SM Otieno’s burial saga helped liberate Luo widow

Saturday September 10 2011

Former freedom fighter Wambui Otieno Mbugua and her husband Peter Mbugua during their wedding celebration at the St Andrew’s Church on February 4, 2011. Photo/HEZRON NJOROGE

Former freedom fighter Wambui Otieno Mbugua and her husband Peter Mbugua during their wedding celebration at the St Andrew’s Church on February 4, 2011. Photo/HEZRON NJOROGE 


In a country that is constantly looking for heroes, it astonishes how many great ones we already have who have not been properly honoured.

Among the most renowned of these is the colonial-era Kikuyu paramount chief Waiyaki wa Hinga, who fiercely resisted British rule and for his troubles was buried alive by colonial forces in 1892.

For decades after independence our government made no effort to identify his burial site. In the end, it was the Great Waiyaki family, led by his granddaughter Wambui, who undertook the arduous search for the legend’s remains.

At Wednesday’s funeral service for Wambui, her brother, Dr Munyua Waiyaki, the renowned former Foreign Affairs minister, described how the family was directed to an old man in Kibwezi believed to know Waiyaki’s burial place.

The Mzee led them to his banana farm, and pointed to a spot where he said Waiyaki’s remains lay. They were thrilled to find some bones, raising their hopes of finally unlocking the puzzle of his burial place.

But how were they to know if these bones were Waiyaki’s? Wambui, who Dr Waiyaki said had made finding Waiyaki’s remains her last wish in life, took the bones to Dr Richard Leakey, the archaeologist.

Ascertaining the age and identity of the bones, they discovered, could only be done at Harvard University at a cost of $200,000. Wambui died before they could raise the money, which would have been difficult to raise in any event.

Chief Waiyaki’s commitment to justice and a unified nation lives on in many of his offspring, who have played leadership roles in our continuing struggle for true liberation, including from our backward tribal practices.

This commitment, that transcended tribe or social class, made them give their daughters to virtually every tribe in Kenya, be it Luo, Kamba, Luhya or Maasai. SM Otieno is famous in that regard.

The dispute over SM’s burial place did not dilute the family’s nationalistic outlook as younger members still married Luos.

Lost in the often emotional assessment of the SM Otieno burial controversy is that Wambui blazed the trail for many Luo widows who, like those in other communities, are to this day harassed by powerful relatives in the guise of customs.

It was a tribute to Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s commitment to progressive change that, despite being a Luo Ker, he defended Wambui’s right to bury SM. Unfortunately, Jaramogi’s foresight never permeated Luo consciousness.

It was thus good to see Prime Minister Raila Odinga bring members of the Luo Council of Elders to Wambui’s service, where they explicitly asserted women’s rights while brokering the rapprochement between the Umira Kager clan and the Waiyakis.

It is an incontestable fact of modern life that no community can develop unless its women are empowered in the ownership of property, wealth creation and the management of their households after a husband’s death.

Ironically, the person with whom I had my first serious discussion of the SM Otieno case was my high school teacher at Got Rateng in Rachuonyo, Mr Joseph Ndung’u.

He was, as late as 1996, the only Kikuyu to live in our area. He was the youngest and more progressive of a Luo-dominated staff, and he influenced a lot of us with his ideas on the Kenya he wanted.

Though he was the most popular teacher, and respected by the entire local community, there were still murmurs when he married a local lady. Because of the kind of person he was, I felt free enough to ask him about his decision.

He said he found the question insulting, since it showed that I thought of him as a Kikuyu, not as a Kenyan. When he tragically died in a road accident a few years later, those at his funeral in Nakuru District were amazed at the number of those who had come all the way from Rachuonyo.

There are many such examples showing that the united Kenya Wambui fought for actually exists. It only needs to be nurtured by our leaders as the national model. Regrettably, many of them preach divisive politics as their way to achieve local popularity.

The writer is a senior researcher with Salim Lone and Associates

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