Shiundu Nikola, better known as Papa Oketch, is my Baba Mkubwa, my father’s elder brother. He is the first born in his mother’s house and my father is the second. Papa Oketch suddenly and unexpectedly left us on the third day of April, 2020.
My first memories of Papa Oketch were as a young child in our family home in Nairobi. Papa Oketch, whenever he had some work in Nairobi, would drop in to say hello. If he found our parents away, he would leave them a message; “Tell Daddy and Mummy that Okundu kundi kwitsire hano.”
How do I translate his words in English? I feel that the meaning of this phrase cannot be well captured in another language, but I will try. “Omundu” is the Luhya word for a person. “Okundu” is a superlative form of “omundu”. It means a large or huge person and is often said derisively. It could be used to refer to an ogre or a scary being. Strangers, in traditional times, were to be avoided by children. Our folklore has many stories to that effect, where the stranger in question was frequently referred to as “Okundu”. The translation is therefore not a simple one. In short, Papa Oketch was warning us against welcoming strangers by telling us to tell our parents that; “A huge or strange person has come here.”
That was Papa Oketch for you. He had a way with words. He used this gift to write his autobiography; “The Story of the Wanderings of an Innocent Rural Boy.” When I was young, I often heard people say that he only spoke Oxford English. I did not know what that meant until my last visit to him where, in our discussion, he threw around words like “suzerainty”, “progenitor” and “sagacious” as if they were common vocabulary.
Papa Oketch was a realist and the last time I went to visit him in December of 2019, he explained to me that he had written his autobiography so that his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and beyond would know who he was. He informed my brother and I that he did not get to know much about his grandfather Kong’ani, something he sorely regrets.
We come from a lineage of kings and Papa Oketch aptly told us that were it not for that fact, we would know little about our ancestry. “We are lucky in that way,” he said. “But with the coming of the colonialists and the decline of the kingdom, we are bound to lose touch with who we are. Our future generations will not know us.”
Papa Oketch innately identified himself by his Wanga name, Shiundu. Even in his autobiography, he refers to himself as Shiundu Nikola, Nikola being my grandfather’s name. His full name is Alfred Oketch Shiundu. Professionally he was known as Alfred Oketch and his nieces and nephews mostly referred to him as Papa Oketch. His mother was a Luo, Kukhu Adhiambo, as we lovingly referred to her, and had given most, if not all her children a Luo name besides their Wanga names. His was Oketch and somehow, his family and friends preferred calling him by this name.
Why am I telling you all this? It is because the longest sit-down I had ever had with Papa Oketch was on that day in December of 2019 when we discussed co-authoring a book on what I came to learn was a shared interest, the history and culture of the Abawanga. Our discussion that day centred on the life of Nabongo Shiundu Wamukoya. I had published my first novel Wamukoya Netia and taken to him a copy, for his critique as a fellow author. We discussed the subject of Wamukoya Netia, who was only one among three of the better known Nabongos of the Wanga Kingdom, the other two being Nabongo Wanga and Nabongo Mumia wa Shiundu.
Most of you have heard of Nabongo Mumia. His name was splashed all over our history books in primary and secondary school as a “collaborator” during the colonial era. I will not get into the fallacy of that label here as that will be a conversation for another day. Right now, I am going to stick to the last and lengthiest conversation I had ever had with Papa Oketch.
Papa Oketch praised my efforts in trying to document the history of our people by writing about one of our great Kings. He told me to next embark on a more difficult task, that was writing about kings who were not so well known, starting with Nabongo Shiundu Wamukoya, the heir of Nabongo Wamukoya Netia. He proceeded to give me the little (though I thought it quite vast) knowledge he had about the subject, as a starting point for me to go and carry out my research on the subject.
Listening to him that day, and re-writing his thoughts on Nabongo Shiundu today, I have come to draw many parallels between the character and personalities of Papa Oketch and his namesake, Nabongo Shiundu.
Nabongo Shiundu was a very astute leader, and is credited for bringing the outside world (or modern civilisation as many like to call it) to the Wanga kingdom. Nabongo Shiundu seemed to have lived before his times.
An example is when the Wanga Kingdom was faced with constant threats of war and invasion by some of the neighbouring communities. The invasions became so frequent that there was no peace in the Wanga Kingdom. Nabongo Shiundu addressed this crisis in an innovative way that no other surrounding community had done. He employed Maasai warriors as mercenaries for hire. The Wanga could now enjoy a peaceful life so long as they paid their taxes to the King who in turn used those taxes to pay the Maasai warriors.
Papa Oketch further informed me that another way in which Nabongo Shiundu was ahead of times, is that he understood the importance of trade with other nations as another way of addressing the security crisis in the Wanga Kindgom. To this end, he separated his commercial headquarters from his administrative headquarters by moving his administrative capital away from Elureko (modern day Mumias) to Matungu in 1841. Elureko thus became exclusively his commercial capital.
After this separation, he embarked on the process of building up Elureko as a key rest-stop for long distance Swahili and Arab traders travelling to the Buganda Kingdom. He ensured adequate supply of clean water and fresh rations for them and encouraged them to stay longer by building separate quarters for them on the outskirts of Elureko. These traders, were well armed with firearms and protected their quarters from intruders and in this way also protected the Wanga Kingdom. Their superior firepower was no match for Wanga’s enemies. Elureko became so popular among the long distance traders that they renamed it Kwa-Shiundu.
The perceived superiority of the Wanga made neighbouring Luhya sub-tribes pledge their allegiance to Nabongo Shiundu and become his subjects. This led to a rapid expansion of the territories of the Wanga Kingdom that was only curtailed by the coming of the British colonialists.
In the Wanga culture, there is a proverb that says, a child will eat its name. This proverb basically means that a child will live up to the name that he or she is given. I think Papa Oketch ate his name Shiundu. Just like Nabongo Shiundu, he was a trailblazer. He was among the very first people in our village to study beyond secondary school. In fact, he undertook his high school studies “abroad” at Namilyango College in Uganda at a time when most people did not venture far beyond the boundaries of their villages.
Papa Oketch is celebrated as having contributed to the success of Mumias Sugar Company. His visionary leadership there led to his rise to the position of General Manager. Like his namesake, Nabongo Shiundu, he was perceptive and realized that the one thing that would transform his community was education. His vision was to uplift his people in this way. He has been credited with the establishment and expansion of several primary and secondary school around Matungu and Mumias. He also introduced bursaries for students which in turn led to the high literacy rate we see among our people.
And he loved literature. He read a lot and encouraged others to do so. Upon reading my book, he wrote me a note that said:
“To Didi Wamukoya,
The Story of Wamukoya Netia is a well thought out piece of work which comprises Wanga proverbs, customs and idioms in which the events are well synchronized. The reader benefits immensely from the wise sayings of the abaWanga. This book should be presented for Booker Book prize competition.
– Shiundu Nikola.”
Reading this note again and seeing, through your words, the support you always accorded others, makes me very emotional. You will be greatly missed, Papa Oketch. The best I can do is to celebrate you and to carry on your name and the history of our “progenitors” as you so wished.