African elders in the traditional setting are supposed to be the leaders and bulwarks of society, dispensing wisdom in measured tones and reticent dignity.
Enter Francis Atwoli, the abrasive trade unionist who has in recent weeks made headlines with his unrelenting broadsides against Deputy President William Ruto.
The 69-year-old long-serving secretary-general of the Central Union of Trade Organisations (Cotu) is nominally an elder, but his demeanour and words belie his social status.
Like a zealot possessed, he has been thundering fervently, be it from podiums at public rallies or the comfort of his office as he swings on his swivel chair amid bangs on the table punctuated with shrieks of “yes!” and “shenzi!”.
To a stranger, Atwoli's theatrics can be scary. He lectures, howls, cajoles, violently gesticulates and often breaks into loud fits of sudden and mirthless laughter.
This is how he offers counsel to political leaders, installs some as tribal kingpins and anoints the selected few for future State positions while at the same time predicting political doom for others.
He has a penchant for vulgarity in his messaging. “Wewe ni kijana mdogo, na lazima uheshimu wazee kama mimi, Maina Kamanda na Raila Odinga. Kama tungetangulia kukutana na mama yako hapa barabarani labda sisi ndio tungekuwa baba yako (You are fairly young and must therefore respect nominated MP Maina Kamnda, Opposition leader Raila Odinga and myself. If anyone among us had encountered your mother first, perhaps one of us would be your father),” said Atwoli at rally in Lamu County, in reference to the 52-year old DP.
Last Sunday, while speaking to a congregation at the Salvation Army Citadel in Kakamega County, the DP dismissed vocal trade unionist’s prediction as “the work of witchcraft”.
The tale of Atwoli “the fortune-teller” is indeed a curious one. He has, over the years, demonstrated a rare knack of breaking and mending relations, including bonding well with erstwhile sworn enemies, with much ease.
Dr Ruto and ANC leader Musalia Mudavadi are among those who best understand this amazing peculiarity.
Mr Atwoli is the same man who, seven years ago on October 15, 2013, paid Mr Ruto a surprise visit at The Hague in a show of solidarity with the DP, who was facing crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) over the 2007/2008 post-election violence.
Describing the ICC as a political court of disrepute that should not be allowed to try a sitting president (Uhuru Kenyatta) and his deputy, Mr Atwoli gifted Ruto a Bible and a rosary.
Similarly, after crowning Mr Mudavadi as Luhya spokesman in December 2016 at Kakamega’s Bukhungu Stadium following an initiative he financed, Mr Atwoli turned around in January 2018 to dismiss the ex-vice president, alongside Mr Kalonzo Musyoka and Bungoma senator Moses Wetang’ula as “irredeemable cowards”.
This was after they failed to attend Nasa leader Raila Odinga’s mock swearing-in as “the people’s president”.
But he had particularly harsh words for the founder of the Nasa outfit: “Mudavadi is like a pig that returns to garbage immediately after you clean it,” remarked Mr Atwoli in reference to his previous efforts to market the ANC leader.
A master at building bridges, Mr Atwoli reached out to Mr Mudavadi a couple of weeks later and apologised over the choice of words in his attack, with the two quickly mending fences.
Indeed, Mr Mudavadi is not the only politician from western Kenya to have been rubbed the wrong way by Mr Atwoli.
The self-styled Luhya elder and custodian of the community’s political interests has had a series of collisions with the men and women from mulembe (peace) nation.
These include former Sports Cabinet Secretary Rashid Echesa, whom he supposedly “cursed” and was eventually sacked.
Never mind that Atwoli himself has tried and twice failed to capture the Khwisero parliamentary seat in Kakamega County.
Perhaps Mr Atwoli’s most memorable clash with a senior Luhya politician was witnessed on July 9, 2003, between him and the current Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Dr Mukhisa Kituyi.
Then the Trade and Industry minister in Mwai Kibaki’s Narc administration, Dr Kituyi was seemingly exasperated by Mr Atwoli’s allegations of importation of sugar.
“There is this irritant who goes by the name of Francis Atwoli, and I have been struggling not to respond to him. Every time he opens his mouth he just confirms our worst fears that he has nothing between his ears!”
There is no denying that Mr Atwoli was hit where it hurts by his witty kinsman, whose “nothing between the ears” slur turned him into the butt of all jokes for quite a long while.
In fact, National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale made a reference of the same on Sunday while criticising the trade unionist for dismissing offhand the DP’s presidential ambitions.
Lately, Mr Atwoli has resorted to a hilarious style of hitting out at his pet targets — political figures. He engages in soliloquies, in the form of prayers, pleading for God’s intervention.
Recently in Lamu, he implored the Almighty to give first term MPs the wisdom to stop being misused by senior politicians “who offer them handouts so they can sing their praise songs”.
Last year on November 26, Mr Atwoli again recited an anti-corruption prayer that left his audience at a rally in Kakamega County in stitches.
“Mungu, kwa nini unatupatia punishment ya kutupatia viongozi wenye wanakuja kutuibia? Sisi hatuna nguvu, sisi ni wanyonge, mbona ulituleta hapana kutuangusha kwenye meno ya fisi (Lord, why are you punishing us by giving us leaders, who are looting from us? You know we are weak and powerless, yet you have dropped us in the waiting teeth of hyenas)”.
But Mr Atwoli’s theatrics, quick tongue and “shenzi” remarks have similarly landed him in trouble.
February 2015 was a particularly trying and humbling moment for the trade unionist. He was accused by some Jubilee politicians of being behind the murder of Kabete MP George Muchai, who was shot dead in Nairobi.
At the time of his death, Mr Muchai had differed with Atwoli over union-related matters and had been suspended as Cotu deputy secretary-general.
“He was never a threat to me and the differences we had were very healthy for the trade union movement and based purely on work-related issues,” said Mr Atwoli then.
The controversies around him notwithstanding, Mr Atwoli considers himself an ordained defender of the people.
In fact as a young man, the trade unionist wanted to become a Catholic priest but was not successful “because, as the firstborn, tradition demanded that I marry and have children”.
His controversial personal life has also sometimes hit the headlines, including claims of abandoning one wife and marrying a young TV news anchor.
But some, including Kapseret MP Oscar Sudi, do not believe Mr Atwoli has anything useful to offer to Kenyans and are quick to answer vitriol with vitriol.
However, noting that Mr Atwoli is a career advocate of the people, Embakasi East MP Babu Owino says the trade unionist is an important voice in national discourse.
With things heating up on the political scene, it is safe to assume that this is a voice that is not about to go silent.