I sat on the tarmac, drenched in my own sweat. I could barely hear the words of the student leader. I had been sitting here for hours taking notes under duress. The students now demanded that I read back to them what I had written.
Their anger could have set any structure ablaze. They were protesting the death of their Foreign Affairs minister. I was spared from mob beating because I worked for the Nation Newspapers Limited, then considered as a people's mouthpiece and an anti-government outlet.
My photographer Baraka Karama Snr and I had left the office to visit Robert Ouko's Nyahera home. We encountered hundreds of students from Maseno University College (a constituent of Moi University). They were singing, dancing, chanting and composing dirges while carrying twigs. They stopped every vehicle, harassing motorists and seeking the identification of each occupant. I believe they were searching for government officials and security personnel.
When they were satisfied that I had correctly captured their thoughts, they released me on condition that their story and photos would appear in the following day's copy of the Daily Nation. Of course, I had no control over the story usage but I had to buy my freedom.
The Ouko home
We eventually arrived at the Ouko home. The beautiful serene home stood on the hillside not far from the Maragoli Forest. Covered by trees and flowers, it was an ideal hiding place for anyone seeking solace.
There were no family members at the home, but a domestic worker who knew me took us around. I recalled the moments I had shared with the late Ouko in this home. Walking through the flower garden, we entered his living room and library. His library and study were his most precious rooms. Ouko loved reading.
I remembered the precious moments when we shared a cup of tea. He poured out his thoughts about Kenya, the county he loved and his travels around the world. He was not only the Foreign Affairs minister, but he was also the Kisumu Rural MP.
After conducting a few interviews with neighbours and the worker, we left for Kisumu. The Kakamega Kisumu road was a lengthy battle line. There was little traffic. We passed through several police roadblocks. We had to identify ourselves at each before being waved on.
In Kondele, we had to contend with tear gas and the sound of gunfire. Fortunately, my driver, Jimmy Achira was a Kisumu resident and had previously worked as a taxi driver. He knew which routes to take to safely deliver us to the office. I decided to cover the town centre events on foot. Armed with my notebook, I walked towards the Imperial hotel. There I met my colleague Amos Onyatta from the Standard Newspaper and Warambo Owino from the Kenya Times. We agreed to walk as a group and work as a team for our joint security. Just then, a lorry carrying GSU officers came hurtling towards us.
It slowed down almost to a halt as it neared the spot where we stood. I remember watching the unfolding events as if in slow motion. An officer shouted at us while taking aim with his rifle. We had no time to run or take cover as he pulled the trigger. Just then, as it happens in movies, a ball of fire fell on the lorry exploding like a bomb. The sudden jolt must have shaken the shooter's hand misdirecting the bullets. They flew right above our heads. The GSU officers scampered out of the lorry screaming. Some of them were on fire. Their vehicle had been petrol bombed by a rioter whose act saved our lives in the nick of time.
We ran. We ran fast. We took the route towards the Kisumu High Court which usually has less human traffic than the town centre. Stones and bullets were flying in all directions. There were, however, three GSU officers hot on our heels. I sprinted past my colleagues but had to slow down to assist my friend Onyatta. I told the others that we could not leave one of our own behind.
Onyatta was coughing, heaving and puffing. He had never run like this before. He eventually collapsed in a heap and told me: "My brother just let me die" I stood by him. Just then the GSU men pounced on us.
To my surprise, instead of beating us, they looked at Onyatta, one huge load of human flesh sprawled on the tarmac, and started to laugh. "Koech angalia hii nyani haizewi hata kimbia. Wewe chukueni hii maiti yenyu mutoe hapa." (Koech look at this monkey, it can't even run. You take your corpse away). We struggled to lift up our colleague and staggered towards the court premises for safety and shelter. Onyatta was one of the gentlest souls I have ever met. Soft-spoken with a shy smile, he stood above six feet. His broad shoulders and huge tummy gave his gigantic figure extra significance.
A story is told of Onyatta's visit to Standard Newspaper headquarters along Likoni road in Industrial Area, Nairobi. Dressed smartly in a navy blue suit, white shirt and red tie, he entered the office of the Group Managing Editor Ali Hafidth. He had gone to plead with the boss for a retainer fee. He had been working hard as a freelance journalist in Kisumu without regular pay and thought it was time he placed his request to the highest office. The secretary ushered him into Ali's office. When Ali saw him, he quickly stood up from behind his desk and offered him a seat. Ali was a tiny man, diminutive in stature. He ordered his secretary to serve his guest a cup of tea. Onyatta was shocked that such a senior man could give him VIP treatment.
Ali knew he had an important guest from either the government or the ruling party Kanu. It is only when Onyatta introduced himself that Ali realised he had "wasted his hospitality on a mere correspondent". "Get out of my office", he shouted fuming and puffing. Onyatta scampered out of the office, terrified by the sudden turn of events. It only dawned on him that he had become a serious case of mistaken identity. He, however, used to joke that "at least I had finished taking the tea" before his boss realised he was not a VIP.
On this hot afternoon, as the streets of Kisumu town burst and burned into flames of fury, Onyatta's body size came to our rescue. This time it was not mistaken identity but his real identity that saved us.
The body count was piling. The number of injured civilians and security personnel was growing. The pain and agony of Kisumu residents were unbearable. For three days we could not access our homes. We had to sleep on the floor of our office. Food and water became scarce commodities. It was during such moments that the office telephone would ring and a man with a heavy Kalenjin accent would ask to speak to me. "Wewe ndio unajifanya eti unajua Kizungu sana? Eti unaelezea vile Ouko alikufa, utamfuata huyo Ouko" (You are the one who pretends to know a lot of English. You tell your readers how Ouko died. You will follow that Ouko."
I received several such death threats. At last, my colleagues and I decided that it was no longer safe for any of us to stay in our homes. We booked ourselves into the YMCA hostels where we stayed for several weeks. For days, Kisumu was a war zone. Ouko had followed in the list of many unresolved political assassinations. From Pio Gama Pinto - a Kenyan journalist, politician and freedom fighter, killed in February, 1965, to lawyer Argwins Kodhek, who died in January 1969, to Thomas Joseph Mboya, shot in a Nairobi street in July 1969. Then, came the 1975 murder of Nyandarua MP Josiah Mwangi Kariuki popularly known as JM.
Tears flowed down my cheeks. The scenes at the hospital were unbearably heartbreaking. Women, men, and children were brought in on stretchers. Some came in with broken limbs. Many had bullet wounds with blood gashing out. I sat at the casualty, mentally recording and reliving the horror that had become Kisumu town. Every day the number of injured and the dead increased. The gunfire and street wars intensified. The smoke from burning cars, and structures choked the streets.
A short stocky man staggered in. His head had a gaping wound with brains almost flowing out. He had been beaten senseless by riot policemen. He collapsed and died as we watched helplessly.
A pregnant woman was brought in on a stretcher. She had been beaten to near death. Bleeding and crying in pain, she went into labour at the Casualty. My heart wept for the hospital staff. The Superintendent of the New Nyanza General Hospital Richard Otieno Muga and his staff were overwhelmed by the number of casualties; both civilian and security. They could barely cope. For days, doctors, nurses and hospital staff had not slept. They had even mobilised students from the Kenya Medical Training College (KMTC), to help with the crisis. The wards were full and patients were now sleeping in the corridors. The mortuary too was overflowing with the dead. The most heartrending encounter was the image that stuck in my mind for years. A woman and her teenage daughter were brought in with serious burns. They were preparing lunch for their customers at a canteen in Kisumu's Manyatta estate when the police burst in.
Porridge and tea were boiling on huge sufurias while githeri cooked at another corner. The 12-year-old girl was peeling potatoes while the mother prepared chapatis. The askaris landed on them with kicks and blows before sexually assaulting them.
"They took their time raping my daughter and me. I wish they had just killed me. They would laugh as they exchanged us both. Oooh, my daughter, her innocence was taken away before my own eyes," said the woman almost in a whisper of pain.
The terror and agony in her eyes and voice haunted me for years. She had never imagined such evil would befall her. After raping mother and child, the askaris poured the boiling tea and porridge on them and casually walked away. Laughing. They were lucky some people found them and organised their hazardous trip to hospital. The Good Samaritan who brought them had his vehicle stoned but he was delighted to have delivered them safely.
Soon after I had interviewed the woman, I walked back to the casualty to document a few cases before finding my way back to the office to file my story. Armed policemen stormed the hospital beating up patients and staff. They even threw tear gas canisters into the wards. The only place spared was the mortuary. Madness and anarchy had indeed descended upon Kisumu. I miraculously escaped the beating but was now inured to the chocking state of the tear gas.
After almost an hour of panic and fright, the attackers left leaving behind terrified men, women and children. The anger on the faces of doctors and nurses was tangible. One of them issued orders repeatedly: "We cannot tolerate this impudence. Any security officer that walks in with any injury no matter how small, amputate. Amputate and amputate. We must cut off those limbs they are using to kill and main innocent people"
I managed to reach my car parked strategically under some trees within the hospital compound. When the photographer entered we sped off. There were fires all over the road. When we reached Kibuye market, I saw a lone man standing in the middle of the road. I asked the driver to be careful. Before I could finish my sentence, I saw him lift up his hand. He unleashed a rock. We ducked just in time. There was a smashing sound of breaking glass as our car swerved to avoid hitting him. When I raised my head, the windscreen had vanished and a huge rock sat neatly in the back seat. It had missed my head by inches.
Every evening, with swollen muscles and tired minds, we sought solace in our favourite beers and drank our sorrows away. We prayed that death would elude us and God would grant us favour to see yet another day.