The fading cream-colored paint peeling off the wall of the Ambrose Ofafa Memorial Building tells you that the building has not had a brush with fresh paint for a very long time. The concrete steps leading into various rooms in the building are frayed in places, and the terrace snaking around the building is marked by small, shallow potholes.
Adjacent to this building, are several others in various stages of construction. One has been converted into a church where a religious group offers service on Sundays, and yet another serves as a tavern offering traditional drinks like busaa and muratina and other alcoholic beverages.
When you look at the disorganized state of this complex and the nature of discordant services—grocers, a medical clinic, and a variety of other stores—offered in the adjacent buildings, you would not believe that this building is one of the best recognized buildings in Kisumu, constructed in memory of one of the most illustrious nationalists in the history of Kenya.
Ambrose Michael Ofafa was a confidant of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, a friend of the first president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, and a contemporary of several leading political figures in Kenya’s nationalist movement such as Ramogi Achieng Oneko, C.M.G. Argwings K’Odhek, and Tom Mboya.
Why, then, is a building complex constructed in honor of such a man in such a dilapidated state? This essay will survey the story of Ambrose Ofafa and the building erected in his memory, as well as some of the problems it currently faces. It is an attempt to draw attention to these issues and ultimately help preserve this building as well as other historically significant buildings throughout Kenya.
Ambrose Ofafa was born in 1913 at Alego Kalkada, in Siaya County, Kenya (west of Kisumu). He attended St. Mary’s Teacher Training College in Yala and Eregi Teachers College, where he was qualified as a teacher. He worked for the East African Railways and Harbors as a station-master—the Kenyan postal service of the colonial era—the East African Standard newspaper, and served in the army. He was also the national treasurer of the Kenya African Union [KAU], the precursor to the Kenya African National Union [KANU]. Lastly he was nominated by British Governor Sir Phillip Mitchel to serve as a member of the Nairobi City Council. Ambrose Ofafa was among the most educated African Kenyans during the colonial period. As a teacher, trade unionist, businessman, and politician, he was at ease with both the African nationalists and the officials of the colonial government. Ambrose Ofafa was serving on the Nairobi City Council when he was attacked by gunmen during his drive home, succumbing to his wounds two days later on November 26, 1953.
Who killed Ambrose Ofafa? Some claim that the assailants were highway robbers; others claim that it was colonial government agents trying to bait the Kikuyu against the Luo during the Mau Mau war; still others in the colonial government tried to blame the Mau Mau movement for the attack that took the life of one of the most charismatic politicians in Kenya’s colonial history.
After his death, the colonial authorities and Ambrose Ofafa’s admirers decided to honor him for his work by constructing and naming new buildings in his honor. Every occupation that Ambrose Ofafa served in donated money towards putting up buildings and residential estates in his name. Luo people everywhere made donations and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, one of the premier leaders among the Luo, visited all the major residences of the Luo in East Africa soliciting for funds and other contributions towards the construction of the buildings to honor Ofafa. Luo members of the now defunct Luo Union East Africa working in cities and towns all over East Africa contributed funds, which led to the construction of the Ambrose Ofafa Memorial Hall in Kisumu.
Opened in 1961, the multi-purpose Ambrose Ofafa Memorial complex stands in a large compound in Kisumu’s Kibuye area, on the Kisumu-Kakamega highway. The complex consists of many other rooms offering different services to members of the Luo community and other patrons. The main room is actually a hall; a kind of ballroom. Indeed, when one talks about the Ambrose Ofafa Memorial Building in Kisumu, one really is referring to the Ambrose Ofafa Memorial Hall or the “Main Hall.”
The original purpose of this “Main Hall,” was for the revival, restoration, observation, and promotion of Luo culture. This is why many cultural activities associated with the Luo were held there when the building was originally constructed. The Hall has been used in the past as a kind of “Hall of Fame” setting for remembering departed dignitaries from the Luo community. The remains of important Luo personalities, mainly political luminaries, professionals, and academics have been taken there to “lie in state” overnight as a sign of the community’s appreciation for their work promoting the Luo way of life. In fact, during such solemn occasions, the Luo will generally line up to view the body of the departed lying in state, paying their respect and homage.
Another room is occupied by the Cultural Heritage Department, which is devoted to the promotion of African culture. The Department’s purpose is to teach ethnic tolerance in an effort to bring African Kenyans together. Another room is occupied by the Chairman of the “Luo Council of Elders,” or Ker Mar Luo, a distinguished position in the Luo community.
Lately, however, the building complex has been utilized by many groups with priorities other than protecting, preserving, and promoting Luo culture. A religious group known as “Jesus is Lord” has converted one room into what it calls the “Restoration Embassy Room,” where it offers religious services. Another group has built a nightclub, the Ofafa Makuti Club, and Kipho Enterprise is one of many stores that sell a variety of goods. The Nyanam Driving School and an adjacent car wash are also located right in front of the Memorial Hall.
According to those who manage the Ambrose Ofafa Memorial building, while the original patrons of the building did not envisage turning the it into a business enterprise, these businesses generate income which helps pay the bills and fund the maintenance of the complex. The proceeds from these activities are even used to pay workers and the security guards that help in protecting the building.
While the revenue brought in by these businesses is imperative to the structure’s survival, the presence of certain groups has led to problems at the Ambrose Ofafa Memorial building complex. For one, there have been many political problems that have interfered with the management of the building complex. Some of these problems started in the early 1980s, when President Daniel arap Moi banned “tribal groupings,” and made it difficult for the Luo to run the building complex as an ethnic group. Another problem is the constant leadership wrangles that have interfered with the management of the building. Indeed, the Hall has been the subject of legal tussle for close to fifteen years, with many groups claiming ownership of the complex.
Divisions within the Luo Council of Elders have created additional legal problems. For example, an interview conducted by the authors of this essay revealed that one of the warring groups in the Council rented out the Main Hall to the Bata Shoe Company for a period of one month in exchange for a down payment of Ksh. 60,000 behind the other group’s back. The Bata Shoe Company now uses the Hall for its annual grand sale show, where it sells old and outmoded shoes to the public at cheap prices. The rival faction has regularly threatened to storm the Hall and eject the Bata Shoe Company from the Hall by force. Whenever this happens, the group that organized the deal brings in the police to offer them “protection.”
Today, there is actually a team of the police guarding the Bata shoe sales in the building. But that is not the only group fighting over use of the Ambrose Ofafa Memorial Hall. The former Trustees of the defunct Luo Union East Africa have reportedly obtained a court injunction, which has barred all the warring members of the Luo Council of Elders from accessing the Hall until the hearing regarding the Hall’s ownership.
It has also been alleged that a senior cohort of corrupt Luo politicians have hatched a grand scheme to “grab” the Ofafa Hall, and construct a five star hotel on the site for their own personal benefit. Some of these politicians have already grabbed a big chunk of land within the Ambrose Ofafa compound, constructed a new building there, and leased rooms within the building to a clinic, a rental firm, and a law firm. The move by these corrupt politicians has significantly reduced the size of the land devoted to the memory of Ambrose Ofafa.
The building complex is facing an uncertain future. The room devoted to the preservation and protection of archival materials associated with the history and culture of the Luo and their neighbors is, like the building that houses it, in a dilapidated state.
Many people we talked to believe that the Kisumu County government should consider stepping in to refurbish the Ambrose Ofafa Memorial Hall. However, only time will tell whether the county government will hearken to the cries of these people and help in protecting the building complex that was built to honor Ambrose Ofafa, and others like him from the Luo community.