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I carry scars from my life but focus on the lessons

By Mercy Adhiambo | August 30th 2020
Kisumu West MP John Olago Aluoch during an interview at Parliament. Boniface Okendo/ Standard]

There are people who believe John Olago Aluoch is bewitched. How can a man lose his wife in a road accident, get involved in a near-fatal accident a year later, and then his child dies in yet another accident a few hours before boarding a flight to the USA?

“Bad things have happened to me. At first, I wondered ‘why me?’ Now, I am focusing on the lessons I can learn from the experiences. Misfortunes have a way of shaping you,” he says, dismissing thoughts that bad spirits hover on his head.

“When people think you are bewitched, it means they fear you, and that is fine,” he says and lets out a hearty laugh.

Olago prefers that when his story is told, it does not focus much on his face. He believes his existence is stitched bits by bits by the scars he carries on his face, body and heart. Anytime he runs his fingers across his face, he is reminded of how he almost died in a road accident in 1998 on his way from the court.

“I lost consciousness and stayed in the ICU for days. My face was smashed. I could not move my jaws. My right eye was twitching involuntarily and doctors thought I was going to lose sight. I almost never made it… I almost died…” he says.

The first time he saw his face after the accident, he vowed to never leave the house.

“From looking at people’s horrified expressions, I knew things were not good. When I saw my face, it was ghastly and distorted. Scary. I never imagined I would step out and face the world,” he says.

After several reconstructive surgeries, including in Switzerland where he stayed for several months as doctors attempted to correct the damage on his face, he made peace with his imperfection.

“My wife told me about the anguish and worry she endured seated at the waiting room anytime I went for surgery to repair my face. I decided to stop,” he says.

The scar that people cannot see is the one etched inside his heart. It happened on a Friday night in October 2016. They got a call in the dead of night saying his daughter Joy Atieno had perished in a road accident while driving from her home that she was constructing in Rongai.

“It was unbelievable. We had talked the previous day. I do not remember what happened between when I left home and when I saw my daughter’s lifeless body on the slab. I touched her and whispered: Go well ‘Nyar John’. That is how I used to fondly call her,” he says.

Joy left a series of things behind, including a career that was just taking off, a house that was a few months into completion, and her father’s broken heart.

“For many days, I did not talk. I mean, what was there to say?” says Olago.

Many people say it is his daughter’s death that killed the fire Olago had when he was elected in 2007, riding on the ODM party wave.

“He was voted because of his vast knowledge of the law. He no longer engages in bunge,” says Peter Opondo, a youth leader in Kisumu who says he is disappointed that Olago went quiet and even when they feel his voice is needed most, like in the BBI discussions, he is conspicuously quiet.

Olago says his perceived silence is not connected to his personal life.

He says when he was getting into politics, there were fewer legislators but times have changed. He is now focusing on finding a balance between playing his role in the legislature and being present in his constituency.

He adds that what could be adding to his silence is the reduced level of seriousness in debate and lack of decorum he sees in the current parliament. “Things are playful and noisy. With a heavy heart, I sometimes ask myself if I really belong here,” he says. He still plans to vie in 2022 as MP but has not settled on a political party.

‘Husband inheritance’

He jokes about his interesting marriage dynamic, calling himself the man who was “husband inherited”. After his wife died, elders met and decided he should marry his late wife’s sister. “There was no courtship. She was just brought to me. It took some adjusting. Surprisingly, it has worked out perfectly,” he says.

People get surprised when he mentions that a man, as educated as he is, did not resist when that aspect of tradition was being pushed on to him.

Those who have worked with him say they are not surprised that he accepted the arrangement. They describe him as a pushover; a man who rarely has the courage to say no. “He is a people pleaser. He does not endure fights well,” says one of the lawyers who worked under him.

His Kisumu East counterpart Shakeel Shabbir says Olago prefers a more diplomatic approach to handling conflict, and that is why people might regard him as a pushover. He says even when they were struggling to get party nominations from ODM in what they regarded as a flawed process, Olago and himself took the high road and walked out. “To vie in a different party in a predominantly ODM zone is no mean feat. The voters vindicated us,” he says.

One of his weak traits, Shabbir says, is that Olago tends to be too rigid. “He should loosen up a little, he needs to learn how to relax,” says Shabbir.

Olago laughs and says his style does not allow him to engage in theatrics. He is a lawyer who was trained in days when lawyers were supposed to be prim. Well done suits, clean cuts, and absolutely no dancing vigorously in public like his counterparts do.

When he looks back at his life, he says the misfortunes made him embrace the fragility of life and to become more compassionate about the disabled. Even though his constituents believe that he had a major fallout with Raila when he chose to vie on Ford Kenya ticket, he says he talks with the opposition leader a lot, and it is Raila who sought him out in the mid-90s and asked that he vies for Councillor with hopes of being nominated as mayor.

“I was a senior practitioner. I refused with the arrogance that youth accorded me then,” he says. Through Raila’s tutelage and motivation, he finally put his foot into politics and says he has never regretted.

Olago misses the courtroom drama. His retirement plan, when he is not touring the island he bought on Maboko island on a speed boat that he rides as a qualified marine pilot, is to take commercial arbitration and consultancies in parliamentary procedures in the commonwealth.

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