Many commentators believe that colonial chiefs were traitors, quislings, and collaborators who governed fellow Africans on behalf of colonial European governments in Africa in exchange for a few pieces of silver. But was that the case with Chief Ogola Ayieke of Karateng'? You be the judge!
Leadership by Africans in the African continent can be traced through the role of elders and kings in pre-colonial times, colonial administrators during colonial periods, and presidents and prime ministers today. No matter the time or era, one constant theme remains for sure, and that is there is always a need for leadership. In pre-colonial African kingdoms, for example, leadership was usually decided by birthright. Kings were born.
During the late nineteenth century, Africa came under the attention of and colonization by the Europeans. Once the African territories were placed under their control, they were governed by the Europeans under complex and elaborate colonial administrative systems. The British administrative system was set up and was largely known as indirect rule. This administrative system was one in which the British used local inhabitants to rule and govern administrative units within the British colonies on their behalf. Under this system, the British colonial powers came to rely heavily on African administrative officials known as chiefs. These chiefs were put in charge of units known as locations by the colonial government. The use of African chiefs made the colonial administrative system cheap, and the chiefs could always be made to shoulder the blame in case of discontent by people against the colonial system.
After a territory was colonized, the chiefs were shouldered with the responsibility of collecting taxes on behalf of the colonial government. The chiefs were also placed in charge of maintaining peace as well as law and order in their territories. Chiefs were also required to recruit laborers for the colonial system. For this reason, some chiefs were liked very much, while some were not liked at all. Chiefs had a hard time keeping their subjects and the colonial governments happy. The chiefs were often used to mobilize their fellow Africans to grow cash crops and carry out other tasks for the government. These are some of the reasons why colonial powers employed Africans as chiefs in the first place. By governing their colonies in this manner, they were basically having Africans run other Africans. The colonists did not always have to deal with the people they colonized. This was done for them by the chiefs employed in their territories for this purpose.
The first colonial administrative contacts between the British and the Luo people in the Kisumu region was through African chiefs such as Chief Kitoto, in the upper Kano in Luoland. It was through Kitoto that Charles W. Hobley, the first colonial white official, came into contact with an influential Luo elder known as Ogola Ayieke. Ogola Ayieke lived in his home in Nyawita near Siriba in Karateng’ in the present-day Kisumu County. After Hobley met with Ogola Ayieke, he offered Ogola the chiefship of the entire Kisumu region, but Ogola declined, reminding Hobley that Kisumu had its own traditional rulers. Nevertheless, Hobley liked Ogola’s presence and demeanor and continued to rely on Ogola to carry out miscellaneous tasks among the Karateng’ people living in the region. Gradually, Ogola’s role as a government official evolved and he formally became a colonial administrative chief. It is not exactly clear when this occurred, but it was most likely at the beginning of colonial rule in the Kisumu region of western Kenya.
Much of Chief Ogola’s early life is not well-known. Ogola’s vision and character as a young man are also not well-known, and are therefore lost to history. The little that is known is that he was born in Karateng some time in the early to mid 19th century. As a young boy, Ogola led the kind of life that most Luo boys his age led in the village. You had to obey and listen to your elders, go to the farm in the early morning to till the land, herd animals in the afternoon, milk the cattle, defend the community from its enemies in times of need, and carry out chores given to you by your parents, and your elders. After going through the initiation ceremony, time came for Ogola to marry and start a family. Here, too, Ogola was not different from most of his contemporaries. He married many wives. It is believed that Ogola eventually married nine wives, some inherited from his brothers. In those times, it was believed that having many children and wives were a sign of wealth.
Chief Ogola had a big homestead where he warmly received and welcomed visitors. He was wealthy and influential by local standards. By the time Europeans arrived in his home area, he had already achieved a lot for himself and his community. He was a medicine man with knowledge and skills to treat various diseases, and it is believed that people came from far and wide just to seek his medical advice. Some people even believed Ogola could predict the future. In fact, it has been claimed that he predicted the coming of the Europeans in his region. This reputation enabled Ogola to accumulate considerable wealth since people came to him seeking help and advice and paying for his services. In addition, he was able to instill and maintain peace among many warring communities in the area.
Thus, Ogola quickly came to the notice of the Europeans when they arrived in his area by about 1891. After some initial hesitation, Ogola started cooperating with the British. He accepted their rule. Why he did that and what his agenda was, is not clear. What is clear is that, upon his appointment as chief, Ogola carried out his duties with remarkable zeal. Like all colonial chiefs, his duties included the following: settling disputes, collecting taxes, and recruiting military personnel for the colonial administration. He performed his duties with so much passion and enthusiasm that he helped to entrench the colonial system and introduce colonial services into his territory. In 1906, Reverend J. J. Willis was posted by the Church Missionary Society to start mission work in the Western Kenya area. When Rev. Willis arrived in the area to begin his mission, he was advised by people to consult Ogola before starting his work. The meeting between the two men appeared successful. In fact, Chief Ogola gave Rev. Willis a piece of land now known as Maseno, an area with many academic institutions today, including Maseno National School and Maseno University.
There were many chiefs appointed by the British to rule over other African communities in Kenya. Some of the chiefs were ultimately made paramount chiefs by the colonial government. This was when a chief was very influential, important, competent, capable, and experienced. For this is what happened to Paramount Chief Mumia of the Wanga. This is also what happened to Ogola. Ogola was so successful in carrying out his duties, he was made a paramount chief by the British government in 1920, when Kenya was established as a colony of the British. He was one of the first and most prominent Luo chiefs in Kisumu.
As a leader, one must face some challenges when ruling, and Chief Ogola was no exemption. For instance, as one who worked for, and on behalf of the British, Ogola was always in conflict with communities under the British rule. He was seen by these communities as a person who neglected his own African heritage and instead collaborated with the British government. He also received military support from the British government to help fight those communities who resisted British colonial rule.
Yet, after all is said and done, the role of Chief Ogola in the early British rule in Luoland and Kisumu region cannot be underestimated. He and his community benefitted from his cooperation with the colonial government. Members of his own large extended family benefitted from schools providing formal education in the region. His family remains very influential in the Karateng’ and Kisumu area even to this day. He donated the land that led to the establishment of leading academic institutions in the area, including Maseno University, which today has over 20,000 students and is currently ranked among the best universities in Kenya. Chief Ogola died in October 1923.
We believe Chief Ogola would be proud to see how well his work with the colonial government has turned out. There is no doubt Chief Ogola should get some credit for the rise of Maseno University, and other institutions offering various services to people in the area.
By Daniel Adams, Mercy Atieno Oluoch, Muchangi Caroline Wawira, and Dennis Corban
One of Chief Ogola's Descendant's Homestead: Caroline Muchangi | October 9, 2017
Site of Chief Ogola's Place of Meeting with His People: The place where Chief Ogola called for his baraza meeting on matters concerning the community. ~ Photo by Caroline Muchangi, October 9, 2017 | MaCleKi, http://macleki.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Baraza-Meeting-Place.jpg
Kisumu-Maseno-Busia Highway ~ Chief Ogola Ayieke's home is near Siriba College, Maseno University, in Maseno Town