If Odera Akang’o was alive today, several people in Gem constituency and Siaya County at large would now be doing time in lonely cells, nursing injuries after receiving several strokes of the cane.
Known for his intolerance to laziness and anybody who disobeyed the law, the colonial chief Akang’o, would have whipped several officials and leaders senseless for demolishing his cell, a structure that he built over a century ago to detain characters who had no respect for authority.
Akang’o, referred to by some historians as a benevolent dictator, is widely credited for spearheading compulsory education and conservation of the environment in Gem and any parent whose child did not go to school faced his wrath by receiving several canes.
To notorious law breakers and the lazy bones who failed to till their farms or plant trees, the no nonsense chief put up a cell at Yala Township where they were detained.
The cell got neglected with time and the local residents petitioned the Siaya county government to have it preserved as a historical monument in recognition of the former chief’s contribution to intellectual development of the region.
But to the community’s amazement, a group of young men flattened it last week, raising a furore amongst the locals who are now demanding action from both national and county governments.
According to the community, the demolition of Odera Akang’o’s cell is a sacrilege and elders from Gem have to meet and decide on the next course of action to appease the spirit of the chief.
Speaking to the press at Yala, former civic leader, Emmanuel Ominde blamed Siaya county government and local Member of the County Assembly for destroying the historic relic without consulting the community.
“Why do they want to erase Odera Akang’o from history?” he posed adding that it was wrong for the county government to send in a contractor to the site to destroy the cell.
Ominde said that the defunct Yala town council had identified the cell for gazettment as a national monument just before the advent of devolution that ushered in county governments.
A retired teacher, Shadrack Ogutu who equally condemned the demolition said that apart from the law breakers from Gem, the cell also hosted sojourners from Ugenya and other areas who were enroute to Kisumu.
“During the early days, there were no vehicles and those going to Kisumu had to trek. Anybody passing through Odera Akang’o’s territory was fed and in return, they had to pay back by tilling nearby farms,” said Ogutu adding that those who refused were detained in the now demolished cells.
Immediate former Yala township member of the county assembly, Joseph Kawuor also blamed the county government administration for betraying the local community which, he added, wanted the structure preserved.
“The community, through public participation, identified the monument for preservation and improvement as a tourist attraction,” he said noting that the county government even set aside Sh4 million for this purpose.
Kawuor said that the approved works did not entail the destruction of the cell, adding that experts on preservation of historical monuments were to be brought in to help strengthen the walls without changing its architectural design.
“Just like what happens with Fort Jesus that has always been renovated without interfering with its design or walls, we wanted this to happen for the cell,” he said while inspecting the debris.
The residents called for action against those who destroyed the relic and urged the National Museums of Kenya to move in and take over the site for preservation.
Siaya county Executive committee member for Culture, Charles Ogada said he was not aware of the demolition but pledged to look into the matter.
“I am aware that we are supposed to renovate the place. However, I will have to consult with the works department before commenting,” he told Kenya News Agency over the phone.
The late colonial chief is said to have embarked on a push for compulsory education following his return from a journey to Namirembe Cathedral in Uganda where he interacted with the educated Baganda.
On his return to Gem, Odera Akang’o often arrested and caned parents who failed to take their children to school. Also to face his wrath were the lazy and idle who were arrested and sent to work in the farms.
A no-nonsense administrator who would not stomach anybody found breaching the laid down rules and regulations, Odera Akang’o is said to have, at one time, thrown into jail, a white colonial district commissioner, who failed to adhere to the requirement that any visitor ifrom the then native commissioner, John Ainsworth.
This is said to have not gone down well with his colonial masters who arrested and took him to detention in Kismayu, in what one would call a ‘dose of his own medicine’.
After serving his detention term, he is said to have been murdered by a fellow prisoner on the eve of his release and the body buried in Kismayu.
Dictatorial as his administration may have been, his efforts are positively felt even to date, as Gem Sub County has over the years produced intellectuals in various sectors. Among the professors from Gem are George Magoha, the Education Cabinet Secretary, and historian Bethwel Ogot whose homes are a stone throw away from the demolished cell.
By Philip Onyango
Odera Akango: a file picture of the colonial chief, Odera Akang’o who whipped his subjects for failure to take their children to school
DSC 4091(2) the debris of the colonial cell built by the no nonsense chief at Yala town
DSC 4106(2) Joseph kawuor (second left) and Emmanuel Ominde (right) and other locals inspect the materials used in constructing the colonial cell that was demolished this week. Gem residents are protesting the demolition and have called on the government to help restore it.