I braved wild an­i­mals in my long walk to Europe for ed­u­ca­tion

Daily Nation (Kenya) - - SUNDAY REVIEW -

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 claims 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, 90, 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 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 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 Nayuki 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 in it 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, a 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, On­giro 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.

David Ong’iro, 90, nar­rates his long and dan­ger­ous trip out of Kenya in 1961 in search of higher ed­u­ca­tion to Henry Okoko (cen­tre) and Jack­tone Ojera and (right) on Novem­ber 3, 2018 at his Kan­dege home in Kisumu County.

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