British sneaked to Bondo for secret Oginga documentary

Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. [File, Standard] 

There was a time when freedom of thought and association was criminalised in Kenya. Scholars cowed in lecture halls for fear of spies who lurked in university corridors not to further their education but to betray independent-minded lecturers. During this period, writers, playwrights and filmmakers went through hell.

At the height of the government's crackdown on dissidents following the abortive 1982 coup, a filmmaker, Edward Milner and his director, Bernard Odjidja wrote to Kenyan authorities requesting a licence to film, No Easy Walk. This was a film which sought to explore how pioneer freedom fighters had liberated their country.

The filmmakers' local contact, Mohinder Dhillon, discloses in his memoirs how this application was turned down after the government learnt that Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was to be interviewed. At the time, Jaramogi was under house arrest in Bondo while his son, Raila Odinga, was in detention.

“We were told we could make this documentary only if we undertook, in re-applying for a licence, not to include any footage of Oginga Odinga. Even if such a licence were to be granted, we were to be accompanied by government officials to make sure that we complied," Dhillon writes.

Determined to interview Jaramogi, whose voice was critical to the documentary and wary of hawk-eyed agents determined to stifle voices of dissent, Milner worked out a plan.

Milner and Odjidja flew into the country disguised as tourists, carrying no filming equipment and borrowed a cheap video camera from a friend in Nairobi before proceeding to Kisumu.

They then clandestinely filmed Jaramogi detailing his role in the freedom struggle and then wrapped up their production and flew back to London. However, to ensure Dhillon came to no harm once the documentary was aired in Western capitals, the filmmaker ensured his name was not included in the credit line. It would take Dhillon 24 years to watch the documentary.

He explained that he watched No Easy Walk after he requested the material in 2013 as he was preparing to write his autobiography, appropriately titled, My Camera, My Life: Sir Mohinder Dhillon.

While the filmmakers went through hell to interview Jaramogi, they encountered no such difficulties in Zimbabwe where they ignored President Robert Mugabe but concentrated on his rival, Joshua Nkomo.

In the Zimbabwe series, Milner encountered no major hitches interviewing Ian Smith, who not long ago had headed the racial government which brutalised Africans.

Today, freedom of expression has been buttressed to an extent where any of the 33 million Kenyans with a smartphone can make amateur videos with little government interference.