Reflections on the Kisumu Massacre, 1969

In October 1969 Jomo Kenyatta visited the Russia-built Nyanza Provincial General Hospital in Kisumu. During a protest against the visit, the presidential escort and paramilitary forces opened fire on the crowd, killing more than 11 and injuring hundreds. The piece was written following several police killings in the wake of the 2017 Kenyan presidential elections.

Submitted by Mike Harman on July 8, 2018

#BlackLivesMatter : #LuoLivesMatter

In The Predicament of Blackness, Jemima Pierre asks us to consider the relationship between the global distinction between the human and the unhuman along the color line. In this world forged by white supremacy, the white man is overrepresented as the human while the black person figures as non-human. These distinctions between the human and the non-human, legacies of colonial modernity, saturate various ethno-nationalisms in Africa. How, Pierre asks, are these ethno-nationalisms embedded within global systems of white supremacy? What would it mean to take seriously the connection between white supremacy and the world it imagines and diverse African ethno-nationalisms?

#BlackLivesMatter started as a way to gather feeling and action and publics against police violence in the U.S. Against the murders of people and reputations and memories and histories and social relations, the killing that starts with a bullet and continues to produce dead-dead-dead fragments, #BlackLivesMatter asserted life. #BlackLivesMatter refused the processes of dismemberment and unmemory that accompanied killings by police and police-like figures. #BlackLivesMatter refused the memory-defiling, history-erasing, death-making processes that are the afterlife of slavery, insisting, instead, on honoring black life, insisting that the dead had lived and would continue to live as remembered, as honored, as loved.

#LuoLivesMatter started as a way to gather feeling and action and publics against police violence in what is called Luo-Nyanza, a designation that ties ethnicity to place. As distinguished historian Bethwell Ogot mapped, modern Luo identity emerges within colonial modernity, within the identity-place suture of colonial administration. As with all modern Kenyan ethnicities, Luo-ness emerges under the sign of colonial modernity, under the taxonomic demands of place-making and people-making that colonialism will use to extend white supremacy. Under Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, Luo life was figured as disposable.

Kenyans have learned from Yvonne Owuor that Kenya’s “official languages” are “English, Kiswahili, and Silence.” Leading into that quotation, there is “memory”:

After Mboya, everything that could die in Kenya did, even school children standing in front of a hospital that the Leader of the Nation had come to open. A central province was emptied of a people who were renamed cockroaches, those beasts from the west. Nobody would speak of this exile, or about the ones who never made it out.

A train stopped at a lakeside town. It offloaded men, women, and children. Displaced ghosts. In-between people. No one to blame. Most of the witnesses were dead. Others had vowed themselves to eternal silence. Which was the same as death.

Under the spell of fear, the nation hid from the world behind doors of worlds where ten thousand able-bodied citizens secretly died, their bones dissolved in acid.

Nyipir knew.

He saw.

He did not speak.

He hoped it would end soon.

Just like the others who had also seen, he told no one.

A thousand and then a thousand more herded into holding houses.

Picked up – taken from homes, offloaded from saloon cars, hustled from offices, stopped on their way to somewhere else – prosecuted, and judged at night. Guilty, they were loaded onto the back of lorries. And afterwards, lime sprinkled corpses heaped in large holes dug into grounds of appropriated farms. Washed in acid, covered with soil that become even more crimson, upon which new forests were planted.

After Mboya. Kenya’s official languages: English, Kiswahili, and Silence. There was also memory.

Here is the official record, from the unofficial Report of the Commission on Truth, Justice and Reconciliation:

The worst came on the 25 October 1969, when Kenyatta visited Kisumu to open the Russia-built Nyanza Provincial General Hospital. The opening of this health facility coincided with the Kisumu District sports day, with a huge number of students attending. Odinga was not invited, but he and his supporters came in force shouting Dume (Bull, the party symbol of KPU).

In the ensuing commotion, a full-scale riot erupted, the presidential escort and the dreaded crack paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU surrounded the president, shot their way through the threatening crowd and continued shooting 25 kilometres outside the town. When the dust settled, the ‘Kisumu Massacre’ of 1969 was complete, with many shot dead, including school pupils, by the presidential security. Virtually all the films of the incident was seized and destroyed. Odinga and his supporters were arrested and detained without trial and KPU, the party associated with Odinga was banned. A curfew was imposed in Central Nyanza and Siaya and hundreds were arrested.

again, official record, from the unofficial Report:

The effects of the murder of Tom Mboya have lasted until today. Specifically, it divided the Luo and Kikuyu communities in ways that are still felt today. It resulted in demonstrations against President Kenyatta at Mboya’s requiem service.

The animosity between the Luo and Kikuyu communities broke out into outright violence during the visit of Kenyatta to dedicate the Russian Hospital in Kisumu. During the visit, a large crowd of Luos reportedly menaced Kenyatta’s security. The security guards red back in what later came to be known as the ‘Kisumu massacre’. The government accused KPU of being subversive, intentionally stirring up inter- ethnic strife, and accepting foreign money to promote anti-national activities. The proscription of KPU returned Kenya to a de facto single party state. Nyanza Province, like many other parts of Kenya, was virtually written off from ‘national’ development plans.

Official memory.


In 2013, I had been asked to write something about Kenya @ 50. I tried to sit with history.

The problem of Kenya@50—of lost, attenuated, and silenced histories; of absented and disappeared geographies; of missing and unimagined voices; of muted questions uttered in unfamiliar tongues—haunts, and disrupts, any and all attempts at historical recovery. As noted in the Report of the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission, “there is a hunger, a desire, even a demand for the injustices of the past to be addressed.” The commissioning (by then-president Kibaki) and subsequent burying (by president Kenyatta) of the Report of the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission indicates the threatened status of historical memory in Kenya, the marginalizing of justice claims, and the ongoing constraints placed on freedom struggles.

The 4-volume Report of the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission sought to provide a starting point from which Kenya’s post-independent history could be evaluated. This history, this accounting, would provide scaffolding, from which multiple other versions of Kenya could be contemplated, imagined, written, and circulated. The numerous truths generated, and contested, would ground a system of justice attuned to, and driven by, people-centered narratives. At the very least, the 4-volume Report sought to arrest a largely celebratory narrative about Kenya by highlighting historical and ongoing injustices. The Report would not only shift how Kenya’s past was to be viewed, but also reorient the meaning of Kenya’s present.

By focusing on a Kenya from the margins—of the marginalized and the dispossessed—the 4-volume Report offers an opportunity to re-think Kenya (as narrative, as geography, as history, as memory, as present, as possibility, as future). For instance, one of the Report’s key findings is,

Northern Kenya (comprised of the former North Eastern Province, Upper Eastern and North Rift) has been the epicenter of gross violations of human rights by state security agencies. Almost without exception, security operations in Northern Kenya have been accompanied by massacres of largely innocent citizens, systematic and widespread torture, rape and sexual violence of girls and women, looting and burning of property, and the killing and confiscation of cattle and other livestock.

In focusing on Northern Kenya as the “epicenter of gross violations of human rights,” the Report provided a counter-narrative of Kenya that, while acknowledging the struggles waged for freedom and right in other sections of the country, also acknowledged that the ongoing story of human rights violations in Kenya was incomplete, borne in the bodies, lives, histories, and memories of border peoples rarely, if ever, understood to inhabit the center of Kenya’s narratives about itself.

Simultaneously, and most crucially, the voiding of the Report—its absence from public life, parliamentary discussions, policy decisions, and media attention—has enabled a celebratory remembering of a Kenya that never was, which is taken as the foundation for a future Kenya unmoored from any responsibilities to the past, indifferent to claims for truth and justice.


I asked then and continue to ask now: whose Kenya @ 50? I wonder about how time fragments and shatters, how it starts and restarts.

With #LuoLivesMatter, I wonder about how the promise of 1963 was betrayed in 1969, first with Mboya, and then with the many others whose names are remembered only by those who loved them. What did 1969 start and restart? What haunts the silences between 1963 and 1969? What enraged ghosts populate 1969 to 2017?

Listen to the names and the unnames listed by an Amnesty Report of those killed following the 2017 elections:

  • Between 17-27 unconfirmed cases from various parts of Nairobi
  • Michael Owino, 28 years old
  • Henry Onyango Matete
  • Sharon Imenza, 10-year-old daughter of Godfrey Onacha, collapsed and died upon seeing her father’s body
  • Godfrey Onacha, 34 years old
  • Shaddy Omondi, 17 years old
  • Privel Ochieng Ameso, 17 years old
  • Stephanie Moraa Nyarangi, 9 years old
  • David Owino, 28 years old
  • Victor Okoth Obondo

All from various parts of Nairobi. We know Kisumu was targeted. What are those names and unnames? What does it mean to say #LuoLivesMatter?

Sharon Imenza, 10 years old, collapsed and died when she saw her father’s body. Her father was Godfrey Onacha, 34 years old, who was shot dead.

The list has more names and unnames, but I could not bear to write them all.

#LuoLivesMatter: we say this in affiliation with #BlackLivesMatter.

#LuoLivesMatter: we affirm this against a state and police force that will criminalize those it brutalizes and kills, that will attempt to dead-dead and kill-kill those it has killed once by destroying their names and reputations, by labeling them looters and criminals and disposable. We refuse that dead-dead, kill-kill strategy.

#LuoLivesMatter: we affirm that our care extends to those the state and the police seek to make unhistorical, unremembered, unnamed, unmemorable, absent.

And as we mourn them, as we refuse to forget them, we pursue freedom rooted in care, against an unhumaning state and the police that support it.

- keguro

Reproduced from