ODONGO OMAMO: WHAT MANNER OF MAN!
Updated: Oct 20, 2020
Tich gi dhano tek,
Tich gi jarateng’ tek ta ta ta,
Tich gi JALUO tek ti ti ti.
The Luo nation has one of the most sophisticated social welfare systems ever in the world. It is a system well woven for over 1000 years ago and rose because Luos were a martial group. To counter the ravages of the high casualty associated with armed combat various safety valves and soft landing evolved.
A good example is the way the wives and children were taken care of after father was lost in line of duty. To illustrate I briefly will just visit three terms associated with this namely lago, tero and mderma.
TERO is term used to describe the whole process of remarrying a widow to carefully chosen brother in-law from member of the clan. A widower had no such privileges. I have used ‘carefully’ deliberately because some in-laws would have been disqualified during the due diligence. Disqualification could be even personal matters as not committing to in-laws or being a nagging husband to your own wife. Laziness could also lead to disqualification
LAGO on the other hand meant caretaking or overseeing the family of a departed member of the clan. A person could be assigned Lago role where the wife is not marriageable or the available choice for Tero is defective in some ways such as kinship or the person who initially filled the role of Tero has absconded or has himself also died. In order to absolve the widow of double tero, or secondary tero the widow is now only entitled to Lago. However, if the widow had a child with jater, then she is due a secondary tero and not jalago in the event of the passing away of the primary jatero. It is a complex welfare system but driven by the need to take care of the orphans and widows.
I am telling you all these because William Odongo Omamo is referred to as nyathi a tera. Meaning the offspring of the person who inherited the mother. Because I am not so sure of the circumstances I find the word a tera here loosely used and could even mean miderma. Miderma is simply fostering. For example, when a child is sent away to be raised in another family to escape from a hostile environment but the parents are alive. Say like Jesus Christ is referred in dholuo as miderma to Joseph and Mary family.
WHO IS WILLIAM ODONGO OMAMO?
The William Odongo Omamo we know of as former cabinet minister was born On March 27 1928, in between the first and second world wars. He came from a big family of girls and boys and was used to a big surrounding. He went by the nickname Arudhi or Hurricane as a young man. In later lifer people preferred the figurative Kaliech, (like an elephant) or in proper English mammoth.
William attended primary school at a time when people still went to school naked with a small goat skin strip to cover the private parts and buttocks. This means that these were the early Kenyans to go through double transmission of mentality to life in a modern republic to stand toe to toe with western states.
He attended Maranda Sector School in 1936, then proceeded to Maseno Secondary School at present day Maseno University. After Maseno he proceeded to Punjab Agricultural College in 1951 to study Agriculture and graduated with a BSc in Agriculture. I recall myself as a young boy reading his profile in Drum Magazine I found it amusing that Omamo studied in India. I had this child play idea that Indians don’t study and least of all study Agriculture. What Agriculture when they just sit in shops and worship cow that they should farm? Silly childhood fallacies.
From that Drum Magazine I visualise the photograph that looked Anglo-Saxon to me as the wife of Omamo. In my distant memory that half size photo was definitely a white woman. Forget about my stupid imaginations. Omamo was a successful and non-apologetic polygamist. Working for a local NGO in Kapiyo area, I was invited to his house for dinner and met his family.
I remember him educating me of little sneaky development interventions. One of them was that never to leave Nairobi and start spending your money along the way. First of all, reach your home in Ugenya and spend on your planned expenditures in Ugenya and make sure that any disposable income is left in Ugenya to augment cash circulation. As much as a match box is cheaper in Kisumu, just think of the impact of the little margin of profit on the local mobile shop in Ugenya. I treasure such moments.
William Odongo Omamo’s political career ran around a poisoned chalice. The nyathi atera slur was wrong because such a child belongs to the departed first husband to the wife. So what was this discrimination on Omamo? Luos have a belief that such children outperform the other children in the clan. And remember his only sin was to be born with the poisoned status of being nyathi atera.
After College studies in India, Omamo returned to Kenya and joined the academia rising up to College Principal of Egerton University of Agriculture.
He later resigned this post to successfully contest the volatile Bondo seat in 1969 which was vacated when jaramogi Oginga Odinga was detained. And that very act of taking the poison chalice made him an enemy of having dined with the devil. Nothing could be the same for him ever again. Omamo and Jaramogi were locked in political jockeying that appeared to last forever and even dividing the people of Bondo. He served as the Mp for Bondo upto 1974. He later regained the seat and served up to 1988.
His government cabinet portfolios were mostly in the Ministry of Agriculture. After being rigged out in 1988 by the new force in Luo politics, Omamo stepped aside and changed residence to his farm in Muhoroni where he again sought parliamentary representation 1997-2002.
The least said of Bondo politics the better because here is where reason is thrown out of the window due to so much passion and emotions. I have avoided this politics of Bondo and will continue to avoid it. Reason because this is a typical President Bush philosophy of “you are either with them or with us”. If you say Omamo was driving a Mercedes Benz, then you have set yourself in battle with anti Omamo so it is better you say he was walking barefoot with tattered clothes.
However, I will say that functionally there was not much wrong with Omamo as a Minister. Maybe he had few daredevil acts that did not do him any good but he was ok.
An example is the way he set up his home in Utonga. Right from the page in Chinua Achebe’s book ‘Things Fall Apart’, Omamo assigned himself the sacred forest reserved for Oracles and underworld sacrifices. And just like in Chinua Achebe book, people thought he will die. The next thing that was seen was giant tractors clearing building sites. And the tractors just like the white men in Chinua Achebe book could not die. The tractor operators like the spectacles on the white men’s face in Things fall apart seems to protect the tractors. Well then Omamo moved in. It was a home so safe that not even thieves or night runners never wanted to venture in lest the stumble on an oracle. But outside the home the reputation was like adding petrol on to a raging fire.
He had this penchant for taking the poisoned chalice or should I say the poisoned chalice followed him. There was this incident at the heat of the Umira Kager saga when a national flare up un the high court when determining the burial of the remains of the lawyer SM Otieno. The Nairobi church Person Bishop Njenga disassociated himself from officiating for SM Otieno in solidarity with tribes’ fellow widow Wamboi Otieno and therefore earning the wrath of not only Luos who retaliated in solitary with their tribes’ person. Now to flag off the Kenya Freedom From Hunger Walk, an annual fundraising event falling under Minster of Agriculture was Minister William Odongo Omamo at 6am on some cold month of June 1988. Also in attendance to bless the Walk was the above Bishop Njenga. Omamo quickly flagged off the Walk after Bishop Njenga prayers and headed to the airport to travel to Kisumu. On reaching Kisumu (SM burial?), he claimed that he refused to officiate the walk where Njenga was. I loved this killing of three birds with one stone.
His magic wand on political platforms was American style humour. I remember him with this humour. The way he described the different bananas was so disarming even if you carried a stone to stone him, it would just fall of your hand. MP Oloo Aringo tried to emulate him but ended up an embarrassment to his great career.
As Dave Okello my friend and former Gor Mahia FC ace also recalls on the illustrated hilarious episode at AHITI Kabete in the presence of none other than the strait laced Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Omamo made you love Agriculture when listening to his speeches at any of the national Agricultural shows (ASK). The dry speeches were given life and was so alive like comedy but it was at the same time hard stats, “Your excellency, I will not give you any stats on bees and rabbits in Kenya because we signed an agreement with bee queens and all rabbits that this is zero family planning zone”.
And once while describing how he was rigged in Siaya, you were between laughing and sympathising. “Ja Ugenya you have to respect women even for their ability to manage a debe. I could not manage to hold on to one debe of my votes being taken away. And yet women can carry a debe of water and still chat and laugh”.
One time car-jackers blocked him while travelling upcountry for Christmas in the company of his wife and house help at slow section of the escarpment. His humour disarmed the dangerous robbers so much that instead of stealing from him, the robbers did an on the spot Harambee by the roadside from the team of fellow robbers and gave the house help as a Christmas present.
I think his child hood is what brought out the best in his ability to laugh at himself with humour. It is one of those lines that reminds me of the famous philosophical lines, “rakuom ong’eyo kaka nindo”.
Even before his birth he had been stalked with this poisoned chalice. Take for example his fallout with President Moi. It was a cocktail of poisoned chalices.
First he was biologically yoked in a marriage involving the pariah Kikuyu. That because he was related to one of the parties in the Kikuyu/ Luo marriage he should have halted the marriage. Those dark Moi days to associate with a Kikuyu was like playing cat and mouse games in a freeway. Only Luos stood by Kikuyus when they were being persecuted. Yes, let me repeat. “ONLY LUOS STOOD BY KIKUYUS WHEN THEY WERE BEING PERSECUTED”. Is that loud enough?
Then there was the other poisoned chalice involving a top brass in a coffee organisation. The Kikuyu boss rose to the apex position previously held by a white expatriate earning a salary of Kshs 198,000 per month (40 air flights to Mombasa equivalent or 10 flights to UK or 4 Buru Buru middle class bungalows). A politically connected person on discovering the salary wanted the Kikuyu top brass sacked for earning too much. Omamo knew the rest of the world was watching and refused to badge.
Then the final chalice, is that he was hosting a party in his house something like an anniversary. Now to talk about his life, he had to mention how he moved from Maseno to India. Unfortunately for him this link involved a much hated Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. Naturally he had to praise and thank Jaramogi. Just a factual acknowledgement. And just like that and his political career was done with Moi.
That is why I wonder to myself, was he talking to us or was he meditating with his maker. If only I could be in his inner self when he spat the words, “Tich gi dhano tek; Tich gi jarateng’ tek ta ta ta; to tich gi jaluo tek ti ti ti”.