When he made his first public appearance at the Kibra Arts Festival in Nairobi barely two weeks ago after returning from France where he was receiving treatment, Ken Okoth projected the image of a man whose spirit remained unbowed by the disease that had ravaged his body; leaving him frail but jolly.
He told the gathering being in France for treatment made him homesick.
“I had promised bursaries and I ensured they were awarded even in my absence. Did you get them?” he posed, attracting applause from his constituents who acknowledged receipt.
Later on the side, he assured some of his constituents who were worried about his frail body that it is nothing ‘a bowl of fish soup’ cannot bring back.
Many Kibra residents say his passion for education and zeal to lift young people is what got him elected MP for two terms.
“He was one of us. He knew what it was to sleep hungry and to dream of a better life where you did not have to pee on yourself because going out at night to look for a toilet could get you killed…” wrote Silvia Donde on her social media platform, eulogising Okoth as a hero.
Okoth was born and raised in Kibra’s Kisumu Dogo area. He often regaled the Press with tales of a difficult childhood; of the tears he shed on many days at Olympics Primary School when his mother could not afford to raise his fee.Integrity and accountability
“I loved books. I hated that poverty was blocking me from books. I hated how being poor demeans you,” he said in a media interview in 2012.Still, he shone.
It is reported that he scored 613 marks out of the possible 700 in KCPE and got an admission to Starehe Boys Center and later proceeded to St Lawrence University, USA where he studied German and European Studies.
He got his masters in International Relations at Georgetown University.
Tributes spoke of his integrity and accountability. His “Elimu Kwanza” initiative was his greatest passion. He wanted schools built, and for people to fill libraries with books, so that needy children do not have to beg for education.
He oversaw the building of the ultra modern Mbagathi Girls School in Kibra.
“We have built the hardware, we need the software, we need your support to mentor these girls, we need desks, computers and lab equipment,” he said during the launch.
He never wavered from his call for people to step up to their alumni and give back.He imposed the message of unity in a constituency that has never shied from showing displeasure through stone and blood.
“Young people. Let the one who feels he can lead go to the ballot and fight there. Mothers, do we want our sons to die for politics?” he said during a campaign rally.
When he first revealed that he had cancer last year, he admitted that he was scared of the prognosis. Things were not looking good, as the disease had reached stage four, but he was determined to fight it – with every breath inside him.
“The fear of the unknown that accompanies a cancer diagnosis is immense. Cancer changes your life completely,” he said.
One of his close friends says when the chemo side effects hit, robbing him of the ability to walk, he bore it bravely.“He did not complain, but he often talked of missing home,” he says.
When he returned, he made an appearance that gave his constituents hope. He assured them that he was getting better, and perhaps to prove it, he broke into song and dance. His speech had the same theme he had maintained since he was elected.“Let us work together….”
He kept off controversy, but there were moments when he talked of things that made people uncomfortable.
Like when he staged a campaign to legalise marijuana.“Medical cannabis and cannabis oils are documented for being effective in pain relief and non-addictive treatment of certain symptoms and side effects. We need to empower doctors to safely prescribe medical cannabis in Kenya,” he said in an interview that many thought was his way of letting the world know that he was in great pain.
Many say it takes wisdom, courage, compassion and gall to look back at where you came from and use your past to change lives. Okoth had plenty of those.
He often said he has become who he was because of his painful past.“As long as I am alive, I would not sleep peacefully if I know someone is suffering and I could help…” he said in 2013, a few weeks after he had been voted MP.
By Mercy Adhiambo, The Standard