A Comrade’s Eulogy: Remembering ,Christopher Owiro, KARL MARX,
In Enduring Memory of Christopher Owiro; KARL MARX.
I have sadly heard earlier this evening of the passing on of one of those without who the University of Nairobi as an institution, and as an experience for some of us, would never have been the same; that Christoper Owiro, fondly remembered as Karl Marx, renowned former University of Nairobi student leader, has taken a bow from the stage of life.
Where do I even start?
A whirlwind of thoughts, memories and images flash through my mind as I remember the person that was Karl Marx, and I will in honor of how he and those like him enriched the lives of some of us who came after them later in the day, do a quick but deserving tribute to a gentleman whose life, more than once, almost drove me to tears; stories that remain untold.
When Christopher Owiro was in his prime, the Moi-state detesting his radical ways, I was a young man someplace, habouring dreams of one day joining the University of Nairobi. Karl Marx was by all means ”the man”, for even the President himself dreaded the guy’s fearless ways; leading countless demonstrations against the state, making the University of Nairobi known as a rampaging lot.
However, by the time I joined the institution, sadly, sadly, Karl Marx had become a pale shadow of his former self. Mr. Wahome, long serving University of Nairobi Chief Security Officer, sent by the Vice Chancellor to have a chat with me after I had written the VC a rude letter telling him to proverbially ”go to hell”, told me in a fatherly manner to ”be careful that you don’t end up like Karl Marx.”
Christopher Owiro had by then completed a Masters Degree, which was rumored to have been courtesy of a scholarship earned from being new-found bedfellows with the later day equally authoritarian university administration, and was an employed teaching fellow at Chiromo Campus.
But physically, Karl Marx was so dented, literally, with stitch marks all over his face, bumps and ridges either out of fights or generally physical damage, that whenever someone was shown he was indeed ”the Karl Marx” one was left wondering what life could turn one into.
Karl Marx had retorted to very heavy drinking, and despite having a Masters Degree and being an employee of the university, he spent a lot of his nights at student hostels at the Main Campus. He most of the times looked frail and haggard, as if he had given up on life all together.
Yet this was supposed to be ”the revolutionary”, the famous guy who Kenyans read about in the papers countless times while at his prime, the guy who was rumored to have been called to State House Nairobi by President Moi and bribed so that he could tone down his opposition against the Moi-authoritarianism.
In my later day late night adventures, mostly at 1 am, 2 am, 3 am and thereabouts coming from ”strategy meetings”, coffee drinking sessions and political chit chat gatherings either at Senses or Hall 9 or 10 where most of my comrades lived, I would meet Karl Marx on the lone lighted State House Road, shirtless, shirt held in hand and singing, all by himself steadily staggering to student hostels from where he spent his nights.
Tears would always come to my eyes as we passed each other; real fear coming over me as I looked at the state of ”the Karl Marx”.
We would at the time be engaged in dangerously radical student activism with the likes of Oulu GPO, risking everything just as Karl Marx and many of his ilk had done before us, and seeing Karl Marx in that helpless state always drove real fear in me that maybe, just maybe, even we who were now all cleaned up, physically well kept and thinking we had it figured out and well put together, would just end up like him; haggard, frustrated and walking home (back to the University of Nairobi hostels for his case); drunk and alone.
Other times I would meet him on streets closer to University Way as he made his way from downtown Nairobi drinking dens. Night watchmen would be calling out his name, Karl Marx, laughing and trying to catch his attention as he sang, ran and shouted himself hoarse. Even the night guards knew who he was; Karl Marx, joking and laughing as they watched him wallow in frustration.
It was more of a tremble than a fear, even, and I would want to stop Karl Marx and have a conversation with him, of how things turned this way for him, whether there was any chance of having the old him brought back to life, but then those remained wishful romanticizations. He would be singing inaudible, shirt in hand, drunk, while I would be walking my way to a nightclub, to think through the cloud of thoughts in my mind; maybe curb my own fears. We would meet
this way many, many times, and on almost every other day of the week, be it Monday, Tuesday or Friday.
By this time, Oulu GPO,our leader and de facto mentor, who had seen more than any one of us,
had spent time telling us tales of what they had faced as suspended student leaders, how they had lacked even bus fare, how no one wanted to give them a listening, how they had to eat maize from a shared cob; making me see the reality of becoming a Karl Marx; frustrated.
These became realities of the trade we were engaged in; one minute thinking we were the radicals who knew everything and who would run the future, the next minute being reminded that we stood a chance of being left haggard and frustrated; reduced to only telling tales of ”our days”.
Another time, wanting to s ue the university, a friend and I would seat across a leading Nairobi lawyer who had been year-mates with Karl Marx at the university. The lawyer, right up the Kenyan middle class cadres, would tell us of how he too almost got kicked out of the university but cooled off his radicalism.
In warning us against ending up like Karl Marx, he told us that ”houses do not buy themselves. Cars do not buy themselves”. That we needed to earn money to buy ourselves those things, and that the politics we were doing risked having us end up like Karl Marx, angry and frustrated.
At such times I would see and feel right in my veins middle class doublespeak and pretenses; of wanting things to change but not being the one to step forward. Certainly, Karl Marx had become the perfect example would-be ”radicals” were shown to make them cringe with fear, knowing that their pursuits of ”truth, justice and all such other Utopian ideals”would lead them nowhere but in the trenches; leaving them shunned and forgotten. That we needed to tone down and play ball; join them in you can’t beat them.
When I wrote the Vice Chancellor a letter a couple of months to my graduation telling him I was no longer interested in my degree as an act of protest against his excesses, his emissary, Mr. Wahome, told me memorably; ”You are still a handsome young man. If you walk into an office someone can offer you a job. But look at Karl Marx. Who can even offer him a job? Don’t let them use you and dump you the way they did Karl Marx.”
These, the Chief University Security Officer said to me in the presence of Sam Kamau, who had then gotten employed by the Vice Chancellor and joined Mr. Wahome in talking to me over a tray of roast meat that evening.
According to the university administration, those seen as ”radical” were to them ”being used” by some forces to fight proxy wars with the Vice Chancellor, only that that was never the case with those of us who stood up to them fearlessly. This thinking, that there were always hidden hands prompting ”radicals” to rise and speak truth to power is what has seen many disgraced, others frustrated and some even ending their lives sadly, all for false promises from supposed ”supportive quarters” which eventually left them high and dry. The same was said of Karl Marx, that he eventually went to bed with the Moi-state and authoritarian university administration, all of which remain speculative.
On the night of March 5th 2009, on the cold blood assassination of his/my friend and comrade Oulu GPO on State House Road, out of nowhere the real Karl Marx was resurrected, leading irate students as he had done many years before in protesting what was seen as an act of state execution. Karl Marx cried like a small child, leading an enraged University of Nairobi brigade to take head-on on armed police.
He kept crying out loud, ”They have killed Oulu GPO, these hyenas, they have killed GPO”, and he cried, and cried, and led the students from the front, resulting in the killing of one more student.
That day, out of his act of courage and protest, I felt in my heart of hearts that Karl Marx truly loved and cared for his comrade Oulu GPO, whose death had made Karl Marx forget that he was even an employee of the University of Nairobi, and made him become the old Karl Marx who had passionately addressed student Kamukunjis and led protests against both the authoritarian state and equally heavy handed university administration.
That was Karl Marl, a real, true comrade; shedding a tear for a fallen comrade, and seeing it with his own eyes that those of their ilk were being ”finished”, either through bullets like Oulu GPO and others before them, or through alcoholism and frustration like he,and others like him.
As if by divine coincidence, less than a month ago I finished writing a fiction Short Story titled ”Amnesty”, based on and inspired by the things we saw and went through at the University of Nairobi. In the story, I have a character called Karl Marx, radical and gifted orator, who gets killed during a protest on University Way. I did the story for a certain literary competition, depicting the pain and suffering families of such individuals face whenever they are either kicked out of the institution for their radical views or killed for their acts of defiance by what are believed to be state agents, and I had done the story in honor of all those who had suffered and continue to suffer, died even, in this thing we liked to call ”the struggle”.
Like in my short story, ”Amnesty”, where the lead character who is kicked out of the University of Nairobi for his close association with the fictional Karl Marx, and who suffers in his village and becomes a shame for his family, occasionally being pulled up by a truly loyal girlfriend, it takes a real miracle for the likes of the now departed Karl Marx’s to be pulled out of their situations.
The likes of Oulu GPO, kicked out of the university for three years, were helped by courageous girlfriends to keep going and not get broken down into shells of themselves. Maybe Christopher Owiro, Karl Marx, had no one to pull him up. Many others continue to go down this route; once absolutely brilliant young men who walked into the University of Nairobi, carrying the hopes and dreams of peasantry families with them, only to get there and get bitten by the radical student activism bug; eventually falling off the rail.
Some sacrifice their all, others betray them and begin pursuing money, leaving their comrades frustrated, high and dry. Others get promises of employment at the university, in exchange for spying against their colleagues. Others are allowed access to millions of unaccounted for shillings, in exchange for selling out their friends; all these realities that drive those who give their all and decide not to sell out alone and frustrated.
One day, these acts of darkness that have remained sanitized will come to haunt my generation, as we see some of our colleagues frustrated and drinking to their graves, some out of acts of the very selfish acts some of us engaged in. As some drive sleek cars, some keep plum university jobs earned through betrayal, we will forever be reminded that there once were the Oulu GPOs, there have been the Christopher Owiros. May we learn and re-look at our ways as some of us entrench ourselves deeper in the ways of the powerful and corrupt, at the expense of what we suffered and sacrificed for.
Christopher Owiro was found dead this morning in the marketplace in his village; a disheartening way for the one and only ”Karl Marx” who strode through the corridors of the great University of Nairobi like a colossus, colonizing podiums and sending shivers down the spines of the powers that be, including the then dreaded President of the Republic of Kenya, to bid farewell to a world that refused to embrace him back.
Rest In Peace Karl Marx. I will not hear you sing shirtless on State House Road again. Greet Oulu GPO and the rest of the table of comrades.
Death, always shaking us awake