'My life with CMG Argwings-Kodhek'

Funeral service of CMG at Holy Family Catholic Basilica, Nairobi. Her two young sons Gem and Caesar in foreground, with Yuneah Ouko carrying her other child. TJ Mboya, then Economic Affairs Minister, is on Mrs Argwings-Kodhek's  left. 

NAIROBI: Following the death, in January 1969, of Kenya's Foreign Affairs Minister, Argwings-Kodhek, in a suspicious road accident, his widow Joan later defiantly said, 

"The scar of losing my husband, the father of our six children, continues to heal. However the magnitude of the loss to me, coupled with the circumstances of the same, are a pain that will never leave me."

In 2013, Mrs Joan Argwings-Kodhek, who succumbed to cancer on Tuesday, spoke at length about her life with CMG Argwings-Kodhek.

CMG stood for both his real English names Clement Michael George, and Luo names Chiedo More Gem (The Oil of Gem in Luo).

Born Joan Omondo in Maseno, she was one of 11 children of the late Timothy and Mary Omondo of Yimbo. Her father was a pioneer African teacher who taught for many years at Maseno School.

Joan received her early education at Jusa Primary School before going to Asumbi Girls Primary, where she passed with top grades. She then went to Butere Girls High School for her secondary and high school education until 1957.

Later, a visit to her cousin Yuneah Ohera Ouko in Kisumu, led to her fortuitous meeting with Kodhek.

"CMG also happened to be visiting at the time, his very good friend Dr William Ouko, a medical doctor, with whom they had studied together in the UK. Dr Ouko was married to my cousin Yuneah and while we were in another room with Yuneah I could hear them discussing me!" recounted Joan.

She continued, "As they say, one thing led to another, and shortly after, CMG visited our home seeking my hand in marriage. But my parents were hesitant on two grounds. One, he was Catholic and two, they desired, and so did I, that I further my education. Not one to be  easily put off, CMG offered to put me through college. Through his contacts in the UK, I found myself headed to a college in the UK to study nursing.

I soon found out that I did not like nursing and switched to public administration with a bias for public relations, returning home in 1962."

During her studies in the UK CMG, who had qualified as Kenya's first African barrister, had set up shop in Nairobi, and was busy building a nationalistic image with his robust defence of Mau Mau freedom fighters in the Kenyan colonial courts. Among his famous clients was Waruru Kanja.

However, with the elections looming in 1963, the political bug also bit him. However, there was the small matter that needed to be addressed - he was still a bachelor. This he fixed by marrying Joan, first traditionally in 1962 and later at a glamorous wedding at the Holy Family Cathedral, Nairobi. Kodhek was elected Gem Member of Parliament in 1963.

During their wedding, the best maid was Claire Omanga, whose husband Andrew Omanga was permanent secretary to Daniel arap Moi, then vice-president and Home Affairs minister. The best man was Mwai Kibaki.

Kodhek proposed to Joan in London in 1961. "He was attending the Lancaster House Conference, that was discussing Kenya's imminent independence from British colonial rule. I consented on three accounts: He espoused Christian values. He was very civilised and forward looking. He valued education."

The Kodheks made their first home in Baba Dogo, Ruaraka, before moving to Lavington. In 1968, they visited Mauritius to witness the country's independence celebrations. In Nairobi, they played host to several world leaders, among them Zambia's founding President Kenneth Kaunda. Generally, theirs was what many would term a good life.

But all that came to a sudden, brutal end in January 1969.

"We parted earlier that evening from a reception at the Princess Hotel in Nairobi. I drove home to Lavington ahead of him in his Mercedes Benz to attend to the children. He was using my car. I felt uneasy when he did not return by 10p.m and alarmed when it got to 11p.m.

"A police car drove into the compound about 11.30p.m and I knew then something was wrong. They informed me my husband was in hospital as a result of a road accident. I accompanied them in their car to the scene of the alleged accident."

The crash was at the junction of the present-day Wood Avenue and Argwings-Kodhek Road. Whereas the scene was littered with broken glass and oil, there was no car in sight.

"I made a mental note of this and asked the police of the whereabouts of the cars supposed to have been involved in the purported accident. Their answer was that they had been towed away!

We then proceeded to the Nairobi Hospital. Kodhek was alive in what I think was an emergency receiving room. He could speak, and was in great pain. The police took me home and I left the hospital hopeful that he would recover."

They returned at around 5.30a.m. on January 29. Fearing the worst, Joan refused to let them in. They informed her they needed her to accompany them to the hospital to sign a consent form for an operation on her husband.

At the hospital, she was led into a room, where Kodhek lay covered in a sheet. She uncovered his face and called out his name repeatedly. Getting no response, she pulled back his eyelids. It was then that she realised that he was dead.

During the interview in 2013, Joan still believed her husband was assassinated. "The accident that killed my husband was very cleverly planned.

After the burial, State House facilitated my being allocated a three-bedroomed bungalow in Woodley. This was critical to our well-being as it enabled me rent out our Lavington home, to cover the mortgage."

She turned her attention to getting employment and putting her children through school. She worked as an administration secretary with East African Railways, British Council and Magadi Soda.

Today, all children, Carole, Shirley, Gem, Caesar, Sharon and Eugene are graduates. Carole and Shirley were Kodhek's daughters with his British wife, Mavis Tate. They were taken in and raised by Joan and her husband following their mother's death.

Joan said her husband’s best friends were Njoroge Mungai, William Ouko, Wilson Malaki Warambo and Prof David Wasao. The first three are, coincidentally, medical doctors. Dr Mungai was appointed Foreign Affairs minister by Jomo Kenyatta.

Asked about her husband's relationship with Kenya's founding president, Jomo Kenyatta, she said, "It was very, very good, and that is what cost him his life!"