James Osogo: The day I met Odinga my life totally changed

From left: Daniel arap Moi, Tom Mboya and  Charles Njonjo, as members of Bunge FC. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Jaramogi and I remained close friends until he died in 1994.
  • One incident which has always haunted my mind was my encounter with Mau Mau escapees.
  • Politician Waruru Kanja and Gitu Wa Kahengeri were amongst the Mau Mau detainees who served in Mageta Island.

In this first instalment of the  serialisation of Honourable Deeds,  a book on one of the only two surviving men in President Jomo Kenyatta’s first Cabinet James Osogo, we track the personal and political journey of a teacher from Bunyala  to  national politics, alongside that of the nation’s own chequered history.

The 1956 General Election in Kenya opened the way for Africans to have better representation in the Legislative Council (Legco). I was a teacher at Withur Intermediate School when Jaramogi Oginga Odinga came to ask for votes from teachers. He was accompanied by Oselu Nyalik, a prominent personality in the area who later became MP for Winam Constituency and assistant minister in the Kenyatta government.

My first meeting with Jaramogi was fascinating.  After a brief chat with the teachers, he was curious to know more about me since I was not from the locality. I did not know that, ironically, I would be the right person at the right time and place.

By sheer coincidence, his itinerary had Bunyala as the next campaign stop. I was excited when he asked me to accompany him to Bunyala for his next vote-hunting mission, which was coming up in a couple of weeks. Since it fell on a weekend I gladly accepted. That is how my journey with the Odingas began.

Jaramogi and I remained close friends until he died in 1994. My few days’  encounter with Odinga and my desire to be something bigger than a teacher partly encouraged me to go for an elective post at the African District Council (ADC) of Central Nyanza. Our representatives on the council at that time were old men like Gaitano Okondo (the father of Peter Okondo) and Absalom Nafula.


When I made up my mind to contest, my competitors were Joseph Mukanga, Absalom Nafula, Titus Wanga and Paul Malaba Nanguna. Only two had to be returned as councillors. It was a very exciting moment for a young man like myself. We were not given time to campaign for elections. The only semblance of a campaign was when we were allowed to interact with voters on polling day at the only polling station, which happened to be the chief's office at Ruambwa. The chief, Alexis Odiabalo, also doubled up as the returning officer.

I was the third one to speak among the five and being my first time to address such a political gathering, however small, I felt a bit nervous. I didn’t quite know how to open my speech. I somehow gathered courage and said: “Owners of the land, Abamaloba, there will be no need to cry over spilt milk. It is your time to elect me, the youngest anti-colonialist and defender of your rights...”

James Osogo with his young family. PHOTO | FILE

I can hardly remember what I said thereafter but I am sure I did not address the gathering for more than five minutes. For identification, each candidate was given a coloured ribbon to wear across his chest. The colours rhymed with the voting cards to be used. If say a voter liked the candidate with a red ribbon, he simply picked a corresponding red card and placed it in the ballot box.

My colour was orange. I would rather call it gold – the lucky colour of my star Scorpio, because I was born in October.

All the five candidates were lined up near the polling booth at the chief's office in Ruambwa (now Usonga locational headquarters). Voters meticulously went through the process by looking at the ribbons we were wearing, picking up a matching card and depositing it in the ballot box.

Polling started just before mid-day and continued until six o'clock in the evening when the counting of the ballot cards started. The cards were poured on a large table and counting clerks separated the different colours. From the onset, it appeared the race was between Joseph Mukanga and I. Close on our trail were Absalom Nafula and Titus Wanga. Paul Maloba Nanguma was a distant fifth.


At the end of the counting, the Abanyala had decided through a secret ballot that I should represent them in the African District Council of Central Nyanza at the tender age of 24 years.

Remember Central Nyanza had its headquarters in Kisumu. Joseph Mukanga and I were declared councillors for Bunyala. My political debut was officially launched and grounded.

My first experience in the Council was full of exciting moments. We were five Luhyas in a council of 28. We had no option but to organise ourselves into a united front to face our Luo colleagues. We nominated H.D. Odaba (Samia) to be the leader of our group. Others in the group were Justo Odera (Samia), Joseph Mukanga (Bunyala), Elisha Omumbwa (Eshiandumba) and I (Bunyala).

James Osogo with Tom Mboya (centre) receiving Kipchoge Keino after the 1968 Mexico Olympics. PHOTO | FILE


I served in several committees like education, finance and trade. When I made my first speech in the full council meeting, I proposed that the official language of communication at the council, its committees and their minutes should be Kiswahili.  I was booed by the Luo councillors and the public seated at the gallery. Hitherto, the official language had been Dholuo. I did not know the Luo language, so I insisted that the council and its committees should be conducted in Kiswahili.

I was supported by my Luhya colleagues and the District Commissioner, who was the chairman. Later that evening, Mr Joel Omino, Secretary to the Council and later Mayor of Kisumu Municipality, came to my hotelroom. Joel Omino is father to the late Joab Omino, who also became the MP for Kisumu Town.

He came to persuade me to drop my stand because, apparently, most Luo councillors did not understand Kiswahili so they would have been stranded if the request stood. I held on to my stand and the deadlock was resolved when the Minister for Local Government Wilfrid Havelock visited the Council and ruled in our favour.

One other big debate occurred when the Kisian afforestation issue came up. Kisian Hills are located at the junction of Kisumu-Bondo highway. I spoke very strongly against the government's stand of having afforestation in Kisian because it was going to disrupt many families. I got support from Samuel Ayany, Otieno Oyoo, B. Ochuodho, Ondiek Chilo, Tom Ogallo and John Yuko.

Mr James Osogo (centre), as Minister for Commerce and Industry, is shown the workings of a Philips machine by Mr F J Philips, head of the worldwide organisation. PHOTO | FILE

As a result of our firmness and refusal to support the government, the Minister for Local Government ordered dissolution of the council in 1958. That is what ended my career as a councillor.

The minister further directed that henceforth councillors would be nominated by the District Commissioner (DC) and only one councilor would be nominatedfrom each administrative location. In Bunyala the DC nominated Joseph Mukanga and I missed out for being too vocal.


One incident which has always haunted my mind was my encounter with Mau Mau escapees. One early morning in 1956, I was walking down our village path on my way home to prepare to go to Kisumu for an ADC meeting. I met two shabbily dressed men who looked desperate and anxious. When I greeted them, they blocked my way asking me to help them. I quickly recalled what I had seen the previous evening when policemen descended on our village searching for what they called "dangerous prisoners" who had escaped from Mageta Island detention prison. Mageta is an island on Lake Victoria. The colonists converted the island to a prison, where they detained hardcore Mau Mau convicts. After a few months on this island, some of the detainees improvised rafters which they used to sail and escape one night.

Politician Waruru Kanja and Gitu Wa Kahengeri were amongst the Mau Mau detainees who served in Mageta Island. They asked me to take them to our home and I reluctantly took them to my father's house.  My mother had left for the shamba. I gave them leftovers from the last meal, which had ugali and vegetables. Although the food was cold, they ate.

In between they begged me to give them clothes that would help in camouflaging their tattered attire. I quickly retrieved my old Kagumo College uniforms and gave them. They also asked me to show them the safest route towards Mt Elgon. I advised them to take a public bus at the market and travel to Malaba or thereabouts, disembark and walk northwards to the mountain.

Since they had freshly shaven heads, I gave one my scout beret and the other my father's old hat. I then fished out some money and wished them God's luck.

When they left, I threw their dirty ragged clothes down our pit latrine. I don't know what eventually happened to these freedom fighters whose names I was too scared to ask. To me they remain faceless to date.


In 1959, I was transferred to Port Victoria Intermediate School. I got married to my wife Maria Elizabeth Nakhubali Obara on August 16 that year.

Maria Elizabeth Nakhubali was the first born child of Mzee Patrice Obara Sidonge and Emilliana Alwanga. Mzee Obara was a locomotive driver who had stints in various stations. Emilliana was a housewife.

Maria was born in 1944 in Makupa, Mombasa, where her father was working. She moved with her parents back to Nairobi and enrolled at St Peter Claver's Primary School followed by Our Lady of Mercy School, Shauri Moyo.

As it were those days match makers were involved in most marital affairs. They were responsible for most introductions. My niece Felesta Okubo played that role very well for me. Felesta found Maria very charming as a schoolgirl at our Lady of Mercy School and introduced her to me. She was not wrong, because we have stayed married for 60 years now.


Entry into national politics

Kenya African National Union (Kanu) was formed in 1960 and shortly after I went to Nairobi to visit a relative Huberto Ngira. I decided to take advantage of my journey and register as member of Kanu. I looked for their headquarters and found it at Consulate Chambers, along Race Course Road , where I officially registered and was issued receipt number 51842.

Tom Mboya’s articulation of issues impressed me so much that I opted to join Kanu and not Kadu, which was a predominant party for the Abaluhya, Kalenjins and people in the Coast.

The seeds of my political journey with Mboya had just been planted. I watched all his political maneuvers for the nine years I saw him alive. My loyalty to Mboya's Kanu made me stick to it almost all my political life, save for a brief flirting with the original FORD and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) at the onset of multiparty politics.

In 1961, I left teaching to contest the twin Central Nyanza Legislative Council (Legco) seats. I came third after Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and CMG Argwings Kodhek, who were declared the winners of the two seats. The other candidates were H.D. Odaba, Mariwa Gek, Geoffrey Onyulo and Walter Odede.

I was unable to get a Kanu nomination under the Specially Elected Member category. The party told me their Western Kenya slots were exhausted after the nomination of Walter Odede.

He was the father of Pamela Odede who later married Tom Mboya. The Kenya African Democratic (Kadu) nominated Peter Habenga Okondo to one of its Specially Elected Seats. I went back to my teaching job at Nangina Intermediate School and shortly after got elected first Vice-Chairman of the Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) Central Nyanza Branch.  My chairman was Samuel Ayany, who was later on elected president of Knut in Kenya.

Ayany Estate in Nairobi is named in his honour.


I become Member of Parliament

In 1963, the year of Kenya's independence, I was nominated by Kanu to contest the Ruambwa constituency seat at the House of Representative. Kadu on the other hand nominated Peter Habenga Okondo. The presentation of nomination papers was done at the Bungoma DC's office. My political duel with Okondo began more or less at the same time when he planned to disrupt my nomination plans. He sent marauding youth to waylay my vehicle, kidnap me and destroy all my nomination documents.

Okondo had this disdain and arrogance over people perceived to be less educated compared to him. Having gone through the famous Fort Hare University in South Africa he thought everybody else was of little importance. He was also an Accountant chartered in both Kenya and Uganda. He also saw our political contest as a Bunyala supremacy duel between the populous Abamulembo and Abamakhiya clans. Fortunately I had my own hidden intelligence reports. I tricked them by using a canoe to Majanji in Uganda where my elder brother John Bwire Osogo was based as a school teacher. He picked me up in his car and drove me in the thick of the night via Malaba to Bungoma.

We parked at the police station and waited for daybreak. By 8am, I was ready at the DC's office with my papers. My clearance was swift and as we walked out we decided to hang around waiting to know who the other contestants were.

The goons who had been sent to intercept my vehicle and probably kidnap me came to Bungoma at 11.40am. They could be heard asking themselves loudly how I managed to reach before them and which route I used. They even had the registration number of my brother's car on a piece of paper. I had escaped Okondo's wicked plans and went ahead to defeat him at the ballot.

Our constituency was first known as Ruambwa then Busia South until 1997 when it was renamed Budalang'i, a name picked from the divisional headquarters.

Tomorrow: Post-independence political assassinations