Gem chief who forced parents to take children to school

Odera Akang'o campus, Yala, Gem Constituency, Siaya County. [Titus Munala, Standard]

As the country is agonising about the lost opportunities for an estimated 300,000 learners who fell through the cracks last year after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, there are lessons the government can learn from one colonial chief.

A long time ago, 106 years to be precise, the chief from Gem, Odera Akang'o, was invited to Uganda during the consecration of Namirembe Cathedral by Bishop JJ Willis. And when he returned, as historian Bethwell Ogot writes in his autobiography, My Foot Prints on the Sands of Time: An Autobiography, Gem was never the same again.

The chief decreed that all youths from his jurisdiction had to discard the traditional dress and adopt western clothes. He also ordered all headmen to start a register of all parents and their children. The chief was particularly interested in boys, dictating that they had all to be taken to school. Parents who disobeyed or tried to cite poverty as a reason for not buying the mandatory uniform for their children to be in school were severely punished.

Every Monday, the headmen had to report to Akang'o the number of children who were not going to school and explain why. Although girls were exempted from schooling, mothers had to undergo adult literacy lessons.

The chief had a special place for defiant parents who had no faith in education. He had a special prison built in Yala town. The impregnable prison was built of murram rocks and could not be eroded by the elements.

Moses Oburu, a grandson of one of the people who were compulsorily sent to school by the chief, recalls how this symbol of Akango’s authority defied the sands of time, standing up to the elements even after its roof caved in.

"It is unimaginable that this icon of history in Gem was pulled down by some people in the name of putting up what the county government claimed was a more appealing archaeological monument. This was destruction of a heritage site,” mourned the 50-year-old resident.

The chief may be gone but his name will live for ages carried by a befitting institution, Odera Akang'o University, which was previously operated by Moi University. At one time, it closed for two years but has now been revived by Maseno University. If only the chief was alive, too many brains would not be rotting in the villages today.