Peter Shompole ole Leroka was a pioneer member of the giant teachers’ union, a witness to the formation of Kanu and was privy to how Kenya’s third President Mwai Kibaki was wooed into politics.
He was a teacher who never stepped into a classroom to learn but studied through correspondence. A Catholic who was never baptised but who was assisted to marry a third wife in church by a priest, after the priest consulted his other wives.
The life of Shompole, a relatively unknown man, has been chronicled in a rare autobiography Dare to Defy -- rare because Kenya is a place where memoirs are mainly associated with the high and the mighty. The book is a candid recollection of a self-made man who starts off as an only child, whose mother passes away when he is still young but he overcomes a series of betrayals by close relatives, the society and confidants to become a witness to Kenya’s history.
His father, a herdsman, Leroka ole Kesempe Loosampin, defies tradition by refusing to remarry after the death of his only wife Wambui. This was a novelty in Maasai community where having many wives is a norm rather than an exception. This defiance streak drives Shompole’s father from his birthplace in Magadi to a new area, Kiserian, where he has to forge new relationships with ‘strangers’ as he tries to bring up his only child, single-handedly.
Life plays a nasty trick on Shompole, who in his formative years is socialised to be a man who should face his challenges without flinching or showing any weaknesses.
At 15 years, having proved to his father and peers that his is worthy to be called a real Maasai Moran, disaster strikes. A few days to his initiation, Shompole’s father dies but there is a conspiracy among the elders who wait until he is circumcised and completely healed before they inform him that he was now an orphan.
As Shompole struggles to come to terms with his new status, his father’s clan from Magadi comes for him, with the intention of subjugating him to inherit some of his father’s livestock but they are shocked to learn that he is now a man and he can chart his destiny.
Torn between tradition, represented by the life in Magadi, and the new lifestyle of his urban peers in Kiserian, which is nearer Nairobi, Shompole undertakes an endeavour which further drives a wedge between him and the family which has adopted him: he falls in love with books although he had never been to school.
Against the wishes of his adopted family, the young man sells part of his inheritance to buy some books much to the chagrin of his guardians.
He befriended a stranger to educate him, ultimately conquering illiteracy and earning himself a job in the city, first as a watchman and then a clerk.
Shompole’s story is told in a humourous and candid style of a grandfather narrating his life story to his grandchildren, unhurried by time. The book puts into perspective the circumstances under which Kenya got independence, the roles played by Jomo Kenyatta, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Ronald Ngala and others in Kenyan politics at a time when brothers betrayed their own without a second thought.
Dare to Defy takes us inside the classroom at a time when Kenya National Union of Teachers was being created, reveals how, during those days, teachers and their pupils were free to socialise, drink together and even have open love affairs which resulted in marriages. One of his wives was indeed his pupil who was married with the blessing of family.
The book has interesting anecdotes about the formation of Maasai United Front, a party he and John Keen founded but which folded up after the two biggest political parties, Kanu and Kadu swallowed all the smaller units.
It traces the genesis of political violence during elections and gives incidences when bloody clashes occurred between the dominant parties.
At one point his house was torched after he contested a parliamentary seat against his friend John Keen. The violence drove him out of elective politics but did not end his friendships with the powerful politicians such as Prof George Saitoti, the former vice president who rescued him when his 90-acre piece of land in Kiserian was being auctioned by a bank over a loan a friend had taken and illegally used the land as security.
Though repetitive at times, Dare to Defy, which is published by GetAfrica Company, is a repository of Maasai customs and Kenya’s history and invites the reader to unlearn some of the ‘norms’ inculcated by society.