By I N
Growing up as a young boy in Kamagambo, I heard stories of an eloquent man of books from Kochia called Prof J.B. Ouma Muga. In a community that revered –and still reveres- academic achievements above everything else, some of these accounts of the brilliance of the good old professor were peppered with hyperbole and exaggerations. Ang’emo –a local drunkard who was a walking encyclopedia after indulging in Chang’aa- still insists even today that it is Professor Ouma Muga who not only discovered the ozone layer but also coined the phrase “global warming.”
And so those of us who were born in the early nineties, and who were lucky to grow up in households where indelible Luo leaders like Ndolo Ayah, Ojwang Kombudo, Dr. Shem Ochuodho, Akumu Jakogero, and Dr. Phoebe Asiyo were idolized, knew who Ouma Muga was. It was later when I joined University that I began to appreciate how impossibly intelligent professor was. With a PhD in fluvial geomorphology, Ouma Muga undoubtedly earned a place among the elite group of scholars of his time.
However, this grand and seemingly larger-than-life perception I had of the professor quickly dissipated when I met him. One evening, while finishing an errand I was running at Uchumi House, I noticed a man with a distinctive grey Marxist beard sitting on the City Council benches facing the building. I knew this was Professor Ouma Muga. The beard was definitely his. The piercing and intimidating gaze also his. He wore a jacket that had borne the brunt of summer in Nairobi. In his hands was a small polythene bag. He looked tired, hungry, and dejected –an image unbecoming of such a distinguished scholar.
I would meet Ouma Muga once more at the roundabout of Moi Avenue and Haile Selassie as he boarded a Matatu heading for Rongai. This was a celebrated scholar, former cabinet minister, and a two-term member of parliament. I did not know what to say. Two years later, I would hear media coverage of Ouma Muga languishing in a hospital in Kikuyu without proper medical care. Until his death, not even a single notable leader from Luo Nyanza visited his bed-side. He died a poor lonely man.
But what irks me even more is that because of the firm grip that the Odinga family has over politics in Luo Nyanza, our people never had an opportunity to collectively benefit from his ingenuity. For years, Professor Ouma Muga held the fundamental belief that Luo Nyanza required special economic programs for the region to step out of the state of socioeconomic marginalization that had defined its polity since independence. He also argued that if the Odinga family was allowed to cement its foothold over Luo Nyanza politics, this dream would never be realized.
It is in this regard that he strongly opposed Raila’s forceful attempt to take over the leadership of Ford Kenya in 1994. Joining him in this struggle were firebrand politicians like James Orengo, Peter Nyongo, Ndolo Ayah, Ojwang Kombudo, Akumu Jakogero, and many others. It is a move that would cost them dearly. In the 1997 elections, all of them were toppled when Raila formed NDP. Although Orengo and Nyong’o would later be rehabilitated by the Odingas the likes of Ouma Muga never recovered.
With the advent of devolution, Prof. Ouma Muga approached several county governments with concrete economic proposals that were geared towards, among other things, reviving the collapsing sugar industry in Western Kenya. Nobody listened to him. Nobody heard him out. Instead, he was called a mad man by the Luo Council of Elders.
In his death, I have seen several tributes flowing from elected leaders in Luo Nyanza –people who had no time for him when he was alive. Those who called him mad will ensure that he is given a glamorous send-off. The road to his home will be paved, bulls will be slaughtered, his funeral will be turned into a platform for political theatrics, and Ouma Muga will remain a small figment of our collective imagination.
He died an old, bitter, and lonely man. And Ang’emo, my village drunkard, will continue fascinating young children in Kamagambo with tales of this great man of books.