Ofafa Memorial Hall in Kisumu [Photo: Collins Oduor]

In its heyday, Ofafa Memorial Hall and compound in Kisumu town was the headquarters of the Luo nation. Built from contributions from the Luo nation across East Africa before independence under patronage Kenya’s political icon, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, the hall buzzed with culture, history and politics for decades.

A number of Luo rituals were performed here, and many meetings where weighty matters were deliberated and decided on were held here. All the decisions and declarations made here were final. “It was purely a cultural centre, we would have exhibitions of the traditional Luo foods, clothing, and all other aspects of culture, with the Luo Council of Elders members always there to provide guidance to the community,” says Adera Osawa, a Luo elder.

When he opened it, Jaramogi was very clear on his vision for the hall: it was to remain a citadel of Luo culture. Today, if Jaramogi was to rise from the dead and see Ofafa Memorial Hall, he would be furious. After more than decades as a citadel of culture, the iconic hall is serving a different purpose now. The headquarters of the Luo nation has fallen, transformed into a  market place of merchandise, religion, alcohol and fish.

Even members of the Luo Council of Elders are considered guests here, and must inform “the management” every time they want to use the facility. Here, the custodians of Luo culture have a small dingy room, which has been allocated as their office. The rest of the hall and compound has been taken over by all manner of characters.

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Like the history it hosted, Ofafa Memorial Hall might soon become history. Inside the one-acre compound sits two evangelical churches, a night club, a bar, a restaurant, three-car wash points, and several electronic shops. A number of stalls litter the compound. The once well-manicured lawns are gone; the fence fell off aeons ago, and every Tom, Dick and Harry can come and go as they wish.

There is no shred of Luo culture within the compound; nothing standing out to show that Luo culture once lived here. Instead, it is a babel tower of the racket created by two churches, the ear-shattering music from the bars and the shouting of the car wash attendants, electronic shops and fishmongers. The racket gets worse during electioneering period when, apart from the premise being used as a polling centre, several political meetings are held here, some of which turn violent.

Business premises at The Ofafa Memorial Hall [Photo: Collins Oduor]

“We ought to have had the place secured. It is an important part of the history of the Luo people and culture,” said Mzee Calvin Ariko, who is the chairman of the team that takes care of the facility. So low has the hall sank, put up in memory of Ambrose Michael Ofafa, a famous Luo Union leader killed in Nairobi just before independence, that even his history does not feature anywhere on its walls.

Very few know that it is named after Ofafa, born in 1913 on the banks of River Nzoia to Zakaria Oluta Ofafa and Marcela Onyaka Ofafa, and rose to represent African views in the City Council of Nairobi in the 1950s. Ofafa was a close friend to both Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi long before both became president and vice-president at independence. Observers say the hall started falling apart when the centre that held the Luo Council of Elders - which was supposed to be the custodian of the iconic building - started crumbling.

With three factions of the council now, no one can claim proper control over the facility. Mzee Opiyo Otondi, Ariko and Nyandiko Ongadi all claim be the chairmen of the Luo Council of Elders, each running a parallel council. Each of them once in awhile passes by Ofafa Memorial Hall to hold their meetings; none has firm control of the facility.

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Confusion in the council

 According to Osawa, the council’s secretary-general in Otondi’s camp, the confusion in the council is to blame for the confusion that is today’s Ofafa Memorial Hall. “Ofafa Memorial Hall is fast losing its value; very soon it might end up in the hands of individuals,” said Osawa.

Osawa, who served as the regional head of Luo Union in South Nyanza region, claims the facility was transferred from the union to Luo Council of Elders after former President Daniel arap Moi banned tribal associations. “Jaramogi was clear during the registration of the facility; that it belonged to the Luo community and can never be sold or transferred to another person. It is sad this is not the reality now,” he said.

The elders lamented against the commercialisation of the premise, saying it made it lose its cultural value. “This was a purely cultural centre. If the confusion in the council is sorted out and the place well managed, it can serve its cultural purpose,” said Osawa.