Strange revearsal in Kogelo

Friday January 23 2009
kogelo pix

Kenyan relatives of US President Barack Obama attend a media briefing in Nyangoma Kogelo village in Kenya’s Nyanza Province on November 3, 2008. Kogelo is the Obama family’s ancestral village. Photo/REUTERS

What I do know is that history returned… with a vengeance… the past is never dead and buried — it isn’t even past.

Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father.

In Kogelo on the morning of November 5, Barack Obama had barely finished making his victory speech on the generator-run TV when the first of the Kenya Power & Lighting men arrived at Mama Sarah Hussein’s gate.

Few among the jubilant villagers and the media crowd, the 200 or so journalists mostly from the other side of the world, took notice as the men in the blue overalls wriggled their way through the crowd, digging holes in the ground, planting poles, stretching cables and generally sweating their way towards an unstated deadline. Kogelo had to be on the national grid, presumably before the next live CNN broadcast.

The chief engineer was harassed, and perplexed. He was taking instructions on his mobile phone and barking them out to his men. Orders from above, he told me. Usually it would take a week per kilometre to pull the line from the main road, a job that would have taken seven weeks for this village. They had done it in a matter of hours. And Nyangoma-Kogelo (total population: 3,648) wasn’t even on his worksheet.

It was the same with everything else that week, everything that was part of the government’s hasty attempt at creating a Potemkin village before the world descended on Kogelo.


The 9-kilometre stretch from the market at Ng’iya to Mama Sarah’s home had been graded in four days by a battalion of Caterpillar earthmovers and 11 yellow tipper-trucks working around the clock.

The police, following an attempted burglary at Mama Sarah’s, had built a police post in the Kogelo Dispensary compound and erected another in her compound. There was talk of piped water.

Still, government officials found it necessary to deny, feebly, that there was any special attention being accorded to Kogelo.

“We were on our way here,” said Senior Superintendent Johnstone Okasida Ipara, the seniormost policeman in Siaya District. “This is a project sponsored by the community.” But he did admit that Kogelo was being staffed by more police officers than was stipulated in the Force Standing Orders. Another official told me that the grading of the road had nothing to do with Obama. The Ng’iya-Kogelo road, he said, was “priority number one of the District Development Committee for the Financial Year 2007-2008”.

What had struck me earlier at Ng'iya how unchanged it was from the last time I had been there, 20 years before as a student of Mbeji Academy.

There were more people now, selling little things for tiny margins at the roadside.

Many of them now stood closer to the highway than I remembered, accosted every passing car with a bottle of Aquamist water, Zain and Safaricom scratch cards.

There were many more young men hanging around the edges of the market, many surrounding the Senator Barack Obama Primary School signboard so that it was easy to miss it and therefore miss the turnoff to Kogelo.

I remembered the women riding bicycles and smoking cigarettes with the burning ends stuck in their mouths. I didn’t see any but the market still stood knee-deep in the red earth.

When we students fell ill at Mbeji, a new school 15 minutes’ walk from Ng’iya market, we would be sent to the dispensary and the clinical officer.

He was ancient, his face an old map of frustration, illuminated by a magnified set of eyes behind a pair of oversized glasses, and armed with a stethoscope.

He would tap us around the liver and then announce in a deep voice, educated elsewhere and obviously not designed for the humble restrictions of a rural market dispensary, that our spleens were enlarged. It was a standard diagnosis.

He would then reach for a huge syringe from a small tub of water, the only assurance of sterilisation, turn us over, mercilessly deliver quinine to an exposed buttock and send us off with a packet of Paracetamols for pain.

Mbeji Academy was a new school, the brainchild of Prof Thomas Odhiambo, the founder of ICIPE, the insect research centre, and one of the greatest scientists Africa has produced in the last century.

He had started ICIPE at the back of his office at the Chiromo Campus of the Nairobi University and single-handedly built it into one of the main centres for insect research in the world.

At Mbita Point on Rusinga Island on the shores of Lake Victoria, he had set up a field research station that was frequented by researchers from all over the world. Pioneering breakthroughs had been made there, notably in the study of the tse-tse fly, others.

The field station at Mbita was a magnificent centre, able to house scores of researchers for months at a time.

Situated at the end of the Homa Bay-Mbita Road, a bone-rattling 64km drive past villages much like Kogelo, bearing little evidence that they were connected in any way to the 20th century, you arrived at the ICIPE centre with its blazing floodlights at the end of a long, old darkness. It felt like a grounded spaceship.

Mbeji Academy was Prof Odhiambo’s dream for the next generation of scientists. It was an idea to be enacted in three phases, culminating in a centre dedicated to science and research.

He intended for it to become an international school, attracting the brightest young scientific minds in the region.

The school was still in development when I arrived, student No 48, and the workshops and lab were rudimentary. But the teachers were committed; the first graduating class managed a more than respectable 17th place in the national KCSE exams.

But things began to fall apart at Mbeji. Teachers as well as parents had been assured that what existed — the simple structures brightly painted to mask the fact of the lack of proper facilities — was temporary.

That soon, real investment in the school would be made (partly as well to justify the huge fees parents were paying). And going by the professor’s unimpeachable reputation, his track record, there was no reason to doubt it.

Four years down the line, however, nothing had changed. There was talk of misappropriation, school development funds being diverted. Students became restive. Teachers began to leave. There was a strike. Performance plummeted. The professor’s fortunes, it was said, had taken a nosedive. He was no longer the man he used to be.

There was gossip that he had been bewitched. The auctioneers came calling. The school was sold. At ICIPE, the organisation he had founded, a boardroom coup forced him out.

The circumstances were unclear. By the time Prof Odhiambo died in 2003, Mbeji Academy no longer existed. The new owners had turned it into a primary school — Gulf Academy.

At the Kogelo dispensary compound, a crowd was gathering for a final prayer meeting before the nightlong vigil in front of CNN.

A giant screen would be set up after the service, courtesy of a television station.

A Safaricom banner sat loudly beside the clinic, and there were salespeople selling SIM cards and scratch cards.

The VCT people had set up a tent in readiness for what they called “moonlight testing.” They were hoping to test people throughout the night “as the results came in.” Everybody was cashing in on hope.

Inside the dispensary, the clinical officer on duty was attending to children, delivering government services.

He had been working at the dispensary for three years and this, he said, was just another Tuesday. Things were not bad, he said. There were very few cases of shortages these days, and when there was one, he was warned well in advance. He shrugged about the prospect of an Obama victory.

“Obama is an American. I am on duty. It’s a normal Tuesday. Definitely, I’d like Obama to win but may the best team win.” The biggest shortage, he said, was of brains. There was a brain drain. Experts and admin people were in short supply.

If there was a sense of business as usual it masked a grim reality.

That somehow over the last generation, Nyanza Province had slipped down the rankings and now, by almost every single measure — access to health services, water, and household incomes — it was the poorest region in the country.

And strangely, Nyanza also had the highest protein deficiency in the country.

Some years ago on Rusinga Island, I had come across some women selling dried fish by the lakeshores, open-backed fish they called mgongo wazi. The fish, they told me, came from Lake Turkana.

A region’s dose of development had always been directly proportional to a region’s loyalty to the government. In Nyanza, it had been in short supply for a generation.

And even with Raila Odinga in government, it would take some time before “development” arrived through conventional means. Which is why what was happening in Kogelo, momentarily lost in the dust of rising expectations of an Obama victory, had a flavour of the miraculous.

It occurred to me that few among Barack Obama’s older relatives had ever expected Kogelo to be on the national grid in their lifetimes.

But now, the rules of engagement between state and citizen had been reversed, a rare restitution achieved: The people, without agitating or grovelling, without resorting to the games of ethnic patronage, were getting what they deserved. Maybe the world was changing, finally.

On March 7, 1963, Tom Mboya, coming to the end of his book Freedom and After wrote:

“We in Africa are confident that, despite momentary falterings… we are heading in the right direction along our new trail. Our road is a classless socialism, based on Ujamaa, the extended family. Our goal is to share the blessings of a richly endowed continent among all its inhabitants; to make a reality of the United States of Africa… What could be more satisfying for me personally, and for Kenya than the knowledge that at last we too shall celebrate next Christmas as FREE MEN? ... It is a good ending to the story of our national struggle, and a most hopeful beginning for our future as an independent state.”

The next day, his party Kanu would go into its second election, sweep the polls, form the government and rule uninterrupted for the next 39 years.

There is an incredible feeling of haste in those last chapters of Freedom and After.

Mboya, arguably the main architect of the post-colonial Kenyan state, was in a hurry. He was one of the new men.

Decolonisation was less a political process than it was an act of the will, a state of mind.

And Kenya, with all its competing ethnic and historical agendas, was a project, a reality that required constant invention and reinvention. He was painfully aware that in freeing himself from the past, his journey was only just beginning.

His nationalist vision of a liberated Kenya rushing to modernity would be cut short by an assassin’s bullet, six years after he finished the book.

In place of his grand plans for the country, Kenya would turn inwards, reverse the process of nationalism in favour of ethnic sub-nationalism.

A friend who once met Mahathir Mohammed said that the former Malaysian prime minister had looked at him, shaken his head and said: “When you killed Tom, you lost 30 years.”

It is a strange coincidence that in this, the 40th anniversary of his death, another man with a vision to create a new reality from his past, has risen.