With Karl Marx, all tried and failed
Posted Wednesday, January 9 2013 at 02:00
- In his heyday, Christopher Owiro, famously known as Karl Marx, was a man on demand. The ladies wanted him (they said he was the toughest man around), and politicians coveted his hand even more. Those who sought to exploit his mass mobilisation prowess paid sweetly to have him by their side, while those who loathed him did it with religious conviction. Former President Daniel Moi was proudly among the latter, and he wondered loudly why the police commissioner could not contain this mere university boy. Karl Marx was a messiah to some, and the devil incarnate to many more others
Dark, unrefined, with a missing tooth here and there and piss drunk most of the time, Karl Marx could pass for just another rowdy boy on the alleyways of the University of Nairobi.
But his deep convictions about life, his philosophical thoughts, his unwavering spirit and the way he married words with wit of the garb made him perhaps the most powerful student leader of his time.
Fwamba C Fwamba, his former campus mate, says Karl Marx was such an inspiration to many young people of his age that the Moi regime became uncomfortable with his antics.
He was a peoples’ man, a man of his word, a great community mobiliser who towered way above his student title.
“When you listened to him, you felt touched and moved by his words,” recalls lawyer Irungu Kang’ata, who was inspired by Karl Marx’s activism when in First Year class to join student politics, vying — and winning — the giant Students Organisation of Nairobi University (Sonu) vice chairmanship.
These two agree that the man was a paradox. Whereas he dined with the rich and mighty, he loved the poor, mostly his fellow students, some of whom he time and again rescued from social joints in town whenever they failed to pay for their froth.
And whereas at times he violently and illegally imposed curfews within campus halls so as “to curb rising immorality”, he also stood guard, some say, as male students forced their girlfriends into sexual submission. Karl Marx himself was once accused of sexually assaulting a female student.
He harboured presidential ambitions but failed to win the votes in Sonu. Critics have argued that his greatest absurdity was preaching progress socially, economically and politically, when he himself was a social wreck.
When he died last week, Karl Marx had already fallen to alcoholism and disillusionment. He was disorderly and drunk most of the time. Many had tried to rehabilitate him... and failed.
When the real Karl Marx, that famous 19th century German revolutionary thinker, remarked that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as revolution”, he might as well as have been referring to the student leader who, many years later, would adopt his name.
Many of those who had heard heroic tales about the man were easily disappointed when, eventually, they met him. About two months before his death, for instance, former Kenyatta University Students Association (Kusa) academic secretary Nandalwe Wanjala, who was then a personal assistant to Cotu boss Francis Atwoli, had to make several calls to confirm whether the man who had visited the trade union’s offices was indeed the highly regarded Karl Marx.
“If he appears shaggy or drunk, it must be him,” a former Sonu chair told Wanjala. And indeed poor Marx had staggered into Cotu smelling like a brewery.
However, those who knew him were so used to him being like that, right from his campus days, when he plunged head-first into student and national politics when just a mere First Year student.
Karl Marx pushed for student rights by all means necessary. He broke into student rooms using an axe to force sleeping ‘comrades’ to join him on the streets, spent several days in cold police cells, was roughed up and beaten by opponents and the dreaded General Service Unit (GSU), and yet the stoic character never gave up.
He pushed for the conversion of Stella Awinja Guest House to a hostel, argued the case of students with fees arrears to sit their exams and pay the amounts later (he was himself from a poor family), and bought satellite TV decoders for students’ halls of residence, then an expensive commodity regarded to be only for the rich.
He believed that every issue had a mathematical solution and took great pains to systematically illustrate how the Kanu and LDP merger would not last for long and how the parallel degree programme was to eventually turn university education into a sham.
He once forced VC Prof Francis Gichaga through a calculus session, explaining to him why the parallel degree programme would lower the standards of university education. Time has proven him right.
On weekends, he held morning briefings at 10am outside Hall 10 with students where he answered their questions with wit, humour and rare intellectualism.