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Ouko library a fitting tribute to ex-minister who loved books

Sunday October 4 2009

Prime Minister Raila Odinga (centre) talks with Education assistant minister Ayiecho Olweny as Dr Robert Ouko’s widow, Christabel Ouko, cheers during the fundraising for the construction of a memorial library. Photo/JAMES NJUGUNA

Prime Minister Raila Odinga (centre) talks with Education assistant minister Ayiecho Olweny as Dr Robert Ouko’s widow, Christabel Ouko, cheers during the fundraising for the construction of a memorial library. Photo/JAMES NJUGUNA  


Koru will no longer be known for the infamous Got Alila, but for the Dr Robert Ouko Memorial Community Library.

Those words from project committee chairperson Martha Joseph brought cheers from those present at a fundraising dinner at the Hotel Intercontinental last week.

Got Alila is the bushy hillock where the charred remains of Foreign Affairs minister Robert Ouko were found nearly 19 years ago.

The assassination of the popular and articulate minister remains a particularly dark chapter of the Moi presidency.

The gathering to raise funds for a memorial library came at the same time as a national debate was raging on the issue of impunity; trial, or otherwise, for perpetrators of post-election violence and other serious crimes; and the scope and mandate of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission.

It was not surprising then that those who spoke at the event, including Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who was the chief guest, and Lands minister James Orengo found it easy to make reference to the unresolved killing as another example of the impunity that allows those in positions of power and authority to literally get away with murder.


Central theme

In fact, the issue of truth and justice, as a precursor to reconciliation, healing and forgiveness, became a central theme at the function.

And it appeared quite appropriate that the project’s chairperson is former Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Bethwell Kiplagat, introduced by widow Christabel Ouko as her late husband’s best friend in both the personal and official spheres.

Dr Kiplagat is also the chairman of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, in which capacity he might have to take testimony on the enduring mystery around the abduction and brutal killing of Dr Robert Ouko.

The memorial library will be a first for a fallen Kenya leader, with the fundraiser attracting generous support.

A library is seen as befitting tribute for Dr Ouko, who, his widow told the assembled guests, dropped out of formal education at an early age, never going to secondary school, but having the determination to continue studying privately, often with books borrowed from friends and neighbours.

The library is expected to cost about Sh45 million, but the fundraiser only gathered Sh9 million.

Dr Ouko’s lifelong passion for books and reading was proven by the fact that even as a long-serving Cabinet minister, he was working towards fulfilment of a childhood dream – a doctorate.

He was pursuing a PhD at the University of Nairobi when his life was brutally cut short in February, 1990, leaving behind a thesis which will now be published and placed in the memorial library.

Unknown to many, the “Dr” title the minister bore for most of his public life was an honorary degree.

According to the family, the library will be a high-tech information, communication and technology resource centre for the local community that will contribute towards an empowered and informed society.

The library will be inspired and guided by Dr Ouko’s values of excellence, continuous learning and self determination, and will preserve his memory by providing access to records of his life’s works and achievements.

The former minister received his primary education at Ogada Primary School in Kisumu District and at Nyang’ori School in Kakamega District.

He never went to secondary school, but studied by correspondence and was admitted to Siriba Teachers Training College where he got a certificate.

Afterwards he taught in various primary schools in his home region, also serving as games master, scoutmaster, choirmaster, and headmaster.

In 1955, he joined the civil service as a revenue officer, based in Kisii District. While working at the district treasury, he continued to study privately through correspondence for the Cambridge School Certificate and passed with a Division Two Certificate.

He went on to qualify for admission to the then Haile Selassie University in Addis Ababa in 1958. He graduated with a degree in Public Administration, Economics and Political Science in 1962, before proceeding to Makerere University for a post-graduate diploma in International Relations and Diplomacy.

Just before independence, Ouko joined the colonial civil service as an Assistant Secretary in the office of the Governor.

In 1963, he was appointed Permanent Secretary in the ministry of Works, a remarkable feat back then as in just one year, he had risen to a full Permanent Secretary, in the process skipping the ranks of Under Secretary and Deputy Secretary.

In 1971, Ouko was awarded an honorary degree, Doctor of Laws (honoris causa), by the Pacific Lutheran University in Seattle, USA.

After the collapse of the East African Community Dr Ouko was nominated to Parliament and appointed the minister for Economic Planning and Community Affairs.

In 1979, he was elected MP for Kisumu Rural Constituency and appointed the minister for Foreign Affairs.

He remained in the Cabinet as one of the most eloquent spokesmen for the Moi administration until his life was cut short , an event that, ironically, helped drive the push for a multi-party system.

Mr Odinga eulogised the late Ouko as “a wise, intelligent and likeable man who was a philanthropist with a big heart to assist the needy and initiated development projects. ”.

The occasion was also supported by Mrs Vijoo Rattansi of the famous Rattansi Educational Trust and vice chairperson of the East African Association of Grant Makers.

“The library will provide the current and next generation with something to hold dear about Dr Ouko”, she said.

Mrs Rattansi said structural philanthropy that can be reproduced through alumni of people who have been assisted could give a permanent sense of coming together for a worthy cause.

In her book “Fulfilling a Dream” Mrs Rattansi says “ differences are good because this makes our culture a rich blend of a beautiful rainbow and to improve relations we have to rely heavily on education. We must work and live together.”