15 June 2007

Kenya: Oneko - Pioneer Journalist Who Dared Oppressors


Nairobi — The news of Ramogi Achieng Oneko's death has moved Kenyans all over the world. Last month, I visited Oneko at his home in Rarieda, Bondo, to interview him on the history of Press freedom.

In 1945, Oneko had approached my grandfather, G L Vidyarthi, then the proprietor of The Colonial Printing Works, to discuss publication of a weekly Luo newspaper. Oneko wanted to call it Ramogi, and to publish it in his mother tongue, Dholuo.

He explained to me: "The British newspapers at that time were just a bulletin sent to the people, telling us what to think. I wanted an independent newspaper which could be debated upon, which could be adjusted, but not reduced to please the authorities. A newspaper written in vernacular could help readers understand what was going on in Kenya - it was the only way to meet the people, and to pass our message to them."

As one of the famous Kapenguria Six, Oneko will be remembered for his message of imperial resistance that earned him years of detention in colonial Kenya. He never shied away from confronting the British regime, and as a newsman he voiced criticism both in person and in print.

"I would walk to the Norfolk Hotel, knowing very well that I would not be allowed in. I would show them my money and ask to have tea. 'You keep your money' they would say. 'You are not allowed in here. Take your money to an African or Indian shop'," he explained.

The following week, Oneko would narrate the same story in his newspaper, sharing a tale of segregation on Nairobi's streets for the Luo masses to read.

He explained: "A newspaper is meant to articulate ideas, most particularly to the public. The public must be educated enough to come up with their own reasoning, and then send the message to the Government."

Oneko's newspaper was among the first to mobilise public consciousness against British rule, and it earned admiration not only from the educated elite, but also the marginalised masses. He told me: "I wrote for the ordinary man, and the people understood me. The people said: 'Do it, do it again', and they came to me."

Oneko was surprised by the response to his writing: "I had only one room for myself and my typist, and nobody gave me money to do the job. I thought: Can I, a small man, produce information which will help other people and to translate what they really require in this country?"

It was the idea of disseminating information against colonial rule that appealed to Oneko and he courageously vocalised what most knew, but few criticised in public.

"The British came to Kenya to live comfortably, to have their own way, suppress the local community and owners of the land and to deny them to hear things other than what the colonial government was dishing out. And to keep them mum forever and ever," he lamented.

Undaunted by censorship, and the colonial government's reactionary response to many newspapers in the 1940s, Oneko continued to use Ramogi as a voice for the Luo community.

"This thing that we call freedom, the right of the human being, went into my head. I wanted to be free free kabisa," said Oneko during the interview.

The paper was also a campaign platform when Oneko was the secretary-general of the Kenya Africa Union until his arrest and subsequent trial at Kapenguria in 1952.

At the end of our interview, I asked Oneko why he chose Ramogi as the name of the newspaper: "Ramogi is the great, great grandfather of the Luo from the Nile region.

It was a good name because through my newspaper, I was like a grandfather talking to my children. Under the British, their history had been forgotten completely. My newspaper was telling the Luo: 'Remember where you came from'."

Oneko's life should make Kenyans remember their history. We should remember thousands like him who gave years of their lives for us to be free. Newspaper editors should foster the legacy of one of Kenya's first journalists. In the life and work of Oneko, we have the lesson to approach the future with courage and pride in the accomplishments of those who paved the way for us.

The writer is a Kenyan film maker in the US

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