By Ogova Ondego
Published January 31, 2015
This book is likely to enlighten the reader on issues like ‘race’ ‘tribe’, ‘ethnic rivalry’ and their impact on socio-political and economic development of modern Kenya.
Though telling the story of a family, the book—Letters from My Dad: The Roots of a Maragoli Family of Kenya—by James Ojago, a medical doctor, not only defines the term ‘Maragoli’ and traces the community from its foreparents in 1600s but also describes the ‘Maragoli territory’ in Kenya’s Vihiga, Nyaribari, Kanyamkago, Migori, Lugari, Mautuma, Kamukuywa, Kitale and Eldoret; the Mara/Serengeti animal migration area of Tanganyika (Tanzania mainland) and Kigumba area near Uganda’s Masindi Port.
The book also describes Maragoli beliefs, traditions, rites of passage, marriage, pregnancy and childbirth, childhood, folklore (riddles, proverbs, and metaphors), education and entertainment (Bull-fighting, Isukuti dance), something that makes it possible for the reader to understand the community’s worldview and its relationship with its neighbours.
Presenting the Maragoli as a highly enterprising individualistic community with a strong work ethic, the author describes the arrival of white American Friends missionaries at Kaimosi in Tiriki, just north of Maragoli in 1902, as “the most significant event that had broad ramifications for members of the community” that not only embraced the missionaries but also adopted their ways–their education and ideas–“like no other neighboring community did. Early pioneers of education from the mission acted as agents, returning to their own neighborhoods as teachers and church pastors.”
Though the encounter with the missionaries is presented as having been mainly positive, that wasn’t the case with the European settlers and the Indians who had been brought to the then British territory by the colonial government as labourers on the Kenya-Uganda railway line.
Dr Ojago writes that the colonial administration set up an apartheid state in Kenya: “At the highest level of society was the white race; second in the caste were people of Indian descent, from the Indian subcontinent… At the lower end of the caste were members of the African race. Every aspect of daily life was segregated.”
The Indians, unlike their European counterparts, come in for some bashing.
“The Indians treated their African clients and employees as dogs or as members of a subhuman race whenever an African client did business with them.”
As if to trace the unease and stereotypes between black Kenyans on one end and Indians/Asians in Kenya on the other, Ojago writes: “After Kenya became a Republic in 1964, many of their kind would have nothing to do with Kenyan citizenship, opting instead to follow the British either to England or to Canada. The few who [took up] Kenyan citizenship have continued to engage in shady business deals, including but not limited to price gouging, tax evasion, money laundering, gold and coffee smuggling, theft of petroleum products, smuggling of small arms and ammunition to rebel groups in the region, wildlife poaching and what have you, always in cahoots with corrupt elements in the government. When confronted with evidence, they are quick to flee the country for the safety of either India or Europe in order to evade prosecution.”
The author writes. “There is no current adult black Kenyan who can honorably vouch for a positive experience with an Indian merchant, either as an employee or as a client, in Nairobi City or any community where Indian merchants are currently resident.”
Though not overtly tackled, the reader can make an educated guess on why the Maragoli and the Luo, though inter-marrying and interacting as any neighbouring communities are wont to do, appear to harbour prejudices against each other. One may also tell why the Babukusu of Bungoma County, though lumped together with the Maragoli as Luyia, are uneasy with each other. Could this be due to what Dr Ojago refers to as the feeling of ‘entitlement’ that is exhibited by many aBalogoli whose language was ‘imposed’ on the other ‘Luyia’ through the hymns and Bible that were translated into Lulogoli by the Friends missionaries?