By Oduor Ongâ€™wen
In this world, we have two choices: to make a difference or remain indifferent. For those who elect to make a difference, there are those who want their deeds televised and there are those who shun publicity but indelibly touch lives of millions. Odindo Opiata,, who breathed his last on Saturday last week, falls among the latter.
As a university student leader in the early 1980s, Odindo gave meaning to â€œcomrade powerâ€ without then or later in his life trying to seek personal power and self aggrandizement. As a lawyer, he put his profession to the service of those Franz Fanon refers to as â€œthe wretched of the earth.â€
Odindo had always considered popular education and pedagogy of the impoverished and marginalized to be critically important to raising the level of political consciousness in the community, and to a peopleâ€™s empowerment.
To realize this, he chose consciously to eschew the pursuit of material wealth that often drive many lawyers into private practice or big corporations and to spend his time imparting legal knowledge to and representing people in Korogocho, Kibera, Mukuru and other less prestigious settlements.
Many peopleâ€™s voices you forget â€“ even if they are voices you hear every day. But Odindo Opiataâ€™s voice I will never forget. When I woke that Saturday morning and found out the news, I kept hearing his very distinctive voice. Somewhat distant and quiet sometimes, but impassioned at student kamukunjis or political education meetings of Muungano wa Wanavijiji, unmistakably working class Nairobi. Iâ€™d hear him as if it was that Saturday, February 28, 1981, on the podium at Steve Biko Square at Womenâ€™s Hall (The Box) at the University of Nairobi, telling the student community that J.M. Kariuki memorial symposium was definitely on.
This was a day after Former President Moi had issued a stern warning while at the Kenya Air Force headquarters against university studentsâ€™ planned memorial. â€œWe are not reacting to any pronouncement made anywhere, but honouring the memory of J.M. is a moral obligation from which weâ€™ll not abscond,â€ declared Odindo.
On Monday March 2, we woke up to a circular announcing that the university had been closed for â€œearly Easter vacation.â€ Never mind that Easter was more than a month away. The organizer that he was, Odindo and the Interim Committee that he chaired were not deterred by such oppressor tactics as employed by Moi and his apparatchiks. Of course we re-opened before the actual Easter weekend, with the state and university administration satisfied at their genius of inventing a movable calendar. If they were able to scuttle the JM memorial, the rulers soon created a crisis that the student community would not let go to waste.
Vintage KANU had denied Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and one Diffu the tickets to contest Bondo and Bunyala parliamentary seats respectively. The doctorsâ€™ demands for humane working conditions were also rubbished by the regime â€“ leading to a nationwide strike by the medics. Opiataâ€™s team called us to stand for democracy and in solidarity with the doctors, which we obeyed as manifested by four days of student protests that were brutally responded to by the state.
His team, comprising Makau Mutua, George Rubik, Saulo Busolo, John Munuve, Dave Anyona Kanundu and Mathenge Ririani were expelled. Opiata and others were later to finish their studies as refugees at the University of Dar es Salaam while others ended up in Zimbabwe.
Some of us kept touch with these Kenyan patriots. Mwandawiro Mghanga and I was able to meet both the team in Tanzania and Zimbabwe and had Busolo as part of SONU delegation when we attended the International Union of students meetings in Prague and Sofia in 1984. Having graduated, Odindo came back and sought me out in the latter part of 1984.
Since I was out of university and was working outside Nairobi, I linked him with a cell of our underground political movement. We kept close contact but working in different cells until I read in the media that he had been arrested. He was jailed in beginning of April 1986. My arrest followed the week after his jailing and I joined him end of April with identical jail term.
In jail it was tough for us who were jailed. The jail authorities, guards and inmates were especially vicious against the political cadres and human rights activists who were placed in segregation block. In the segregated cells, life was simply hell. But Opiata took this in stride. I will never forget his very first words, when I joined him at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. â€œLife must continue â€“ positively or negatively. Welcome to our new home,â€ he told me.
Out of jail, Odindo threw all his energy to the struggle for ending single party dictatorship. Achieved, he dedicated all his energies to providing legal services to the poor â€“ first at the Kituo cha Sheria and later at Hakijamii Trust, of which he was the Chief Executive. His offices, conveniently situated next to Kibera settlement at Kenyatta market, were home to many who needed legal services but could not afford.
Weâ€™ve lost a true patriot, revolutionary and decent human being. As I mourn Odindo Opiata, I am haunted by his voice, alive as you and me. Letâ€™s mourn an anonymous liberator, and letâ€™s organise, not agonise.