His humble mien does not betray his larger-than-life portrait that is his distinguished past. In his heyday, he dined with former US President John F Kennedy, sheltered and led street demos with epoch-making America’s liberation idols, and shared Africa’s painful freedom struggle with independence heroes.
Mention of Odero Nyimbi draws blank stares among his compatriots, even as he stands towering head and shoulders above better-known players in the arena of freedom struggle and human rights.
The 80-year-old researcher turned farmer on the shores of Lake Victoria helped nurture African leaders who went ahead to play critical liberation roles in their countries.
As a student leader in America at the height of the civil rights movement, Odero was at the thick of things when the likes of Martin Luther King Jr, Stokely Carmichael, Malcom X and others took the political stage by storm. He recalls with amusement permeating his face, how as the powerful Secretary General of the All-African Students Organisation in America, he would join diehard black mobs accompanying Luther King Jr to the States of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia in the South for irritant sit-ins at whites only hotels.
“Police under orders to ‘clear away the niggers’ would carry us into jails that we filled until doors could no longer close, only to come back to freedom us as ‘sheer nuisance’,” he says with a laugh.
He narrates: “Those were the days when Malcom X, then a radical African American Muslim minister and human rights activist would seek refuge in my house popularly christened ‘The People’s Plaza’ to escape trouble. We were friends. Once a bomb exploded at his compound in the wake of a visit by my colleagues and I. He was inside his house and ran for his dear life through the window. He escaped unhurt.”
“I was at Columbia University at the time. Malcom X lived in nearby Harlem. We had walked to his house for a consultative meeting. Little did we know that a bomb had been planted on his compound. Luckily for us, it exploded after we had left.”
“When future legendary boxer Cassius Clay or Muhammad Ali as he came to be famously known found himself in the hoops on refusing to enroll in the army as a conscientious objector, we allowed him a brief safe sojourn in ‘The Peoples’ Plaza’. Clay, like Malcom X, had become our comrade in the struggle, counting on our support whenever he sensed trouble.”
The man from Seme in Kisumu County is humble almost to a fault and betrays no pride even as he belts out his lofty fetes in the land of opportunities.
“Our struggle was not confined to the US. We fought for independence back home in Africa and organised African freedom day once a year. From time to time, we invited notable African leaders of the time, among them Dr Kwame Nkrumah of newly independent Ghana, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Dr Milton Obote, Dr Kenneth Kaunda and others to come and address us,” he says.
Says he: “For Kenya, our organisation with Mboya’s big clout collected money in the United States to help put up Solidarity Building that became a symbol of freedom struggle in Nairobi. More, we identified people we thought were potential leaders and put them through college studies. Among latter day African leaders who studied through our efforts was Eduardo Mondlane of Mozambique and Geoffrey Hage Gueingob of South West Africa, now Namibia.”
“We persuaded a reluctant Mondlane, immortalised locally on a street in downtown Nairobi named after him to form Frelimo, the Mozambican freedom movement.
Mboya arranged for Mondlane to operate from Solidarity Building, but President Kenyatta declined prompting Mondlane to shift base to Dar es Salaam where then President Nyerere was more accommodative of African liberation. He died in a letter bomb blamed on South Africa’s apartheid upon which Samora Machel, Mozambique’s founding president took over the mantle as the leader of Frelimo,” Odero says.
“Geingob whom we literally pushed to form a branch of South West Africa People’s Organisation in America, matured to become Namibia’s first Prime Minister at independence in 1990 and remained relevant in that country’s political scene for decades.”
Odero, an alumnus of St Mary’s School Yala was aged 25 and a student of pharmacy at the Medical Training Centre when he was picked to be part of the maiden Tom Mboya Airlift of students to the United States in 1959.
“We were eighty one. I remember Pamela Odede; the future Mrs Mboya, Odinge Odera, Dorcas Boit, Adipo Ododa, Ogola Okelo, Adhiambo Ragwar, Omondi Opuodho, Prof. Ole Moiloi, Otieno Otono, Muthoni Likimani, Grace Wagema, Amina Butt, Nyokabi and many others,” he recounts.
He went to Manhattan College in New York for a BSc in Medical Biochemistry and took postgraduate courses in Fordham, City University, and Columbia University where he did nuclear medicine in pharmacognosy and pharmaceutical sciences.
“When the British advisor to Commonwealth students refused to deal with Kenyans who were deemed hard headed for daring take up arms against colonial powers, Mboya asked me to co-ordinate the students from my New York base,” says Odero.
Odero says he many times accompanied Mboya to meet John F. Kennedy, later President Kennedy for funds.
He recalls: “I would go with Tom to the Kennedy home in Hyanni’s port or Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, an Island off Boston Harbour to court money for the second airlift. He gave us US$100,000, a lot of money at the time. Courtesy of this effort hundreds came to the US in latter airlifts.”
He continues: “I was the students representative on the board of the African American students foundation formed after the first airlift to help facilitate scholarships, bursaries, placements and the general welfare of our Kenyan students. Members of this board included Jacky Robinson, the first Negro basketball champion, musician Harry Belafonte who later was joined by songbird Miriam Makeba, Bill Shineman, a great friend of Tom Mboya whose remains today lie next to Mboya’s mausoleum on Rusinga Island, singer and trumpeter Lois Armstrong Jr. Frank Monterro, George Hausa, Peter Weiss and Cora Weiss.”
Odero says: “We formed the East African Students Organisation in America and joined the Pan- African Students Organisation in America that transformed into the over 40,000 member strong All African Students Organisation that struggled hard to liberate Southern Africa from colonialism and later participated in formation of OAU in Ethiopia.”
“With time, my house in New York effectively became the students’ Centre where African students from all over USA and The Caribbean with school, social and other problems trooped for assistance. Among the students who often visited and slept in my house included George Sitote and Barack Obama Sr, father to President Obama then studying at Harvard. He had been facilitated by Mboya to come to America five months earlier.”
He narrates: “Besides students, many African leaders, politicians visiting America and the United Nations and envoys posted to the United Nations would report first at my house for advice and orientation. Those from East Africa were no exception when they arrived in New York as Permanent Representatives to the United Nations. We helped them get accommodation and finding offices.”
“Activities at my house were galore and varied. Ojwang’ K’Ombudo and Winston Ochoro Ayoki both got married there. They later became Nyakach and Kisumu Rural MPs respectively. From my house, we would arrange summer jobs for students together with accommodation and transport back to school. Later we arranged for their airfares back home on completion of their studies.”
“Our influence was such that Kennedy sought the support of our organisation in 1960 in his race for the White House. Having identified with the African course in many facets including the airlifts, he counted on blacks and other minorities to enable him become the first Catholic and Irish President of the United States,” says he.
Odero grins broadly as he recounts how he rode in the same limousine with Mrs Hellena Roosevelt, a former first lady on a campaign foray for Kennedy. “I still remember that long limousine and the way we passionately urged doubting African Americans to vote for the liberal Kennedy,” he says.
After his studies, Odero worked briefly as Research laboratory specialist in radiotherapy at Mount Sinai Medical Centre in New York. On his return to Kenya, he teamed up with the late Dr Hillary Ojiambo and the Glasgow group to set up the clinical sciences laboratories in Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) for the school of medicine at the University of Nairobi. He worked as a chemical Lecturer at Strathmore College and further facilitated setting up the radiotherapy unit in KNH. He helped set up The Kenya National Library Services by donation of books.
Holder of a Masters degree in Clinical Pharmacology, Odero is particularly proud of the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe) where he served for 20 years: “Icipe owes its existence to Prof Thomas Odhiambo and myself.”
“We managed to set up International Research centres in Duduville in Nairobi and Mbita Point, now known as Thomas Odhiambo Campus,” he says.
Odero and Dr Nyawanda Onyango founded the Kisumu Hospice and Cancer Palliative Care Centre at the Oginga Odinga Referral and Teaching Hospital in Kisumu where he is the Secretary to the Board of Trustees. He is also in the Board of Management of St. John’s High School, Aduong’ Monge in Kisumu County.
Odero and his wife Violet have been blessed with four children, two boys and two girls, all of them university graduates.