The day that the Nyanza Provincial Hospital, now known as Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital (or simply as Russia Hospital), opened its door to the public in October 1969 was meant to be a joyous occasion. It was supposed to be a day of pomp and circumstance marking the introduction of much-needed medical care to an area that suffered consistently from malaria and other health issues.
But, instead, the day became marred by tension, controversies, squabbles, and even bloodshed, overshadowing the hope and promise the hospital portended for the region. The day, also known as the day of “Kisumu Massacre,” marked the beginning of the deterioration of services at the Russia Hospital, in particular, and the decline of Kisumu and Nyanza region as a whole.
Within a short time of opening its doors to the public in 1969, the hospital fell into disrepair. Medical services declined. Shortage of medicine became endemic. Doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel at the hospital became demoralized. Even the hospital compound became shabby and dirty. How can one explain the decline and the near collapse of the Russia Hospital, especially during the 1960s to the 1990s?
In the mid 1960s, there were two dominant political leaders that represented the opposite ends of the political spectrum in Kenya. The two leaders were Jomo Kenyatta, and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. Yet, despite their different ideologies and ethnic backgrounds, both politicians agreed on the need for unity amongst the different ethnic groups and political parties in Kenya. Kenyatta was from the Kikuyu community and Odinga was from the Luo community. The Kikuyu and Luo communities were the most dominant groups in the political economy of colonial Kenya. This dominance granted these communities more wealth, power, education and opportunities in comparison to other Kenyan communities.
Cognizant of the enormous ethnic, class, regional, and religious challenges festering in the country, Kenyatta and Odinga decided to work together towards uniting the country during and after the struggle for independence. They even formed one party, Kenya African National Union [KANU], to help in keeping the nation united while fighting for independence. They succeeded in this. Independence came. Kenya became a free nation. Jomo Kenyatta became the President of the newly independent Kenya, and Oginga Odinga became the Vice-President. All seemed to be well.
However, once Kenyatta became President of Kenya, he began following an ethnic and political ideology that created problems with Oginga Odinga. Kenyatta’s ideology was anti-colonial and also anti-communist. Odinga’s, on the other hand, although anti-colonial, was not entirely anti-communist. In the spring of 1964, Odinga traveled to Moscow to seek assistance from the eastern communist powers to fund development projects in Kenya.
During the trip, Odinga met with the Soviet President, Nikita Khrushchev, and negotiated an economic package between Kenya and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union agreed to fund nine projects for Kenya. One of these projects was the New Nyanza Hospital. The hospital was built in Kisumu. The Soviet Union agreed to give Kenya £1.2 million for the hospital’s development—which is the reason the hospital is popularly known as Russia Hospital.
The economic package negotiated between the Soviet Union and Kenya led to a major fall-out between Kenyatta and Odinga. Kenyatta’s and Odinga’s ideologies and visions for Kenya’s future were growing further apart. Kenyatta felt that the Soviet Union would use the loan to exact terms on Kenya that would be detrimental to Kenya’s future, while Odinga felt that there was nothing wrong with receiving help from the Soviet Union.
Moreover, Kenyatta also started implementing an agenda that seemed to favor his own ethnic community, the Kikuyu, rather than the entire members of the country. This favoritism opened up more rifts between Kenyatta and Odinga and their communities, the Kikuyu and the Luo, and led to further conflicts with other ethnic communities in Kenya. Kenyatta and his aides started undermining Odinga’s position in the government and the country as a whole.
In 1966, Odinga resigned from his position as Vice-President of Kenya and formed the Kenya People’ Union (KPU). Tension between the two leaders became palpable. For the next three years, the ideological, ethnic, and political differences between Kenyatta and Odinga plagued Kenyan politics and caused serious problems between the Kikuyu and the Luo communities. Tension between the two groups escalated when the charismatic Tom Mboya, a Luo cabinet minister and aide to Kenyatta, was assassinated on July 5, 1969. The assassination was allegedly ordered by Kenyatta.
It was in the middle of this charged political powder keg that Kenyatta made the blatantly provocative decision to travel to Kisumu, the hometown of the estranged Odinga, and the now dead Tom Mboya for the opening of the Nyanza Provincial General Hospital. Kisumu was home to the Luo, and, therefore, the population was restless and agitated when Kenyatta arrived in the town.
Crowds lining up on the streets waved placards and posters with “Ere Mboya,” (“Where is Mboya?”) written on them. To maker matters worse, Kenyatta and Odinga, who was also present for the opening of the hospital, got caught up in a heated verbal altercation. Things escalated when Kenyatta deviated from his prepared speech and started hurling abuses at the crowd, calling them unprintable names.
Fearing for the worse, Kenyatta’s security team ushered him into his vehicle and drove off in a huff. The crowd started throwing stones at Kenyatta’s motorcade and the police responded by shooting indiscriminately at them. In the ensuing chaos, 11 people were killed, including 4 children, 5 adults, and 2 policemen, and hundreds more were injured. After these events, the government placed Kisumu on a two-week curfew, put Odinga in detention, and banned his party KPU. Kenyatta died in 1978 without ever setting foot in Luoland again.
After banning KPU, and detaining Odinga and his fellow political leaders, Kenyatta turned Kenya into a one-party state. The Kenyatta regime also started openly discriminating against communities that did not support his government.
The ethnic, ideological, and political differences between Kenyatta and Odinga cast a shadow on the day the Russia Hospital started operating and offering medical services in Nyanza Province. The rift between Kenyatta and Odinga and their opposing political parties slowed down the provision of health care in Kisumu, specifically, and Nyanza, as a whole.
Due to the chaos on the day the Russia Hospital opened its doors to the public, the hospital's image and reputation suffered. Funds for the hospital were diverted to other areas as the government pursued an openly discriminatory political agenda against the Nyanza region.
When Kenya was achieved independence in 1963, the government declared that it would provide free healthcare for all Kenyans. It was believed that a healthy population would lead to greater economic progress for the whole country. Yet in the years after independence, the government avoided Kisumu and the Russia Hospital suffered. Funds for the hospital came up short, buildings at the hospital deteriorated, medicine disappeared from the hospital pharmacy, and healthcare providers either ran away or became demoralized. Russia Hospital suffered because of the fallout between Jomo Kenyatta and Odinga. The real reason for the deterioration of the Russia Hospital was because of the fallout between Jomo Kenyatta and Odinga.
In the recent years, the Russia Hospital has started undergoing a process of rehabilitation. The local leaders have succeeded in lobbying the government to change the name of the hospital to Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital (J.O.O.T.R.H.). The hospital currently serves approximately 5 million people in the Nyanza region alone. The hospital is now a referral center that provides a wide variety of basic as well as specialized medical services to patients from Nyanza as well as other parts of Kenya and the Great Lakes region as a whole. Since around 2000, the hospital has also started serving as a training institution for a growing number of nurses, clinical officers, and even doctors in the country. The growth and expansion of this hospital especially since 2000 is nothing short of amazing.
Nevertheless, even though there are signs of progress at the Russia Hospital, there are still problems and challenges. Outdated equipment, failing infrastructure, and lack of space are among some of the most notable problems. The government still heavily relies on outside donors to supplement the national health budget. With the spread of HIV/AIDS, Kenya needs as much money as it can get to deal with the ever-growing medical challenges.
The lesson from the challenges and problems facing the Russia Hospital is that the government should pay attention to the healthcare needs of all ethnic communities in Kenya regardless of their political affiliations. Kenya's leaders should focus on the vision that both Kenyatta and Odinga shared at the beginning of independence. If the tribal, autocratic, and corrupt nature of Kenyan politics does not change, the country’s healthcare, including that of the Russia Hospital, will continue to deteriorate.