As I join family and friends in paying tribute to Karl Marx Christopher Owiro CC., whose bones were interred three years ago at his Koranda village, I am reminded of a statement by Karl Marx the Senior, in the first Chapter of his Doctoral Thesis. He wrote, “Greek philosophy seems to have met with something with which a good tragedy is not supposed to meet, namely, a dull ending.” May my brother and comrade – Owiro C.C. as we fondly referred to him, continue to Rest in Peace!
In reply to unfair criticism and slander of Karl Marx the Senior, soon after his death, by a young Italian, one Signor Achille Loria, his friend and comrade in revolutionary writing Frederick Engels wrote in London on 12th May 1883, “I received your piece on Karl Marx. You are at liberty to subject his teachings to your most searching criticism and even to misunderstand them if you wish; you are at liberty to draft a biography of Marx which is a work of pure fantasy. However, what you are not at liberty to do, and it is a privilege I shall never grant to anybody, is to slander the character of my late friend.”
In the same regard, even though everyone has liberty to subject the ideas and tendencies of our later day “Karl Marx”, the late Christopher Owiro, to the strictest criticism and even draft a biography of him as they want to fantasise, what they are not at liberty to do, and it is a privilege we shall never grant anybody, is to slander the character of our late friend.
Save for very close friends and colleagues in students activism during Kenya’s political transition stage of 1990s, most Kenyans may never understand the late Karl Marx Christopher Owiro. Few understood his ideological inclination and tendencies. The basis of his enigmatic mien may forever remain a puzzle to majority of Kenyans.
A number of people fail to look at Karl Marx’s life in totality and only focus on his downward trend in the later years, a trend that was a natural consequence of his heroic struggles against a despotic and centralized system that informed the relationship between institutions of higher learning and the state.
Karl Marx’s story is a sad story of how the patronizing Moi Government, directly and/ or through it’s agents posted in Universities as Vice Chancellors and senate/ council members suspended, expelled, failed, maimed, jailed, and even killed intelligent, courageous, ideologically driven and visionary students leaders. Karl Marx may have escaped being killed on campus as happened to Solomon Muruli and others, but the torture and the frustrations through suspensions, expulsions, arrests and physical assault meted against him slowly took a toll on him and drove him into isolation and alcoholism, and finally to his death.
The story of Marx is also the story of how an opportunistic and manipulative mainstream opposition and civil society leadership in the second liberation used students as the vanguard in the struggle for liberation of Kenya from the yoke of Moi’s misrule, only to abandoned them in their hour of need, even as they (opposition and civil society leaders) settled in positions of privilege. Karl Marx’s political mentors, the men and women now referred to as heroes of the Second Liberation, who Marx believed in and sacrificed a lot for to mobilize students to support, abandoned him in his hours of real need.
Despite finally leaving University with a good degree and a Post Graduate Diploma in Actuarial Science, Karl Marx could not find a job in Government, private sector and even the civil society. He once narrated to me how he got sacked from CDC-Kisumu within two weeks of recruitment when his boss noticed how influential he was on other employees and on enquiry learnt that he was the “Karl Marx”.
Lost for options, he finally retreated from Nairobi to Otonglo and spent his time amongst illiterate villagers who could neither understand nor engage him in intellectual discourse. He was angry and hungry. Marx slipped even more deeply into alcoholism.
When I discovered around 2008 that Marx was wasting away in the village, severally I invited him to Kisumu town, to join us in planning and executing youth empowerment and other civil society activism programs on peace, reconciliation and reforms. Severally we met and discussed Marx with Moses Oburu, Eng. Adrian Ouma and other compatriots in student activism, to discuss how to help Marx rediscover himself.
My view was that through this, Marx could retrace his path, rediscover himself, stop drinking and pursue his revolutionary goals once more. I prayed that like the mythical Phoenix, Marx would rise from the ashes that he had become, and fly again.
Alas, it was too little to late! Even though traces of the sharp brain and the revolutionary mien was faintly visible in his talk, Marx’s call to duty was no more! He could not keep up with appointments and had lost his discipline. He could no longer live up to the quick pace of activism. He had become incoherent and lived in delusion of past glories. The worst bit is that he invested every coin that came his way in alcohol. Apart from the old torture scars, Marx had acquired fresh injuries and scars all over his body from repeated accidents and brawls in stupor.
This was a painful pale shadow of the inspirational Marx who, in his hey days, waxed revolutionary lyrics – quoting Socrates, Plato, Hegel, Marx, Voltaire, Locke, Simone, Rousseau, Smith, Aristotle, Bacon, Confussious, Che, and Tzu with ease; effortlessly driving students not only at the UoN, but at any institution that visited into mutinies. Here was the sorry state of a man that all the VCs, Minister of Education, Police Commissioner and the President repeatedly begged on several occasions for cease fire in the height of student unrests. Here was the sad ending of the young powerhouse that Moi, Kibaki, Raila, Orengo, Nyong’o, Kibwana and Mutunga sort, again and again, to be on their side.
It is unfortunate that I only experienced through others after Marx’s death, the reality that alcoholism is actually a medical condition that requires a medical solution. Sometimes when I think of the unfortunate demise of Marx, I cannot fail to imagine the possibility that Marx would have been saved, had we invested the time we spent in trying to talk to him as laymen out of alcohol, in a medical expert who would have cracked the insulation he created against our advice and scientifically rehabilitated him from dependency on alcohol.
Despite the sad ending, those of us who knew Karl Marx well enough have a duty to tell his story. Like the European contemporaries of his name sake in the 18th Century, we need to document and dialogue about the life, tendencies, ideologies, achievements, miscalculations, failures and mistakes.
Jacqueline Klopp and Justin Orina have made a good attempt, in www.columbia.edu/~jk2002/publications/KloppOrina02.pdf, in explaining the challenges that Karl Marx and his peers in student activism in the 1990s faced in dealing with the crisis in Kenyan universities within the context of a centralized and oppressive state whose tentacles were active within universities in form of Vice Chancellors, Senate and Council members. Let us continue the discourse.
May Karl Marx Owiro’s soul continue to rest in eternal peace! May his spirit continue communing with the very greatest spirits who departed earlier and those who passed on later. May his soul continue to find the restfulness that this world never gave him. May his story inspire future generations and caution youth against the vanity of alcohol.