and Minister of Natural Resources of the Republic of Kenya.

Tomorrow in the ‘Sunday Nation’: Moi, Jaramogi, Omamo and a dramatic by-election in Bondo.

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