Customers today venture into a small, non-descript printing shop on Accra Street in downtown Kisumu thinking of little besides the business cards and letterheads they hope to purchase. Most would be surprised to learn that Ramogi Press has an illustrious history and played a large role in the tumultuous politics of Kenyan independence. The brainchild of Luo luminaries Oginga Odinga and Achieng Oneko, it was created in 1947 primarily to give Kenyans the ability to write, produce and disseminate their own news and information in a variety of newspapers, some of which were still being printed over three decades later. Many future leaders of Kenya used the platform the papers of Ramogi Press supplied to establish and consolidate their power. The attempt to present a range of multi-ethnic voices emanating throughout Kenya to unite the disparate communities faced numerous difficulties from the beginning, and was eventually silenced by the policies of Daniel arap Moi in 1980. The Kenyan press today has yet to overcome many of the obstacles that beset Ramogi from its outset over a half century ago. The customers purchasing the more mundane products that Kisumu’s Ramogi Press supplies today should keep in mind the heroic efforts of its past as Kenya continues to strive towards a free and independent press in the 21st century.
The story of the Ramogi Press actually begins in 1922 with the creation of the Luo Union in Nairobi. Like other associations forming across Kenya during the period, it hoped to unite its dispersed ethnic community and supply a voice to air their grievances with the colonial government. Its slogan, Riwruok E Teko (Unity is Strength) would later be found across the masthead of Luo newspapers such as the Nyanza Times and Ramogi. In 1945, behind the leadership of Oginga Odinga, the Luo Thrift and Trading Corporation (LUTATCO) was formed. LUTATCO was considered to be the economic arm of the Luo Union, and created more concrete benefits for the Luo community. Instead of counting on settlers and Indians for jobs, LUTATCO formed businesses by and for Africans, beginning with the Maseno Store, which was the first major business enterprise in Nyanza. The second business LUTATCO organized was the Ramogi Press in 1947.
Achieng Oneko arranged to purchase a flat-bed printing press in Nairobi, and the experienced Zablon Oti from the Colonial Printing Works was hired to operate it and train future employees. The printing shop was called the Ramogi Press after the name of a mythological ancestral figure of the Luo. This printing press began by publishing a weekly newspaper called Ramogi that served as a mouthpiece for the dispersed Luo community and voiced the aims of the Luo Union. The press was purchased for the equivalent of $273.21 in today’s money, and faced even more severe challenges than the Maseno Store right from the very beginning. The difficulties of running an enterprise like this for novice businessmen was great, and the press had to constantly borrow money in order to stay afloat despite printing numerous newspapers. Aside from Ramogi, edited by Achieng Oneko, it also produced another Luo paper, Odinga’s Nyanza Times. But, right from the start, whether pushed to it over financial concerns or ideology, the press also printed papers for other African ethnic groups. Among the most significant of these were Mumenyereri (The Guardian) which was a weekly Kikuyu paper, and Radio Posta and Afrika, both written in Swahili.
In 1949, Odinga desired to relocate the operations of the Luo Union to the ancestral home of the community, and the Ramogi Press was moved to Kisumu. Once in Kisumu, additional business was acquired as more commercial jobs such as the printing of receipt books, letterheads, and school exercise-book covers were taken on. This increased the profitability of the press and within five years of the move, it made over 45 thousand shillings until the troubles of the 1950s caused it to drastically lose business. Odinga claimed that no profit was turned from printing the other African papers and that producing them was The Luo Union’s contribution to African independence.
Ramogi was unusual among African newspapers in that it had a large amount of advertising revenue. While most papers struggled to attract a few advertisers, Indian and European companies flocked to Oneko’s paper despite his own personal opposition to the colonial government, and by the third issue eight of its sixteen pages were made up entirely of ads. The comparatively innocuous message the paper imparted, and especially its sizable circulation of 2,500 bi-weekly issues, not counting the additional readers it received as it changed hands around the community, surely had more impact than the salesmanship of its novice staff.
Both Odinga and Oneko proclaimed that the primary intent behind these two papers was not political. Most often, the readers of Ramogi and Nyanza Times were being implored not to embarrass the Luo community by drinking, carousing, or bathing in public. In a 2004 interview, Oneko claimed that his goals for Ramogi were to promote literacy while raising the social and political conscience of the Luo. Ramogi also frequently spoke against the Mau Mau uprising and even called for the group to be disbanded in an editorial on September 11, 1951--before the conflict even began. Although they were close friends and allies, Odinga’s aims for Nyanza Times was even less overtly political. The African scholar Matthew Carotenuto makes the claim that Odinga constantly sought to stay within the good graces of the colonial government in order to keep the fledgling business operating, and even allowing what is described as ‘government propaganda’ to be printed on the back page. That kind of message was beneficial in the 1950s as the colonial government cracked down on what it considered to be subversive newspapers, and Nyanza and was able to keep printing long after most other African papers were shut down. In 1950 there were over 50 newspapers that were openly criticizing the government and making calls for nationalism. A new press law was enacted that year which threatened the confiscation of the actual printing presses of any newspaper deemed ‘seditious’. A State of Emergency was imposed in 1952, and numerous writers and editors were arrested. Later studies of the content of many of these papers that were deemed at the time to be violently subversive, irresponsible, and seditious, and which were subsequently shut down by the colonial government, have shown that that was not usually the case. Most of the papers were seeking reasonable reforms and supported a gradual pace towards independence.
With independence and the presidency of Jomo Kenyatta—the old editor of The Muiguithania, a person very much aware of the importance of the press was now the leader of Kenya. He increasingly controlled which newspapers were operating and what those papers reported. Restrictive actions like this eventually produced the situation that exists today, with two large newspapers The Standard, and The Nation dominating the Kenyan market. With ever increasing control, politicians began to stifle the free press until they served as propaganda arms of the government. In 1980, the Moi government outlawed explicitly ethnic associations like the Luo Union. Control over the press and the information it disseminated was now complete. The Ramogi Press stopped publishing news entirely and concentrated by this time, on printing consumer goods such as stationery. For its part, the Luo Union devoted its efforts to cultural activities, the most obvious being the sponsorship of football teams such as Gor Mahia.
The offices of Ramogi Press stand as testament to the continuing struggle of the Kenyan media and the many political problems confronting present day Kenya. Oginga Odinga and Achieng Oneko had bigger dreams for their country than have thus far been achieved. The small printing press set up in Accra Street, Kisumu is a reminder of those dreams and should serve as an inspiration for Kenya’s future.