Why 1969 bloody opening of Kisumu's 'Russia hospital' is worth remembering

Violence erupted when Jomo Kenyatta visited Kisumu to officially open the Nyanza Provincial Hospital in 1969. [File, Standard]

One of the most important episodes that continues to define the relationship between the Luo and indeed the Nyanza Region and all successive regimes is what is known as the “Kisumu Massacre” of October 25, 1969.

On this day 54 years ago this October, President Jomo Kenyatta visited Kisumu to officially open the Nyanza Provincial Hospital (“Russia”) now named Jaramogi Teaching and Referal Hospital, which was built with aid from the then Soviet Union.

Violence erupted during the event and in the process, security officers opened fire on unarmed civilians as Kenyatta’s entourage drove out of Kisumu through the Kisumu- Ahero -Kericho road, killing dozens of people, including children.

The figures from this incident have remained unclear to date, with official records indicating only 11 deaths. Those who witnessed the event claim more than 100 people were killed.

Various theories have persisted as to what caused the violence. The government blamed it on Jaramogi’s incitement of his supporters from the Opposition party Kenya People’s Union.

However, multiple interviews with others who were there, among them Odinga’s party officials at the time say the party never mobilized any supporters to cause violence. They claim the state planned the violence as an excuse to ban KPU ahead of that year’s elections.

Following the incident, Kenyatta declared a curfew in Nyanza and banned KPU, and in addition, arrested and detained Mr Odinga and his party’s officials. The people and region were equally treated to deliberate suffering and discrimination thereafter.

Mr Odinga, Kenya’s first vice president, had left KANU in a huff and formed an opposition party, Kenya People’s Union (KPU) but the state frustrated him and his team in the party during the “Little General Election of 1966”and after. 1969 was a defining year for Nyanza and Kenya. On January 29, a prominent politician and celebrated lawyer, CMG Argwings Kodhek died in a suspicious car accident in Nairobi.

Jomo Kenyatta shakes hands with Soviet Ambassador to Kenya Lavrov after laying the foundation stone for the new Nyanza Provincial Hospital. Looking on is Jaramogi Odinga. July 1965. [File, Standard]

Six months later, on July 5, 1969, Tom Mboya, then Minister for Economic Planning, was assassinated in the streets of Nairobi.

There was massive outrage and violence in the country, adding to the already built-up tensions arising from the Odinga- Kenyatta fallout from 1966 onwards. This was the tension Kenyatta faced when he went to open the Russia Hospital and in the progress got into a public altercation with Odinga.

With KPU banned, Kenya became a de facto one-party state. Upon their release from jail, Mr Odinga and his KPU team were not allowed to rejoin elective politics as they could not be “cleared” to run on the ruling Kanu party ticket.

Subsequent developments, including arrests, detention, jailing and killing of leaders from the region, including former Minister Robert Ouko, University don Chrispine Odhiambo Mbai, IEBC official Chris Msando, among others, have fueled the outrage and rebellion that manifests every election cycle.

The memories of the Kisumu Massacre and other atrocities after are in danger of fading completely. Few of those born after 1969 and tragically, most of the current crop of Luo leaders, can remember anything about the incident, yet it is at the core of the continuing trauma of the Luo Nation and a sense of rebellion against the national government.

There has been sustained state brutality against Nyanza people, resulting in injuries, maiming and killings of people during every election cycle and any time there is public agitation for change or call for state interventions to correct injustices or respond to citizens’ demands.

The desire by the successive regimes to foist onto the community pliant leadership at different levels, elected or appointed, including the latest attempts by the Kenya Kwanza regime, has not been helpful in managing the tensions or winning over the Luo to the government side.

The psychological scars arising from these happenings have not been healed, and little has been done to deal with the injustices. Instead, there have been sustained distortions and narratives that seek to either erase all these painful memories and get the community to “move on”, or paint the community as “problematic” to the faltering efforts at building a stable and democratic Kenya.

Nyanza Provincial Hospital. [File, Standard]

Intergenerational dialogue, knowledge management and documentation of the true history of the community since independence have therefore been significantly undermined. A huge volume of rich, some painful, others heroic episodes, are on the verge of completely being wiped out.

The Luo community’s vanguard role in the fight for independence and the expansion of democratic change and other progressive reforms over the past 6 decades or more, of course alongside other progressive Kenyans, is being actively erased or distorted.

Yet, the country, now and in the future, needs the inspiration from an accurate memory and documentation of all these past heroic struggles and the various forms of resistance to restrictive environments or violation of human rights and other forms of deprivation.

It is against this background that a team of people from Nyanza drawn from different sectors have decided to begin the process of creating spaces for community dialogue, mapping and documentation of these defining historical episodes.

On Friday, October 27, the team will host a community forum dubbed “Nyanza Dialogue Initiative” in Kisumu City. The forum will not only reflect on the Kisumu Massacre but provide opportunity to remember all other atrocities, including the ongoing Sondu conflict, and make calls for justice.

It will also be an opportunity to celebrate all the struggles and remember the many unnamed people who have died or been killed in the region over the last 6 decades, in the quest for progressive reforms in Kenya.

Participants will also discuss and make proposals on the future of the region, inspire the community to build and sustain the resilience that has seen it overcome decades of tribulations.

-Oloo Janak is part of the team convening the Nyanza Dialogue Initiative