Ayah stood out in a bygone era when public service meant great sacrifice

There was always a friendly, but rather competitive relationship between Luo students who went to Maseno High School and those who attended the Alliance High School. Matters were made more complicated by the fact that Edward Carey Francis, the famous Cambridge educated mathematics teacher, first headed Maseno before he moved to Alliance in 1940. Old boys of both schools claimed the best out of Carey, even when he had long left their alma mater.

At independence in 1963, almost all the educated “who is who” around the shores of Lake Victoria, were most likely old boys of these two schools, Wilson Ndolo Ayah being one of them, having graduated from Maseno before he joined Makerere University College. They were men who eventually left behind them long trails of accomplishments, imagined or real, about which they always taunted each other while partaking of the fruits of the vine in their adult years. Wilson perfected this art very early in life.

I came to know Wilson Ndolo Ayah in my early years at Alliance High School. He was one of those young men “beating politics”, as we said in Dholuo, with Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. I eventually realised he was from my own location of Seme, and that my father, the Rev Hezbon Shimei Nyong’o, taught him at Ndiru Sector School in the early 40s. I think that is why Wilson always called me “Wuod japuonj”, ie the son of the teacher. In conversations with my father, I learnt that among the most brilliant—but rather naughty—pupils my father taught was Wilson Ndolo Ayah. It turns out that naughty pupils tend to be also brilliant; they need to exercise their fertile imagination beyond the ordinary.

It is this fertile imagination, and the passion of nationalism, that no doubt led Ndolo to politics, and he engaged in it with all the vigour of youth. When he finally stood for Parliament to fill the Kisumu Rural seat in 1969, he sailed through with ease since he had gathered the reputation of being a lieutenant of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga who had been detained by Jomo Kenyatta that year, and his opposition party, the Kenya Peoples Union, banned. Wilson served his full term till the 1974 election which he lost to the late Onyango Ayoki.

The 1979 election was the first one I engaged in as a campaigner for the late Robert Ouko. The other candidates were Ndolo Ayah, Onyango Ayoki (the incumbent) and Ouko Od Wadu. I remember very well that Wilson’s campaign symbol was a panga while that one of Ouko was a safari lamp. The beauty of it was that the candidates always campaigned on the same platform, changing barbs and outwitting each other, not to mention the usual promises of “I will do this or that” when elected. The other very unique thing is that the audiences were interested in what the candidates had to say, their potential as leaders and their oratorical powers. Money was not as big an issue as it is today; in fact its use was very minimal.

I remember one campaign rally in my own village when Wilson, waiving his symbol the panga, told the audience that he was the only one capable of clearing the political weeds on that stage before they grew to spoil the good politics he was trying to sow in Kisumu Rural. In any case the apparent good oratory of Robert Ouko was not useful to him since he had not gone through Maseno to learn anything useful. Then people would laugh and cheer. After the campaign rallies, Ouko and Ndolo would be found drinking together at Lake View Hotel in Kisumu, celebrating the fun they had just had campaigning during the day. Here were really civil men demonstrating the quintessence of good politics.

Wind the clock forwards and Wilson wins the 1988 elections in Kisumu Rural, serves in the Moi Government as Minister For Science and Technology and then as Minister for Foreign Affairs in the heat of the pressure for multi-party politics.

The American Republican Administration then had an ambassador in Nairobi called Smith Hempston. Bully, bearded and grey, he seemed to have landed in town with the sole mission of showing the Moi politicians the door were they to persist in their political bad manners. One edict after the other, Hempston was consistently taking sides with the pressure for democratisation. As foreign minister Ndolo was not amused. One day he woke up with his acidic wit on the fore front of his head and called Hempston “a man with the mentality of a slave owner who is not fit to teach us any lesson in politics.” Bishop Henry Okullu took him on: “Wilson Ndolo son of Ayah, what shall you do when multi-party finally comes?” In his quiet moment, I am sure Wilson must have just laughed the episodes off.

In 1992 both of us were candidates in Kisumu Rural constituency: Ndolo running on a Kanu ticket and I on a Ford-Kenya ticket. It was a tough election, with both of us putting our best foot forward. But Kanu had the advantage of having state power and all the trappings that went with it. Ford-Kenya had the goodwill of the people who were fed up with the impunity and marginalisation associated with the Moi regime. Ndolo lost the election, but was nominated to Parliament by Moi. Once more Wilson was very civil, and we worked together very well, ending up serving in the same Public Investments Committee which I chaired for two years. Those two years cemented an even more mature joking relationship between Wilson and I.

When he finally bowed out of elective politics at the end of the last century, he entered seriously into the corporate world, serving as the first chairman of Safaricom Ltd, a company which has grown to be one of the biggest in this part of Africa. He must have no doubt given the company his best from his long stretch in public life. Characteristic of Wilson, he kept a low profile after he entered the corporate sector on a full time basis. Meeting him was, however, always a pleasure. For on such occasions he would always engage one in mundane aspects of life, mocking himself and seeing through the foolish side of pompous individuals with few achievements to show in life.

As Wilson leaves us, I must appreciate that human side of this son of Seme, because that was what was so delightful in being with him. Historians will, of course, chronicle the detailed achievements in his public persona, including his chairmanship of Kanu. But let them tell his history as it was, nothing extenuate. May God keep him in eternal peace.