In the run-up to Kenya’s independence in 1963, deep divisions had been wedged through the political climate; driven by the British propaganda that the country was not ready for independence.
Part of the politics of the country being unripe for independence was the claim of low literacy rates as the colonial government ensured that only a selected few who supported their ideologies got the famous airlifts to study abroad, which was well publicised through an elaborate propaganda machinery.
There were two options; the smooth, well organised and funded flights through Dar-es-Salaam, which would see students end up in the Unites States and Western Europe, or a tough, rough route taken by dissidents, those who had communist leanings and who refused to live by the colonial script.
Mr David Otido Ong’iro, 91, is among the Kenyans who took the latter route. In Nyanza, where he was born, the two sides of the ideologies were represented by Jaramogi Oginda Odinga and Tom Mboya.
When the Sunday Nation visited his home in Kandege, Kisumu County, the old man had received two of his closest friends and, like a repeated ritual, he was narrating to them the journey of his lifetime — his ‘walk’ to Eastern Germany in search of higher education just before Kenya became independent.
It is a story full of drama and heavily tied to the experiences of many who had a deep desire for education but were not ready to take the official easy way offered by the colonial masters whose tune one had to sing loud enough before getting the chance to study.
Born in 1927 in a remote village in Uyoma, Siaya County, Ong’iro first went through the local education system, which meant he would join Class One when he was 13, the average age of today’s Form One. From Chianda School, where he sat in the same class with Wera Ambitho, a man he would later find instrumental in his manoeuvres to Germany, he would later attend a Christian Missionary Society (CMS) school in Nairobi’s Pumwani, from where he enlisted into the military to join the Second World War.
After his training in Nanyuki as a signaller, the war was ending in 1945, and he went back to school, this time joining what is today’s Dagoretti High School, where he sat the Kenya African Preliminary Examination (KAPE) in 1949. His military training did not go to waste as well, he was twice enlisted to Cairo between 1952 and 1956.
On his last trip to Cairo in 1954, his childhood ambition to study abroad multiplied, coupled with the way the British-run newspapers publicised the education airlifts and tours they had organised for indigenous African leaders and academics like Prof David Wasao. Ong’iro even tried to break away from the camp in 1955 in vain, but he never gave up.
He would return to Kenya and take up a job as an untrained teacher in his rural backyard of Uyoma. Then one day: “I left a lamp on in my room early at 5am, packed a few clothes and left every other item intact, including my bicycle, then I left. I was trekking to Europe; not sure when, whether or how I would get there, but what I knew is that only death would stop my ambition. I had seen how the few who went abroad to study came back and were being instrumental in the fight for independence. I was going to be one of them,” he recalls.
Apart from the strong desire for higher education, he was armed with two other critical resources, Sh271, his two months’ salary as an untrained teacher, and geography details on how to reach River Nile, which would lead him to Cairo, where the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga-backed outfit was stationed to support Kenyans heading to the Eastern countries to seek education.
The risky journey would involve walking for weeks through Northern Uganda to Sudan, a boat ride on the Nile to Khartoum and on to Cairo, where the Kenya office was at hand to organise scholarships and airlifts to the Eastern countries.
After secretly planning his trip, Ong’iro first took a bus to Kisumu, then crossed the border at Mbale to Lira and then to Gulu in Northern Uganda. Here, he found his first good Samaritan who, among other things, advised him to abandon any formal attire and paint his body in red soil to look like locals. He also received additional advice on the weather and how to avoid arrests, which was common for people like him who would be returned and jailed if caught.
His target was to get to Juba as fast as possible since there he would easily trek along the Nile to get to Cairo. After three nights of sleeping in thickets and sometimes on top of trees to avoid wild animals, the exhausted man saw a boat appear while he was resting along the Nile.
The boat, he would later learn, was from Juba headed to a town he remembers as Coast.
Here, there was a major railway terminus to Khartoum and Ong’iro immediately jumped into it, using sign language and English to pass messages.
At the station, he hatched the last survival strategy together with his newfound friend from Nyasaland (Malawi), who was embarking in a similar mission; sell clothes and pay for the train trip to Khartoum.
The two men would live in Khartoum for close to 10 months, surviving on well-wishers, especially those of Arab descent, who were very generous to anyone who had stood against the British colonial rule.
It is from here that they had a message passed to the Kenya office in Cairo that they had arrived as they continued to get support from students of Khartoum University, who raised funds and paid the university catering to feed them every day. They also got their first formal travel documents.
When he was finally called to Cairo, the old man recalls the joy that engulfed him, knowing that he was finally getting his dream fulfilled. He remembers the two nights of a risky boat ride on the Nile to Aswan Dam and then a dusty train ride to Cairo, all paid by the well-wishers in Khartoum.
His family in Uyoma had declared him dead. In the era of poor communication, no one could trace his whereabouts.
Wera Ambitho who, incidentally, later became his neighbour in Kandege, was there to receive him. A college had been found in the then divided Berlin, where he would first study German then take a three-year course in economics. It is from here that he wrote a letter back home, to their relief. After another one year stint in Germany, it was now 1964, and he returned home as per the plan.
“My desire was simple: go to Europe, get education and return home to play a fruitful role. I did not know that I would take longer and return to Kenya after Independence. I missed the party, but when I arrived back in Nairobi, a job at the settlement office was waiting for me. It would be my greatest contribution to settle Africans in the land they had been kept away from by the colonialists for decades,” he says holding his Diploma certificate from Fritz Heckert.
After serving in Kericho, Nyeri, Nyandarua and in Siaya, both as a land officer and later in the co-operative movements, the old man retired; proud of his determination to get higher education and returning to serve his country.
Ong’iro recalls the fiery political climate in 1960 and 1961, where he confesses that as much as he did not like Tom Mboya’s dalliance with the British, he admired his politics as a trade unionist.
Both Odhiambo Okello and Wera Ambitho have since died, but their contributions towards making many people like Ong’iro to take the inspiration to travel to Eastern Europe to get education and the drama that surrounded Kenya’s pre-independence would remain for ages; especially at a time when Kenya celebrates Jamhuri Day like it will happen this Wednesday.
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