By Dr. Vincent O. Ongore
For reasons of trying to not undermine their access to employment and economic opportunities, many people of Luo extraction are no longer comfortable introducing themselves with their maiden or family names. That’s the level where our country has gotten to. Due to sixty years of neglect, vilification, discrimination and outright shunning by successive regimes, many young people from the Luo community now feel ashamed or afraid of associating with their Luo heritage.
On the other hand, Kikuyu young men and women are extremely comfortable with their heritage. As a university teacher, I do know for a fact that it’s usually a herculean task trying to get the maiden or family names of Luo students in Kenyan universities. While their Kikuyu counterparts easily introduce themselves as Waweru wa Njuguna, Kinuthia wa Kamau, Wambui Gatonye or Nyawira Gachai, the Luo prefer to state their given names such as McDonald, Kings, Anne-Stacy or Purity. People who find it a lot easier to embrace stereotypes than to think deeply about issues do take it for granted that the Luo prefer foreign names to their own. Far from it. In fact, given a fair chance, the Luo would be all over the place referring to themselves as Okoth Ongore wuod Mond Magoya, or Ouko Janam Jakakimba wuod Kodondo instead of Vincent Ongore or Silas Chepkeres Jakakimba, respectively.
Unfortunately, most of us do not have such luxury in Kenya any more. It’s been 60 good years since independence, and yet this community continues to be stigmatized at places of work, in business, in government and in politics. In fact, it remains a miracle to many people how the Luo have managed to remain afloat with all the discrimination, deliberate economic sabotage, and being made to look like second class citizens in a country they helped liberate, and continue to help shape. One needs to be very honest to appreciate what I am talking about.
The Luo have been reduced to beggars crumbling for crumbs and morsels of economic goodies for which they pay taxes. The peculiar behavior that Kenyans and the international community witnessed in the run up to, and during the just concluded Madaraka Day celebrations in Kisumu should be understood in the context of a people who are so starved of development that tokenism has long began to appeal to them. After all, they have never seen anything like that or better.
A simple example should suffice. Kisumu is the headquarters of the former Nyanza Province, comprising six counties of Kisii, Nyamira, Homa Bay, Migori, Siaya and Kisumu. It is, on paper, the third largest city in Kenya. The government has built big hospitals in all the former provincial headquarters, and large towns. Rift Valley (Nakuru, Eldoret, Kericho, Narok, Kajiado, Kapenguria, etc), Central (Nyeri, Murang’a, Kiambu, Kerugoya, etc), Western (Kakamega, Bungoma, Vihiga and Busia), Eastern (Machakos, Kitui, Embu, Meru, etc), Coast (Mombasa, Kwale, Taita Taveta, Kilifi, Lamu, etc), North Eastern (Garissa), and Nairobi, all have their main hospitals built by the government. It’s only in Kisumu where the main hospital was built by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga with funding from Russian government. The only Level-5 hospital built by the state in the entire Nyanza is in Kisii.
Apart from the one in Kisumu, there’s no other Level-5 hospital anywhere else in Luoland. I mean this is a fact. The ramifications for survival rate of live births in this part of Kenya are simply unimaginably dire. Has anybody ever tried to explain this open discrimination against a section of Kenyans? So vilified are the Luo that one would imagine that the community is in this country by invitation. After sixty years of deliberate starvation of economic resources, then some non-thinking individuals proudly claim that the Luo are poor because they are not hardworking! I have learnt to laugh at assertions that the Luo like living in luxury and do not save anything for business or a rainy day. In fact, with the kind of official neglect that has been occasioned on the Luo, it is a huge miracle that the region hasn’t been folded up and taken back to Sudan. At independence, the Luo were very entrepreneurial, with cotton ginneries littered all over the province.
The textile and fish industries were thriving in Nyanza. When the sugar factories were created, the western region literally became the industrial basket of the country, supplying all the industrial and domestic sugar needs of the country. Business and farming were booming in Nyanza and Western provinces. Then, boom! The main fish processing factory was established in Thika, hundreds of kilometers away from the sources of fish. That meant that fish processing for export was done in Thika. Government failed to build refrigeration facilities for fishermen in Nyanza and Western provinces. So, middlemen would come with their refrigerated trucks and take fish from the desperate fishermen for a song. The middlemen became richer and richer from the sweat of fishermen, as the fishermen sunk more and more into destitution. Then, second hand clothes were allowed into the country, and the cotton farming and ginneries collapsed. Cotton farmers went into economic oblivion. Then followed liberalization of the sugar sector. The sugar factories collapsed.
Meanwhile, the government created companies to regulate the coffee, tea, pyrethrum, flower, milk and other industries. So, as players in these regulated sectors smiled all the way to the bank, cotton and sugarcane farmers, and fishermen were left on their own, counting losses. This has continued for 60 years, coupled with systematic sidelining of the Luo from the mainstream politics and civil service. Then there’s the age-old issue of circumcision. It’s strange that in a country that prides itself as having one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, with beautiful articles on Bill of Rights, some people still want to decide for others what’s good for them, thus promoting intrusion into personal space in a liberal constitutional dispensation!
A cursory internet search reveals that just about 20% of males in the world are circumcised, with Europeans particularly, giving it a wide berth. In fact, in some parts of Europe, circumcision of minors is outlawed. Then, in Africa, some people still believe that male circumcision is such a great thing! Lack of knowledge is such a hindrance to progress in this continent. The Luo have been so intimidated and desecrated that they cringe at the mere mention of the word Luo in public. Then some dimwits go to the rooftops to announce how the Luo are not hardworking. If they are not hardworking, why can’t government support them the way they babyseat other communities? When a few days ago, a respected friend of mine, Ambrose Otieno Weda, urged the Luo to stop giving their children ethnic Luo names if they are to have a fair chance at competing with the rest of Kenyan children for jobs and other economic opportunities, I didn’t agree with him, but fully understood where he was coming from. Weda’s advice is very pragmatic and tempting. As an advocate and public servant, he understands the deep-seated resolve to send the Luo to the periphery of the state. It has been done for six decades, and continues to inform how senior state appointments are done. It’s one of the most badly kept secrets in this country.
Our young people in schools and colleges are losing hope by the day as they watch job and business opportunities disappear into the oblivion while their colleagues and friends from other communities easily land lucrative jobs upon graduation. As a teacher, I tell my students about synergistic benefits that arise out of inclusivity. But in my own country, a whole community is struggling to belong. In fact, even carrying a Kenyan ID is now seen by some Luo people as betrayal. The moment the real identity is revealed, a young Luo has already lost 50 percent of his or her chances of competing fairly for a job or promotion.
I remember in 2012 when I appeared for seven levels of interviews for a very senior government job. We started 66 of us, and by the 6th level, we had been pruned to three, and I was still way ahead of the pack, according to insider sources. Then I remember one of the interviewers who had been very attentive as I responded to the questions asking me to state my name clearly. “Are you Ongori or Ongore?” From his name and heavy mother tongue interference (first language supremacy), I could tell that he would have preferred Ongori over Ongore. Immediately I stated my name, the man lost interest and started dozing. This thing is very bad. For me, however, there have been instances when my identity worked in my favor.
The first incident occurred many years ago in Namibia while I was attending school at the Gammams Institute in Windhoek. Out of carelessness (I had shaved my armpits then applied roll-on immediately), I got infected and was admitted into Catholic Hospital of Windhoek for a minor surgery. The surgeon was Dr Goody Nwagboso, a Nigerian. When he read my name, he immediately stopped what he was doing, then asked me “are you Kenyan?” to which I responded in the affirmative. The next question took me by surprise. “Are you Luo?” It turned out that one of our senior surgeons in Kenya had been his visiting professor and trainer in surgery in a South African university. For confirming my heritage, I had my bill cut by half! You can imagine what that meant to a student in a foreign land. In the same country, I was to later learn, General Opande had been Deputy President as part of the UN framework to facilitate transfer of power from the Boers to indigenous Namibians led by Sam Nujoma.
Much later in life at Denver International Airport in Colorado, USA, at the immigration desk, the Caucasian officer looked at the details in my passport severally, then mustered courage and asked me: “Professor, I can see you’re Kenyan, are you Luo?” I smiled, and asked him why he asked. Instead of answering my question, he insisted that I answer his, to which I responded ‘yes.’ He immediately stamped my passport and gave it back to me, with a surprise statement: “having lived in Kenya for a number of years with my evangelist parents, I know for sure that there’s no way an educated Luo can lie about his mission in the US. I know you will leave on the date indicated on your ticket. Have a good stay in the US.’ Can you believe that?
It felt great to be associated with a community that is respected globally for integrity in a country that has adopted corruption and malfeasance as its second name and nature. From those two incidents, I concluded that it was not too bad to be Luo, and be proud of it, after all. Back to the 2021 Madaraka Day celebrations in Kisumu. Many people from different communities have asked me to explain the warmth and friendship that the people of Kisumu have expressed to President Uhuru Kenyatta these past four days despite the obvious fact that he cheated Raila Odinga out of his presidential election victory – according to the Supreme Court – and caused untold sufferings to the Luo across the country as an aftermath.
Unknown to some Kenyans, the Luo are an extroverted but very caring, loving and forgiving people. All they demand of other people is respect and good manners. They are very accommodative, and don’t keep grudges. Unfortunately, this great trait has been their greatest undoing as other communities are wont to commit atrocities against them knowing that within a short time they will forgive. We need to build a cohesive society where job and other economic opportunities are availed to our children not on the basis of their family names, but ability and content of their character. People of Nyanza are taxpaying citizens of this country. They too need development like all the other regions. That’s the social contract they have with their government. This is a right. It’s not a favor. That will bring to an end the unfortunate spectacle of a Kenyan community celebrating crumbs as if they are second class citizens while other communities get government investments, support and facilitation as a matter of right.
The writer is a Corporate Governance & Tax Lecturer at the Technical University of Kenya, firstname.lastname@example.org