The Legend of Otenyo

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In 1908, a man called Otenyo Nyamaterere did something completely badass.

For the British in East Africa, the first decade of the 20th century was spent on conquest, an extension of what had begun in the end years of the 19th. As part of the British colonial plan in East Africa, Nairobi and its environs were now safely under control, and focus began to shift to other areas inland.

The railway line had reached Kisumu, briefly known as Port Florence, and the small town became the administrators seat. All of Nyanza was, however, administered from Uganda. Uganda had been the original goal for nearly five decades as the rather ridiculous politics of finding the source of the Nile fueled paranoia and funded several expeditions.

That distance from the government meant the Kisii of what became Nyanza still raised generations of warriors and blessed them to go to war, and rewarded them with wives and wealth when they came back with the loot. It was a nations pride but it would soon lead them into the eye of the storm. Among those men was a young man called Otenyo Nyamaterere whose single act of bravery would make him a legend.

In 1904, a contingent of Gusii warriors raided a neighboring community. The raid, though successful, attracted the wrath of the colonial government. An expedition of 100 soldiers and 50 policemen was deployed to punish them. Led by a ruthless man called Milton, the expedition went wild, torching homes and looting the place dry. The Union jack was hoisted over the homes that remained standing, a clear reminder of who was in charge. Men and women were shot dead while they ran, others while they kneeled and pleaded, and others as they emerged from their hats. It was a massacre in all but name. In one incident alone, more than 100 people were moved down with machine gun fire.

In Milton’s ranks was a young political officer called GAS Northcote. Barely 25, Kenya was Northcote’s first posting and would prove to be one of his most tumultuous. The 1904 expedition ended a month after it began and Northcote headed back to Kisumu. To the people he had spent a month tormenting, his smug face remained in the memory of a carnage.

Three years after this massacre, Northcote rose up the ranks and was sent to Kisii as its first administrator. He understood the region, or at least everyone above him thought he did. Kisii in 1907 was still reeling from the poverty the 1904 carnage had caused and the raids were still prevalent. A local diviner called Moraa was inciting the warriors to resist their new rulers, and to maintain the traditional way of life.

Northcote launched smaller expeditions structured around the one he had been part of in 1904 and wreaked havoc in the area. The punishment for raiding, other than the unspoken violence and murders, was the loss of all cattle and sheep. After one such expedition on January 12, 1908, Northcote escorted the animals back to his base. He rode a mule, and figured he was headed somewhere with breaking the spirit of the Kisii.

A man called Otenyo Nyamaterere had other ideas. As the animals walked past his hiding place, he must have thought himself invincible. It was illegal to even stare at a white man in the eye, and to not bow down with forced humility and awe. Yet here he was, hiding in a bush carrying only a spear, and the hopes of the community with it.

When Northcote came into view, riding on his strutting mule, Otenyo gripped his spear and counted. He waited until his target got near enough and then he jumped out, hurling his spear faster than the man on the mule could draw his gun. As the spear cut the air between them, in that short span of time, both men looked death in the eyes. It had a dead stare, and this was the end.

The spear ripped through Northcote’s right shoulder and flung him from his mount. He fell on the ground, bleeding, writhing and cursing. Otenyo, smiling in accomplishment, ran back into the bush and disappeared. Almost immediately, whispers around the region spread throughout Gusii land. A man called Otenyo had done the unthinkable. He had killed a white colonial administrator, a man who had tormented them three years before and had now come back with even more power. Otenyo Nyamaterere had saved them, and as they did all their heroes, they sang songs in his praise.

That night the entire Gusiiland broke into song and dance. Otenyo was a man and a legend, a soldier who had done what needed to be done. Meanwhile, Northcotes office sent a rider to Kisumu that Kisii was in full-blown war. Contingents upon contingents of Gusii warriors, buoyed by Otenyo’s single act of badassery, were now going on the rampage. Three days after, a small reinforcement arrived in Kisii.

The reinforcements walked into an ambush. Although outnumbered, they had guns and fired them with abandon, killing the bravest warriors and forcing the others to flee. They soon found out Northcote was not dead. The shoulder had been badly injured but he had survived, and been hidden as they waited for reinforcements. On January 18th, as the expedition to quell what had now become a guerrilla war continued, the Governor of Kenya sent a cable to London, notifying the Secretary of Colonies of the incident. The Secretary at the time was future war Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He wrote back, urging It looks like butchery and if the House of Commons gets a hold of this, our plans for East African Protectorate will be under the cloud.”

It was a veiled license to do all that it took to kill of the legend that had inspired a people to rebel.

The expedition ended on February 13th, a full month after it had begun. By then over 160 people were confirmed dead, most of them due to gunshot wounds. At some point during the operation, the government forced Moraa to use her influence to stop the war. She assembled the elders and convinced them to work with the government. The elders then tricked Otenyo, who was still in hiding, and handed him to the government.

Otenyo Nyamaterere, the man who had killed a white DC, was now in the hands of a government eager to prove its power. He was tried in public and then executed by a firing squad at Kisii Stadium. Otenyo was then beheaded, his body left on a bridge and his head transported to London as proof of his death. His legend only grew as the protectorate quickly gave way to more and more settlers, and with them more acts of violence. He became the conscience of a hero for a nation that needed more men and women like him.

GAS Northcote served in Kenya up to 1927. He then moved to Northern Rhodesia, then Gold Coast (Ghana) as Chief Secretary. From 1935-1937, he served as Governor of British Guiana before his final posting as Governor of Hong Kong until 1941.

For her treachery, Moraa was vilified in song and memory although she was somehow managed to recover her lost glory. The Gusii people immortalized the incident of that hot January ambush, and celebrated the badassery of a man they had had to bury without his head. The skull remains in a British museum to this day. The legend of Otenyo, however, lives on.

PS: There is a month-long exhibition outside the Kenya National Archives on Moi Avenue. The exhibition, dubbed Project Courage, celebrates brave men and women like Otenyo. It ends on 19th November 2015.

Owaahh, 2015

One Story is good,

till Another is told.

Last modified: November 8, 2018

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