When exceptional people are called from this earth, you realise our world is a lesser place without them. Kibra MP Ken Okoth was one such man and his passing will be lamented and honoured in equal measure by many Kenyans. Born in Kibera, the bright young student found his way out of destitution and discovered his values and future in Starehe Boys.
Not content with benefiting from his academic fortunes, or wallowing in the poverty of his birthplace, Okoth felt called to provide similar opportunities for many other young people from his locality. That commitment to serve and inspire led him to stand for the new parliamentary seat of Kibra in 2013. To even get the party nomination then was an achievement and he faced similar opposition in 2017 yet he successfully returned to Parliament.
However, without a shadow of a doubt he has achieved more in six years than all his predecessors did since independence. He did not glorify in Kibra’s poverty. Rather in a Moses like manner his exodus out of enslavement was education and the provision of services for his people. No tin-roofed informal schools for him; instead through NG-CDF funds he oversaw the construction of a modern equipped high school as well as many other learning institutions. He refused an invitation to have the school called in his name, claiming it was not his funds but public taxes that facilitated the construction.
Okoth was exceptional. There are very few of the current crop of parliamentarians who have chosen the route of service over personal gain. In amidst the greed and culture of entitlement there are some few leaders who remind us that this is why we elected them. Okoth had a huge commitment to human rights and collaborated with many civil society organisations in the pursuit of the human rights agenda.
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A particular memory I have of him was his tireless energy and commitment to the passing of the Coroners Bill and the Prevention of Torture Bill in 2016. As chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights he worked right through the night in a Mombasa hotel with the team from IMLU to fine tune the Bills that they had first drafted ten years earlier. As his fellow legislators drifted off to the bars or to bed, he remained on seat until the early hours of the morning and the task was complete.
The Bills of course were passed thanks mainly to his efforts but to date regretfully they are yet to be implemented. Not a single case of torture based on this new legislation has been taken to court. Okoth too made a major contribution to the Land Laws Amendment Act that provided for humane and legal means for evictions of the poor from disputed land. What was remarkable about the man in more recent times was his ability to go public about his illness and still keep focused on his job. Just a few months ago he was in Geneva with human rights organisations promoting their cause.
At the same time he drafted the Cannabis Bill which shocked many establishment figures who didn’t even take time to read the contents or understand his motivation. Okoth knew this country had no plan or resources to tackle the growing problem of cancer that is affecting hundreds of thousands. With so few treatment centres unaffordable to the majority he was proposing that cannabis had the potential to control pain and reduce suffering for many. Cannabinoids are already widely used for treatment of cancer side effects. His proposed legislation deserves a second look to do justice to the fallen hero.
At his funeral, it is no surprise to find his former rivals praise him and lead the mourning. He is silent now and no longer a threat to the establishment or the dynasties. Yes, we frustrate and oppose our prophets but we make martyrs and heroes out of them when they are safely in the coffin. There are many Okoths out there carrying on the struggle for a more liberated, equal and just society.
They follow a lonely path and are much more vulnerable and isolated than we might at first imagine. They need affirmation, encouragement, solidarity and patience. We are not looking for saints or angels. On the contrary just decent, committed, progressive and honest folk who want to build a better future for their children. Let them know that you appreciate their efforts.
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- [email protected] @GabrielDolan1