Rosemary Kariuki: a victim of her father’s life

The advent of multi-party politics in the early 90s thawed the hatred – or contempt – that some had, and people became more receptive to her as Kariuki’s daughter.

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By David Onjili

There is a shared denominator amongst them: their parents sacrificed their lives for the country. They’ve been at the vanguard of many political moves, some of which led to imprisonment, torture, exile and even assassinations. While their parents’ names are engraved in the history books of the nation, their children have had a void to be filled, grown-up isolated if not broken pieces. 

“Many have resorted to either being slaves to alcohol or immersing themselves into religious fanaticism. That has been their escape from the stigma,” says Wafula Buke, a veteran agitator for the clamour of multiparty politics and end of the single party KANU politics.

In a moving tribute in 2015 in Bondo, Ida Odinga, teary-eyed and emotional, gave a reflection of her husband, Raila Odinga’s detention. Their firstborn son, the late Fidel Odinga was only nine years old; a decade later the father was released. Growing up with no father figure, she said, caused Fidel to always be present at all of his father’s political engagements. Why? 

“Because he could not protect his dad when he was nine, he was going to do it out of love and the suffering they endured when he was away,” Ida explained. Later, when eulogising her son, she said, “You see politicians’ children now and think they grew up on bread and butter… many do not know the struggles they underwent because of their parents’ political stands and philosophies.”

In 1975, when the nation was sent into shock and panic following the killing of JM Kariuki, away from the cameras was a young, confused family in mourning. What they endured in the preceding years would be a scar and a yoke they would carry for years that followed.

Then only eleven years and in a boarding school in Nakuru, Rosemary was informed of her father’s death by a school nun and her immediate responsibility was to be strong for her younger sister who had to also be informed. Young and confused, death was new and strange. Nothing could have prepared her for such an eventuality and what she saw at City Mortuary confirmed her worst fears.

“This is not my dad,” she thought when she saw him.

His face was badly disfigured face but the hands were recognisable. She made the decision she would not view his body again. In Gilgil, it surprised her when mourners thronged and queued to view the remains of her dad while she wondered why they wanted to view somebody who was not “my real dad”. Those events would introduce young Rosemary into a life that would almost define her growing up – one of caution, paranoia and being treated as a pariah.

At school, other pupils whispered about her. “But it was not that painful,” she says. At Kenya High, she would meet Ida Odinga, who was a teacher there. “She was very compassionate towards me, one of the few people who understood,” she recalls. 

She recalls an episode at Highlands Girls, now Moi Girls Eldoret, for her A-Levels, a particular Geography teacher came to class one day and made a comment she has never forgotten.

“So what is all this about JM Kariuki? He was killed and he is dead and that’s it!” It was a subtle indicator of how tired she might have been of the clamour for justice for the dead man. 

Kariuki’s personal lawyer, Lee Muthoka, disowned the family immediately. Rosemary notes that when the family sought to know about Kariuki’s estate, Muthoka said he had ‘destroyed’ everything that had been left in his possession by JM. It was a major struggle financially from then on.

At one point, when Rosemary had to travel abroad for studies, her family did invites for a fundraiser at Kings Castle Inn along Thika Road. Many of those invited, including family and friends, declined to attend. 

“Whereas they sent their contributions, none wanted to be seen near the family and risk being marked by the state as being sympathisers of JM.

“This isolation was in stark contrast to the time when my father was alive – always in company of friends and family – and his burial, which was attended by thousands… The trip abroad was a welcome break… at least for me.”

“Where I initially had thought of denouncing my citizenship to just forget the whole thing, I began to accept my situation and made the decision to work for social and political justice,” she offers.

“I must also admit that it helps that some two very special family friends helped me transition after my father’s death: Mark Muithaka and Waruru Kanja, both former members of parliament. They endured humiliation and attacks from the system but they never disowned or abandoned our family.”  

Prof Herman Manyora gives his perspective on why families of popular politicians – dead or alive – and those who are viewed by the establishment as a threat are treated like the plague, especially by the state. 

“The deep state may decide to suppress their children if it thinks they have the capability to rise like their parents, therefore becoming political threats. If the family has the financial wherewithal, then the state will ensure that these resources are deplete, to cripple any such ambition,” says Manyora.

Is it a coincidence that Rosemary works with the Orange Democratic Movement? “Not really,” she says.

Rosemary talks about Raila, himself a victim of the state and system’s oppression, as very protective of the Kikuyu he works with. 

“He never tolerates their discrimination or belittling, and not just at Orange House. In fact, he emphasises the need the respect those from my tribe who choose to stand up against state oppression even when it would have been easy to tag support it – it being they are in power.

“Ideologically, I identify with his (Raila’s) and therefore ODM’s philosophy.”

Whereas Raila has always stood by the Kariuki family, it is Sarah Elderkin, a former Raila adviser, who spotted and insisted that Rosemary was a perfect fit for ODM. I asked her what she thinks endeared her to Elderkin. 

“I learnt that I was from the ‘right tribe’ and ‘had the right name’!”

Does she feel used?

“No. It’s the nature of politics. Once I realised we were ideologically compatible, that outweighed, by a mile, any other political options.”

The advent of multi-party politics in the early 90s thawed the hatred – or contempt – that some had, and people became more receptive to her as Kariuki’s daughter. ( 

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