The patriarch Jacob Mukhamia Omanyo, grandfather of my friend Celestina, was born in 1888 in western Kenya. For 119 years he lived a healthy life, falling sick only once in 1964, after a spider bit him. He married five wives, the first in 1924, his last in 1975. At his death of typhoid two years ago he rejoiced in having 21 surviving sons and daughters; 217 grandchildren, 450 great grandchildren and 24 great, great grandchildren.
Omanyo fought for the British against von Lettow-Vorbeck in the first world war. But what made him special, back before the Versailles Armistice, was that he attended a Roman Catholic mission school when few others from his tribe believed in such things. Education helped him rise to become a senior chief, a magistrate and a landowner. In time he helped establish a new mission in the village of Amukura, where Celestina still has his home. I have visited, and it is set in a landscape of bananas, sugarcane, glinting tin roofs and distant volcanoes.
Celestina says, ‘Always when we visited him my grandfather talked about school. He loved education.’ Celestina’s father Sikuku Yakobo had 14 children. ‘He also loved education, but he had no money.’ From the age of 11, Celestina trekked barefoot to a mud-floored shack where he learnt to read and write. This was in the 1980s, when a vicious dictatorship impoverished Kenya’s people. At 16, his father could no longer pay the fees. The school chased him away.
Celestina yearned for better chances in life, but he drifted between hand-to-mouth jobs. He cut cane. He herded cattle in the Great Rift. He migrated to the city to labour on city building sites. In 1990 he turned up at my house in Nairobi without shoes on his feet, asking for a job. Today Celestina is the manager of my small farm. Managers from much larger neighbouring farms — many of them professionally qualified and very experienced — compliment me on how good our cattle are, the quality of our grazing and how shipshape the property looks. None of it’s me. It’s thanks to Celestina.
Old Omanyo’s legacy of loving education ran into trouble for other members of the clan, too. When the father of Celestina’s cousin Catherine died, her family was thrown out of the village — because her mother refused to be ‘inherited’ by the dead man’s brother. Catherine had no money to pay fees at a new school, but because she was so bright the teachers stopped chasing her away and let her creep into class through the back door.
With the Catholics’ help, she got into university, but was still so poor she turned up for her first day of lectures in her tattered old school uniform. She lived in the slums, starved and moonlighted as a house girl — until she got her degree in geography. After graduating, she decided to give other poor children a chance, and established a school for slum kids. University friends helped teach for free, but the establishment did not even have chairs or books. A British woman from Cornwall stepped in to help, and all went well. In 2007 Catherine ran for parliament, but lost. The national elections, which many across Kenya believed had been rigged, sparked a bloodbath in which hundreds died. Catherine’s school was looted. She and her children fled hundreds of miles west, surviving robberies and terror on the road, back to her ancestral countryside home. Here she is now building a new school in a mud hut.
‘I love education because of my grandfather,’ says Celestina. ‘Now everybody in Kenya loves education because it is the only way to change.’ To be sure, Kenyans lust after education. A school near us has a notice outside its gates that makes clear what Kenyans will do in the future if they can get it. ‘Our Motto,’ says the notice.‘The Sky’s the Limit’.
Having just paid school fees for my own two children Eve and Rider, I am in a state of deep financial crisis. It is that time of year for Celestina, too. After everything he’s done for me I have agreed to support all his children through school and, if they’re good enough, university. It makes me sick to think about it. His firstborn, Anthony, wants to be a doctor. Next is Callistus, who aims to be a helicopter pilot. He’s so clever that I think he probably will be. Then there are five more: Yacob, Stella, Faith, Georgina and Lois. I say to Celestina in a hopeful tone, ‘Is that it?’ But it would be a pity not to complete what Jacob Mukhamia Omanyo started.