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Writer made huge contribution in the political evolution of modern Kenya


Odinge Odera has left us. He took his last breath on earth on Monday, March 9 this year in the early hours of the morning at Nairobi West Hospital as Kenyans were waking up to yet another warm and shiny day in the midst of a drought we have not seen for long.

C. O. Odera, as close friends always referred to him, was a man who had an immense sense of humour, a grasp of Kenya’s history and politics few have, a frequent lively narration of this history as if he were a tape recorder and a gift of self mockery of his own role in the political evolution of modern Kenya that was always put forth as a form of entertainment.

It was not until the publication of his own political narrative, My Journey with Jaramogi: Memoirs of a Close Confidant (Africa Research and Resource Forum, 2010), that the world got to know why he was detained in 1969 along with 19 other leaders of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s Kenya People’s Union (KPU), the inside story of the goings on within the nationalist struggle and later the KPU, the Joab-like character of Jaramogi as a leader, and his own vision for the future of Kenya.

But before I delve further into C.O. Odera as the politician I knew since the 1960s, I would like to say something about why he had such a compelling and magnetic personality to draw friends to his company and constantly seek him out for what we all agreed as “a good time with C.O. Odera.”

Odinge, a “woman thief man” or, in Dholuo, “jakwo madhako.” When you find a woman thief man in your garden stealing maize, you don’t need to take her to court; there is a better way of enjoying your summary justice. Over bottles of beer at Tumbos or the Three Wheels in Adams Arcade, we would share the Odinge jokes with the late Oki Ooko Ombaka, Boro wa Gathuo, Jim Orengo, Joe Ager (Father Ndikaru wa Teresia), Walter Oko Obado (Hombre), Raila Amolo Odinga, Walter Nyawara (Broco), J.J. Odera: the list is endless.

For quite a long time we lived close to each other in Woodley Estate, Nairobi. Woodley was, in fact, the hub of KPU radicals. Legendary figures like Ramogi Achieng’ Oneko (Nyakech), Luke Obok Rarieya (three piece), Onyango Midika (Arum Tidi), Washington Jalang’o Okumu, Caleb Yaya and others: but it was in Odinge’s and Luke’s houses that we frequently congregated to meet Jaramogi and “chapa siasa.”

At times it was a way by which we kept the fire of nationalism burning, the candle of a future socialist society being lit and the hope for a national democratic revolution succeeding. In the 1980s, the darkest hours were those which followed the aborted coup of 1982 and the long detention of Raila Amolo Odinga. Although all of us had gone through beatings from the authoritarian regimes from time to time, the long detention of Raila produced visible stress on the old man Jaramogi; and it was Odinge who eloquently described this to us. But on that I will speak on a more lengthy text at another time in the future.

Odinge was an intellectual who should have had the opportunity to teach journalism at the University of Nairobi’s School of Journalism. But somehow he never pursued that ambition which he expressed to me at one time. My colleague and friend, Prof Michael Chege, realised this almost wasted intellectual resource and encouraged Odinge to commit his thoughts, memory, impressions, political experiences and contributions to Kenya’s history on paper. We had this discussion for a period spanning three decades.

At one time Michael got a Ford Foundation grant for Odinge to write his memoirs but he never actually finished the work. Much later, after we had formed the Africa Research and Resource Forum (ARRF), we got Odinge a modest grant to write his memoirs.

This is what led to the publication of My Journey With Jaramogi. We owe a lot to George Omondi, our Executive Director, who worked closely with Odinge to ensure the success of this wonderful book. We must also pay tribute to my wife, Dorothy Nyong’o and Seventh Sense Communications for ascertaining a quality publication and memorable launch of the book by Raila Amolo Odinga.

As a young student at the Alliance High School, I remember Odinge, that man with a bushy head, visiting us in the company of Vice President Jaramogi who came to give us a lecture when he made the famous speech reported in the newspapers as “Jaramogi now Says Communism is Like Food.” Forget about the speech: my hero then was Odinge because he was introduced to us as Editor of The East Africa Journal. I later learnt the same man was the first secretary of the Kenya Press Club. My idea of a successful public intellectual was Odinge: the man with a bushy hair. He shared this distinct hairdo with Kitili Mwendwa — the first African Chief Justice — and Apollo Milton Obote, Uganda’s first President: and both of them were also my heroes. I did not know, until much later, that this man did not only hold a bachelor’s degree from a distinguished American university, but he would later receive a Eisenhower Fellowship in 1966 to study African and International Affairs with specific interests in politics, business and journalism at the University of Philadelphia.

Those are the memories of a dear friend I spent many happy days with; never regretting the material comforts of life he never had because of his principled politics all his life. Supported by his wonderful family: his wife Hellen, daughter Achieng’, sons Peter and Gowi, C.O. Odera passed on a loved man. He did not go into that new world gently: he went there a fighter for peace, a defender of human dignity, a crusader for democracy and a committed intellectual for progressive social change. In that grave where he will finally lie there will be two people: Odinge the villager from Majimbo in Imbo, and Odinge the universalist who was at ease discoursing about the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia as well as “the Kalahari Desert” of a District Hospital Board where I appointed him a member in Siaya.

A woman thief man: rest in peace. 

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