Woodley estate recast into the modern day happy valley

By Charles Ouko

NAIROBI, KENYA: The story of Nairobi’s  leafy Woodley suburb comes as close to the Happy Valley narrative as you can get.  It  is intricately intertwined with the country’s chequered history  with some of its more famous residents being at the centre of  public personal tragedies and triumphs in almost equal measure.

From plane accidents, to murder trials, imprisonment, detention without trial, coup plot accusations, suspicious deaths and  outright executions, Woodley’s residents have been at the centre of them all.

Amidst all of this, Woodley has been the place of residence for a clutch of distinguished Kenyans, among who were an Olympic championship athlete, a vice president, a revered freedom fighter, a host of Members of Parliament, among them assistant ministers and Cabinet ministers.

Built in 1950, Woodley comprises 300 housing units made up of flats, and two and three bed-roomed stand-alone bungalows. Surrounded by plenty of open grass fields, the estate named after British aristocrat Sir Richard Woodley bears great similarities with council estates in the England capital, London.

Woodley became the estate of choice for many Africans who were ascending into positions of prominence in varied spheres of public life, immediately following Kenya’s independence in 1963.These were trade unionists, civil servants and politicians whose  astonishing tragedies and triumphs capture some of the country’s most remarkable events.

Woodley’s  highest moment has to be its association with US President Barack Obama, whose father Barack Obama Snr lived here at the prime of his life as a senior public servant.  The lowest points were probably the   cold-blooded and day light execution of a residents’ rights advocate Charlie Sosah in February 2001, and night-by shooting of Embakasi MP Mugabe Were in 2007.

The Obamas:  Barack Obama Snr lived in house No 118 with his white American wife Ruth, whom he married after divorcing Ann Dunham, the US president’s mother in 1964. The Obamas lived with  the two eldest children from Keziah, Obama Snr’s first wife. These were Roy and Rita. Ruth’s two younger sons by Obama Snr, Mark Okoth and David Opiyo also lived in House No 118.

In later years, Roy and Rita would go to the prestigious Lenana and Kenya High schools for their secondary and high school education.

Today, Roy is 54 and is called Malik, while Ruth, 52, is better known by the name Auma.

Obama Snr died in a car crash in 1982, and in 1987, his son David was killed in a motorcycle accident in Nairobi. Mark now lives in Hong Kong, adopting his Tanzanian stepfather’s name Ndesandjo. CMG Argwings  Kodhek: Kenya’s first African Barrister, the UK-trained lawyer, was MP for Gem and Foreign Affairs minister. He was killed in a suspicious motor accident in the upmarket Kilimani area along a road that now bears his name. Then Attorney General Charles Njonjo confirmed to Parliament that CMG’s body had wounds consistent with bullet holes. He had  lived in Woodley with his white wife Joan and children.

Ramogi Achieng Oneko: He lived in house No 113 and like Obama Snr, was a polygamist married to Jedidah and Loice.

The former freedom fighter and Information Minister in Kenya’s first independence Cabinet was without a  doubt one of Woodley’s most distinguished residents  with a history as astonishing as it was revered. He was a man of many firsts among them being detained for three decades and also being an MP in two different provinces.

Together with Eliud Mathu (the first African to sit on Kenya’s Legislative Council from 1944 to 1957), Oneko was one of the only two African councillors in the Nairobi City Council in the colonial era and oversaw the construction of Woodley Estate. He later served as Nakuru Town MP and Rarieda MP.

His son Mike Lwande, 62, takes up the story of their times in Woodley. “Mzee’s second stint in detention from 1969 till 1975 united us and drove us to  succeed, like nothing else ever could. We were social outcasts even in Uyoma and only children and teenagers would visit us in Woodley. I don’t blame them as no one would have liked to go to prison for being seen to associate with us.”

Continued  Lwande: “It was indistinguishable to know from which mothers we were and this bond continues till now. Three doctors, Yusuf Eraj, William Ouko and Joseph Oluoch were, however, true to their Hippocratic oath and not only treated us, but never invoiced us for their professional services.

“Barack Obama Snr stood in for our dad as guardian, overseeing our general academic welfare and facilitated the entry into Kilimani Primary School for my younger siblings.”

On his father’s detention and his relationship with Jomo Kenyatta, who detained Oneko without trial from 1969 to 1975, Lwande said: “Dad used to tell us that detention never soiled his relationship with Kenyatta and that he considered it but an occupational hazard. Mama Ngina came to mourn with us in Woodley at dad’s demise.

 “Dad often told us that the Mau Mau struggle was principled and against an injustice, and was never fought with the intention of reward. He would say that in normal circumstances when you fight an opponent, and defeat him, compensation was never the objective.”

Oneko was jailed in 1952 by the colonial administration for agitating for Kenya’s independence. He was then jailed  by the Kenyatta administration in 1969 after a riot in Kisumu which signalled the ideological and political falling out of Kenyatta with the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga brigade. Oneko  was released in 1975 and  died at the age of  87 on June 9, 2007.

Jesse Mwangi Gachago: The former MP of Makuyu  and assistant minister  led a colourful life. He had two Woodley residences, among others in Nairobi, with his children from their different  mothers, best of friends and  always happy as a lark!

Jailed in 1978  after he was charged with smuggling coffee,  he was released on presidential clemency two years later. Articulate, friendly and outgoing, his varied investments in real estate and local companies had been dispossessed of his family during his time in jail.

Principled to the end, Jesse Gachago would not bow to the unseen hands that were behind his woes and he passed on at the age of  79 in 2007 proud and unbowed, to the end.

 Onyango  Midika: The Nyando MP was jailed for theft and upon his release, he made it back to Parliament and got a full ministerial portfolio in the early 1990s. He still maintains his Woodley house. Now in his late 70s, he spends most of his time in his Nyando home.

Gideon Mutiso: The Yatta MP was handed a nine-year jail term for allegedly being a part of a coup plot against Jomo Kenyatta.

Billy Konchellah: Gifted athlete and twice 800 metres champion of the world, he served two stints in prison on suspicion and conviction of rape. This was in the UK and in Norway in the early part of this decade. He was the son of former  MP John ole Konchellah.

Mirugi Kariuki:  The Nakuru Town MP died alongside other parliamentarians in the Marsabit plane crash of 2007. His death shocked Woodley residents who only a week earlier had been at his home, seeking his help to tackle various issues affecting their residencies.

Captain Paul Muthee, who lived in the house behind Mirugi’s in Woodley Court, barely 50 metres away,  was the pilot in control when a Kenya Airways plane crashed in Abidjan in 1990 killing 150 people.

Maurice Omwony:  Kenya’s former ambassador to Germany lived in Woodley during his retirement. He died in 2007 at 75.   A year later his adult daughter, Sarah, was electrocuted in their Woodley compound.

This was after she had tried to shoot their metal gate, but unbeknownst to her, a live electricity cable had fallen to the ground  owing to an earlier storm and lay on the gate. She was killed instantly that night.

Charles Sosah: The 34-year-old of  Ghanaian ancestry, but naturalised Kenyan, who was in the frontline for fighting for the rights of Woodley tenants, was murdered in February 2001.   Kuria wa Gathoni, a former  City Hall director, and KANU operative Kimani Kongo were charged with Sosah’s murder but were acquitted after two years in police custody. The murder still remains unresolved.

Mugabe Were: He was elected Embakasi MP in the December 2007 General Elections but was shot at the gate of his house in February 2008, a month after he was sworn in as MP. His execution spot was on the same road   where Sosah was abducted six years earlier . . .  coincidentally only 200 metres away.

 Otieno Ambala:  The former Gem MP  and assistant minister, was like Obama Snr, Harvard educated. He and Obama Snr were next-door neighbours.  As an assistant minister, he was adjudged to have lost the Gem seat by 14 votes in the 1983 elections to Horace Owiti. He publicly retired from politics thereafter and set out to building on his already sizeable business empire, which involved  some joint investments with  former Cabinet minister Njenga  Karume.

His successor in Gem, Owiti  was brutally murdered in Siaya in  1985 in circumstances, that those in the know said were non political. Nonetheless Ambala was arrested at his Woodley home and driven to Kisumu where   he was hurriedly charged with Owiti’s murder.

Ambala died from what police said was a heart attack  in Kodiaga Prison a week after he was indicted. This was on the same Saturday in June 1985 that Owiti was being buried. A further strange twist to Ambala’s death, was the fact that police pathologist A Ribeiro’s plane crashed on Ngong Hills on his way back from conducting the post-mortem on Ambala.

However, Ambala had first made news headlines eleven years earlier upon the tragic death of his wife Perez. She died during the birth to their fifth child at a Nairobi hospital. The infant also died.

A bonafide dollar millionaire in the 1960s, the flamboyant and focused Ambala sued the hospital for negligence in a very high profile case. He brought in American legal and medical experts to buttress his claims of negligence against the hospital’s British gynaecologist Mary Roberts-Glasgow.

Gladys Ogola: She was married to university lecturer Boaz Harrison Ogola and by 1974, the couple  had four daughters. They had moved briefly to Lavington when their Woodley house burned down in a suspicious fire that took Boaz’s life. Gladys was charged with murder and later acquitted after a year in prison. Evidence adduced in court stated that Ogola planned to take in another wife  in his pursuit for a son.

If you drove straight out of Ambala’s Woodley home you would go straight into Mrs Ogola’s, as their gates were directly opposite each other. Both were represented by Kenya’s top  criminal lawyer Byron Georgiadis.

 Gladys Ogola later bore another child, a daughter, while Ambala, who had lost his first wife in 1974, remarried twice over different periods thereafter and sired five daughters.  Ambala had five sons from his first wife and another son from his third.

Some of the trade unionists who at some point lived in Woodley were J D Kali, Clement Lubembe, Arthur Ochwada and Charles Mboya. Lubembe, Kali and Ochwada later served as Members of Parliament.

Other Members of Parliament who resided in Woodley were Henry Ruhiu, Joseph Muturia, Dr Muriuki, Mulu Mutisya,   Luke Obok, Mwangi  Maathai and Musalia Mudavadi who later became a Cabinet minister and President arap Moi’s last vice-president in 2002.

With 50 years of independence beckoning, a good number of the first generation of Woodley residents still retain their houses. However, some of these have been passed down to their children now mostly in their late 40s and early 50s and in some cases even to  their grandchildren.

Mzee Ben Ashihundu, 82, and Owen Butler, 85, are believed to be the oldest original inhabitants, still in occupation of their Woodley houses.