The legend of OTENYO NYAMATERERE is still retold today in songs and poems recited among the AbaGusii people.  Otenyo was a warrior from the Kitutu region and a son of the Bogeka clan.

His legend was born in January 1908, when in retaliation to raids and harassment by the colonial government, Otenyo and his fellow warriors ambushed colonial forces and successfully recovered livestock that had been captured from the tribe’s grazing land. The colonial administration had accused the locals of stealing livestock from their Luo neighbours. As part of introducing their new system of justice, the British had therefore taken livestock from the community accused of stealing the livestock to compensate the aggrieved Luo neighbours. Needless to say, this new justice system did not sit well with a lot of people.

Specifically (and for personal reasons), Otenyo had in his mind a British Assistant District Commissioner named Geoffrey Northcote (locals called him Nyarigoti, a disambiguation of Northcote). Northcote had earlier forcibly taken Otenyo’s cattle in his absence to compensate Swahili traders who had accused Otenyo of taking their money during a business transaction. [1]

Northcote was well-known and equally hated in the region as the face and enforcer of colonial rule and the “foreign” system of justice in Gusiiland.

Historians say that Otenyo lay in wait,  ambushed and speared Northcote in the shoulder, injuring him but not killing him. (in many AbaGusii legends, Otenyo actually kills Northcote) In addition, two of Northcote’s officers were also killed by the AbaGusii warriors as they recovered their livestock. Following this raid, on hearing that Northcote had only been injured, the warriors tried to finish what Otenyo had started by attacking Northcote’s base but were met with resistance by Northcote who by now had regrouped.

Realizing the magnitude of the uprising, Northcote requested for reinforcements from his superiors to quell the uprising.  What followed was a brutal attack on the people by a colonial expedition sent from Kisumu.

This attack led to the massacre of more than 100 AbaGusii in addition to the capture, public execution and beheading of Otenyo. [2]

As proof that the AbaGusii rebellion had been quelled, it is said that Otenyo’s head was sent back to Britain where it still resides.

Calls for the return of Otenyo’s head from Britain have recently garnered attention and momentum in the news with the Kisii County Assembly, AbaGusii Council of Elders and even writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o joining the cause.

Otenyo’s rise to fame was probably more serendipitous than planned and his aunt (some historians say foster mother) Moraa plays a very prominent part in building his legend. Moraa who was a medicinewoman and prophetess was responsible in mobilizing Otenyo and his fellow warrior to confront Northcote and his forces. Moraa’s strategy of questioning the manhood of her nephew and other AbaGusii warriors in light of Northcote’s earlier actions worked wonders in bringing the young warriors to take action.

It is also recounted that, as a medicinewoman, Moraa applied a potion on the AbaGusii warriors that would make bullets bounce off their bodies more in line with such resistances as the Maji Maji rebellion.

In fact, Moraa was so effective in fomenting discontent with the British occupation among the local people to the point that she was solely blamed as the cause of all the resistance the British met in Gusiiland.  A senior colonial police officer referred to Moraa as a ‘woman Laibon,’ a testament to her power and influence.'[3]

It is very important to note due to their early and disruptive resistance to British rule, the AbaGusii were able to keep most of their land intact away from colonial settlers unlike many of their neighboring tribes. Otenyo and Moraa’s legend that spread far and wide in Gusiiland certainly was a catalyst in bringing people together to resist the new way of life imposed on them by the British.

For those who are wondering, Northcote recovered from his injuries and went on to have an illustrious career as a British colonial administrator. In fact he was so successful that in 1937 he was named the Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of Hong Kong, a prized British colony.

Read more about Otenyo Nyamaterere
  1. Conflict and Accommodation in Western Kenya: The Gusii and the British, 1907-1963. Jul 1989 by Robert M. Maxon
  2. Seventh-Day Adventism in Gusii. Kenya 1997 by Nehemiah M. Nyaundi
  3. Transafrican Journal of History, Volumes 1-2. East African Publishing House, 1971 – Africa
  4. Resources and Opportunity: The Architecture of Livelihoods in Rural Kenya (Regnum Studies in Mission) Paperback – January 9, 2013 by Edward Ontita
Feature Photo: Charles Edwin Fripp [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons. An Incident at the Battle of Isandlwana (Anglo-Zulu war).