• Caleb Atemi

The OUKO Riots


We had no time to run or take cover as he pulled the trigger. Just then a ball of fire fell on the lorry exploding like a bomb.


Martyrdom does not end something, it only is a beginning.”-Indira Gandhi

I sat on the tarmac, drenched in my own sweat. I could barely hear the words of the student leader. I had been sitting here for hours taking notes under duress. The students now demanded that I read back to them what I had written.


Their anger could have set any structure ablaze. They were protesting the death of their foreign affairs minister. I was spared from mob beating by the fact that I worked for the Nation Newspapers Limited, then considered as a Peoples Mouthpiece and an anti-government outlet.


My photographer Baraka Karama Snr and I had left the office to visit Robert Ouko’s Nyahera home. We encountered hundreds of students from Maseno University. They were singing, dancing, chanting and composing dirges while carrying twigs. They stopped every vehicle, harassing motorists and seeking identification of each occupant. I believe they were searching for government officials and security personnel.


When they were satisfied that I had correctly captured their thoughts, they released me on condition that their story and photos would appear in the following day’s copy of the Daily Nation. Of course I had no control over the story usage but I had to buy my freedom.

We eventually arrived at the Ouko home. The beautiful serene home stood on the hillside not far from the Maragoli Forest. Covered by trees and flowers, it was an ideal hiding place for anyone seeking solace.


There were no family members at the home but a domestic worker who knew me took us round. I recalled the moments I had shared with the late Ouko in this home. Walking through the flower garden, we entered his living room and library. His library and study were his most precious rooms. Ouko loved reading.


I remembered the precious moments when we shared a cup of tea. He poured out his thoughts about Kenya the county he loved and his travels around the world. He was not only the foreign affairs minister, he was also the Kisumu Rural Member of Parliament.

After conducting a few interviews with neighbours and the worker we left for Kisumu. The Kakamega Kisumu road was a lengthy battle-line. There was little traffic. We passed through several police roadblocks. We had to identify ourselves at each before being waved on.

In Kondele we had to contend with tear gas and sound of gunfire. Fortunately my driver, Jimmy Achira was a Kisumu resident and had previously worked as a taxi driver. He knew which routes to take to safely deliver us to the office.


I decided to cover the town centre events on foot. Armed with my notebook, I walked towards the Imperial hotel. There I met my colleague Amos Onyatta from the Standard Newspaper and Warambo Owino from the Kenya Times. We agreed to walk as a group and work as a team for our joint security. Just then, a lorry carrying GSU officer came hurtling towards us.


It slowed down almost to a halt as it neared the spot where we stood. I remember watching the unfolding events as if in slow motion. An officer shouted at us while taking aim with his rifle. We had no time to run or take cover as he pulled the trigger. Just then, like it happens in movies, a ball of fire fell on the lorry exploding like a bomb. The sudden jolt must have shaken the shooters hand misdirecting the bullets. They flew right above our heads. The GSU officers scampered out of the lorry screaming. Some of them were on fire. Their vehicle had been petrol bombed by a rioter whose act saved our lives in the nick of time.

We ran. We ran fast. We took the route towards the Kisumu High Court which usually has less human traffic than the town centre. Stones and bullets were flying in all directions. There were however three GSU officers hot on our heels. I sprinted past my colleagues but had to slow down to assist my friend Onyatta. I told the others that we could not leave one of our own behind.


Onyatta was coughing, heaving and puffing. He had never run like this before. He eventually collapsed in to a heap and told me: “My brother just let me die” I stood by him. Just then the GSU men pounced on us.


To my surprise, instead of beating us, they looked at Onyatta, one huge load of human flesh sprawled on the tarmac, and started to laugh. “Koech angalia hii nyani haizewi hata kimbia. Wewe chukueni hii maiti yenyu mutoe hapa.” (Koech look at this monkey, it can’t even run. You take your corpse away).


We struggled to lift up our colleague and staggered towards the court premises for safety and shelter.


Onyatta was one of the gentlest souls I have ever met. Soft spoken with a shy smile, he stood above six feet. His broad shoulders and huge tummy gave his gigantic figure extra significance.


A story is told of Onyatta’s visit to Standard Newspaper headquarters at the Industrial Area in Nairobi. Dressed smartly in navy blue suit, white shirt and red tie, he entered the office of the Group Managing Editor Ali Hafidth. He had gone to plead with the boss for a retainer fee. He had been working hard as a freelance journalist in Kisumu without regular pay and thought it was time he placed his request to the highest office.


The secretary ushered him into Ali’s office. When Ali saw him, he quickly stood up from behind his desk and offered him a seat. Ali was a tiny man with a diminutive stature. He ordered his secretary to serve his guest a cup of tea. Onyatta was shocked that such a senior man could give him VIP treatment.


Ali knew he had an important guest from either the government or the ruling party Kanu. It is only when Onyatta introduced himself that Ali realised he had “wasted his hospitality on a mere correspond”. “Get out of my office”, he shouted fuming and puffing. Onyatta scampered out of the office, terrified by the sudden turn of events. It only dawned on him that he had become serious case of mistaken identity. He however used to joke that “at least I had finished taking the tea” before his boss realised he was not a VIP.

On this hot afternoon, as the streets of Kisumu town burst and burned into flames of fury, Onyatta’s body size came to our rescue. This time it was not mistaken identity but his real identity that saved us.


The body count was piling. The number of injured civilians and security personnel was growing. The pain and agony of Kisumu residents was unbearable.

For three days we could not access our homes. We had to sleep on the floor of our office. Food and water became scarce commodities. It was during such moments that the office telephone would ring and a man with a heavy Kalenjin accent would ask to speak to me.

Wewe ndio unajifanya eti unajua Kizungu sana? Eti unaelezea vile Ouko alikufa, utanfuata huyo Ouko” (You are the one who pretends to know a lot of English. You tell your readers how Ouko died. You will follow that Ouko.”


I received several such death threats. At last my colleagues and I decided that it was no longer safe for any of us to stay in our homes. We booked ourselves into the YMCA hostels where we stayed for several weeks. For days, Kisumu was a war zone.

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