By Kenyatta Otieno
There is something the late Benga maestro Okatch Biggy’s music did to my heartstrings. There is something in his music that brings out the Luo from the depth of his heart – of romance, politics, hot air, good life, grandeur and sweet nothings. Okatch’s scintillating music, with sublime, liberating vulgar lyrics, pulled Luo men into a convoy every Friday to Kisumu. If anyone wanted the way to the core of Luo psyche, Okatch represented that. Since his death in late seventies, no Benga musician has managed to take the Luo hostage like he did.
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I had two encounters with different police officers that made me more conscious to my Luo identity. Sometime in 2015, I was trying to parallel-park in town on a Sunday when a traffic police officer found me and arrested me for obstruction. He asked for my license as we drove to Kamukunji Police Station. On our way he started by telling me how “you Luos are full of human rights and democracy”. I kept my words scarce until we were close to the station when he subtly asked for a bribe. I reminded him of what he had said and insisted on a bond so that I could appear in court the following day. He let me to go after giving me a lecture on “how men ought to behave”.
The second time was last year. A policeman friend of an acquaintance who hails from Rift Valley gave us the inside details of happenings at the height of election crisis in 2017. He warned us against participating in demonstrations because “you may not return home alive… You Luos are lucky you went to school when the rest of Kenyans were still sleeping, that is what has saved you. You would be worse off than Somalis or Turkanas.” That was his parting shot, given straight from the heart.
Veteran scribe Tom Osanjo once posted on social media how he went to Magana Flowers, off Waiyaki Way, to interview Dr Njoroge Mungai. Rumour has it in Kisumu that it is Dr Mungai who ordered the shooting of Luos on October 25, 1969 after the botched inauguration of Nyanza Provincial General Hospital in what has been named the Kisumu Massacre. On being asked about the same, Dr Mungai became uncomfortable and responded by insisting “people should forget the past”.
The past should be forgotten, is what seems to drive the Jubilee government’s call for people to forget the politics of 2017, unite and build the country. Just like many Kikuyu elites have believed over time, the Luos should just forget the past and go on with life and “build the country”. Someone even told me that we do not need to love each other to live in one country in an attempt to brush off calls for secession.
The common excuse that is peddled around for this anti-Luo attitude is that Luos are violent. But, have we ever asked ourselves when and where Luos began being violent? Two people have, over time, made the effort to look at the relationship between Luo violence and the state through different lenses: John Githongo and Maina Kiai. Ironically, they are both Kikuyus.
J. Stephen Smith gives the genesis of this hatred in his book The History of Alliance High School. In June of 1937, 34 out of 37 Luo students at Alliance high School in Kikuyu walked in protest from the school to Nairobi town. The tribal fight between the Kikuyu and Luo could be said to have begun at the school’s playground. Kikuyu-speaking Rev. R. Calderwood from Kikuyu and a Mr Mayor from Maseno who spoke dholuo were called to speak to the students in vernacular. Their report said that since inception in 1926, Kikuyu students led in academics and were prefects but the Luos had come in and “toppled the order” because Nyanza primary schools put emphasis on English. Carey Francis later said that Alliance standards in sports dropped from 1948 when Maseno School began Cambridge Examinations. This could be the reason for the 1937 fight in the playground; the Luo were shining in sports too!
In the first month of 1941, one year since the legendary Carey Francis took over, 4 Kikuyu students were expelled for gross misconduct. In 1943, Jerome Kihori from Murang’a was also suspended while a group Francis called the “Kikuyu Gang” was made to cut grass for stealing spoons. Such stories from a society with Luos, Kikuyu and other tribes show that Luos were not prone to devious behaviour or violence. It was the Kikuyu who were more likely to erupt violently than Luos. So when did the two communities change traits?
Where are we?
In 2013, Kenyatta University suspended 18 students and expelled one, all of them Luos. In April 2016, University of Nairobi (UoN) suspended 139 students, about 60 of them Luos. In October 2017, UoN expelled 18 students, 13 of them Luos. If it is that Kikuyu students, who came from villages that bore the brunt of colonial police before independence were disobedient and violent, then we can make the inference that there is a government hand in creating the disobedient streak in Luos.
In the lead up to August 8, 2017 general election, the government sent police to Kisumu as if Al-Shabaab had switched their base from KDF-held Kismayu to Bugiri in Uganda. As much as the Luo are Raila Odinga’s biggest supporters, they constitute only a third of his support base. Yet today, the Luo keep two thirds of police busy whenever they feel Raila has been short changed in national politics.
In October last year in Turkana, a group stormed the Kakuma Police Station, pulled out a murder suspect and lynched him as police watched. No bullet was fired. Around the same time, a man was found dead in Limuru, Kiambu County, in the morning and people blocked the busy Nairobi-Nakuru Highway. Nobody went home with gunshot wounds. The inference here, again, is that Kisumu is viewed through a different lens and handled using different measures.
Kenya Police Service Annual Crime Report for 2015 and 2016 gives as an insider’s look. In the crimes per population of 100,000 in counties, Kisumu dropped from position 12 in 2015 to 19 in 2016. Siaya and Homa Bay on the other hand dropped from 24 to 29 and 29 to 40 respectively. Criminal damage crime in Kisumu dropped from 83 cases in 2015 to 43 in 2016. If violence was truly an inherent Luo trait, then it would be evident in other spheres of life in Luo-Nyanza. I can only conclude that it was acquired along the way.
The change-over happened at independence. When Jomo Kenyatta assumed the leadership of Kenya and went ahead to rule through a cabal that was christened Kiambu Mafia, the curse of violence was transferred from Kikuyus to Luos. When the elite assumed the role of colonialists with hearts full of bitterness, someone had to bear the brunt of it, especially because a deal had been struck to give British settlers a soft landing. To satiate the desire to be British, corruption became the norm for acquiring immense wealth before dropping some dregs in form of land in the Rift Valley to Kikuyu peasants.
Around this time, only Luos had the education and numbers in government to stand up to what Jaramogi Odinga called “betrayal of trust”. The opposition at first took the form Luos took before independence, intellectual and political agitation from politicians and professionals. Then the Kisumu Massacre happened. To date, the people who witnessed it still lack words to express the magnitude of what happened from Kisumu town all the way to Awasi, the border with Kericho County.
If Luos thought the Kenyatta led government would forget the incident and move on like Njoroge Mungai wished, we were mistaken. The marginalisation became systematic and, to some extent, intentional. On the other side, Luos decided to continue opposing the government with a don’t-care attitude, while concentrating on sports and academics. The Kikuyu joined them in the opposition when President Moi decided to hold them down to bring up other communities, especially his Kalenjin community.
The manifestation of violence is a result of long-held belief that there is nothing for the Luo in this country. The Kikuyu and Kalenjin grew economically through crooked ladders provided by the Kenyatta, Moi and Kibaki regimes. The five years Raila Odinga was Prime Minister revealed to the Luos what they had been missing by being out of government. I know a few Luo who moved from struggling Kenyans to millionaires in four years. The Luo-Nyanza violence is not inborn. It is politically instigated and can only be solved politically, as a few of them have demonstrated.
The cycle will not end when the police go to quell riots in Kisumu and end up killing toddlers and teargassing pre-primary school children. Those children will grow up with a skewed perception of the Kenyan State. No one is interested in solving the political problem that makes Luos who they are. ^
The Nairobi Law Monthly invites readers to send in well-articulated articles to and from different tribes, to create a pool from which we can share and accept our rich cultures. Our real need for acceptance of our differences and employing them for national good can only be realised if we hold candid, frank conversations, with a view to creating tools that work FOR, not against us. The Magazine reserves the right to edit – without affecting meaning – submitted articles in a manner that does not fan the passions and fires the country needs to put out.