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January 19, 2019

He spoke truth to power: A Marxist appreciation of Gabriel Omolo

Music Artist in the early 1970s and now 71 years old Gabriel Omollo perform his collection of "Zilizopendwa" at the first Mashujaa celebrations held at Nyayo National Stadium. Photo/ Jack Owuor
Music Artist in the early 1970s and now 71 years old Gabriel Omollo perform his collection of "Zilizopendwa" at the first Mashujaa celebrations held at Nyayo National Stadium. Photo/ Jack Owuor

“Sasa ni lunch time tufunge makazi, twende kwa chakula tuje tena saa nane

Wengine wanakwenda kulala ’wanjani, kumbe ni shida ndugu njaa inamuumiza

Wengine wanakula soda na keki, huku roho yote ni kwa chapati na ng’ombe

Na wengine nao wazunguka maduka, huku wakijidai wanafanya window shopping…”

Gabriel Omolo, who composed and recorded the timeless Kenyan classic Lunch Time, died on Thursday last week, aged 80. Not only was this song a massive success financially, earning Omolo the International Golden Disc, but also with this hit, the legendary benga musician sealed his legacy as one of the most incisive organic intellectuals of neo-colonial Kenya.

His evocative song Lunch Time captures the depressing state of affairs in the period just after Kenya’s Independence. When people break from work for lunch (in the city), many of them go out to lie down under trees in the parks because they have no money to buy food. Some eat cakes and soda while they desire beef stew and chapati. Others wander about pretending to window-shop. The picture only changes at the end of the month when everyone, including casual workers, goes to eateries to enjoy their favourite dish. Those earning more even venture out to eat in hotels owned by foreigners.


Lunch Time was released in 1972, a decade into Kenya’s independence. It is clear from the lyrics that Independence had not, as widely hoped, translated into a better life for the masses of the people. While ruling class intellectuals extolled the Jomo Kenyatta regime, elevating Kenyatta and his men into demigods, Omolo saw things differently. He could have made a name for himself and a far greater fortune singing the praises of the elitist regime in power. But he chose the subaltern outlook. He spoke out for the silent majority of the poor.

December 12, 1963, ended 68 years of formal British colonial rule, making Kenya the 34th independent African nation. Colonialism was never meant to develop the colonised people. Rather, the system was meant to deliver benefits to the colonial power through exploitation of local resources and labour. Robbed of their land and other resources, and their freedom and dignity trampled with impunity, the colonised people were impoverished. Anti-colonial struggles were waged as a resistance to these injustices.

Political independence was seen as the path to redress the economic and social neglect and injustices of the colonial era. The desire to live better was the basis of the nationalist struggle for liberation.

But that hope was dashed. This is the political economic context of Gabriel Omolo’s hit.

A few years after independence, Kenya’s ruling class split between those who championed a radical socialist system for the benefit of all, and the others who wanted the capitalist status quo established by the colonialists for the interests of a few. In 1966, Kenya’s first Vice President, Oginga Odinga, fell out with President Jomo Kenyatta over this ideological contest and the corruption and tyranny of the regime.

Written by an ‘organic intellectual’, Omolo’s Lunch Time song echoes Oginga Odinga’s 1967 autobiography, Not Yet Uhuru, in which he reflects despondently:

“Some of us were, perhaps, slow to realise that the time when accession to Independence was progress in itself has passed. Only the political and economic content of that Independence can reveal whether it will have real meaning for the mass of the people.”

What was the basis of Odinga’s lament? The departing colonial regime had organised Kenya’s Independence in such a way that political moderates who could guarantee continued links with Britain — and not radical nationalists who wanted a clean break — took power. The strategy, according to Odinga, was to place in power those who would be favourably inclined to Britain and safeguard her economic and military interests in Kenya.

“This explains the never-ceasing efforts to foster moderate elements and to try to weaken the genuine progressive nationalists who recognised the forces of neo-colonialism and would not cooperate with them,” Odinga writes.

Omolo observes in his song that city workers who earned better salaries went to enjoy their favourite dishes in hotels owned by foreigners. In other words, it was not yet uhuru.

Despite the soaring rhetoric and anti-imperialist posturing, the Kenyatta regime had little interest in crafting a truly liberated nation. He not only preserved the colonial state almost intact but also turned Kenya into an ethnic fiefdom.

The Kenyan historian ES Atieno-Odhiambo records that: “Kenyatta had a fervent vision of the Gikuyu future but no mental picture of Kenya beyond a territory to be governed much as the colonial authorities had done. His regime made clear distinctions between the homeboy, muru wa mucii, and the Luo westerners, waruguru, the ultimate ‘other’ in the regime’s political lexicon. Specifically, he chose to exclude the Luo as the cultural ‘other’, beyond the bounds of Gikuyu civil society… This post-colonial discourse took the form of village-degrading utterances … the Luo were regularly referred to as kinyamu giiki or kihii giki — little animals or little boys.”


But Kenyatta also sharpened the class contradictions established by British colonialism. His policies constituted what former political detainee, lawyer and legislator Wanyiri Kihoro terms “a most infamous betrayal of the Kenyan people’s quest for democracy and freedom”. A compensation plan (supported by Britain) for all Kenyans who had lost land during the colonial period was unjust and riddled with corruption. Citizens were asked to buy back their own land, which had been grabbed by the colonialists. Kihoro notes that,

“Previous capital accumulation formed the most important consideration in the resettlement and the poor, of course, did not have the cash to pay for it. It, therefore, turned out that the genuine landless were not settled. Most of the settled land, which was intended to be taken up by the landless poor, ended up in the hands of government ministers, assistant ministers, civil servants and rich businessmen. Paradoxically, even many settlers found it possible, because of the corruption in the system, to acquire new tracts to increase their holdings. The government scandalously failed to meet the most important demand on the nationalist agenda.”

It is this continued suffering of the poor, despite formal Independence, that caught the eye of Gabriel Omolo.

As Kenyatta consolidated his corrupt and brutal personal rule, it began to be clear that political independence largely benefitted the political elites, while the masses of the people wallowed in poverty. Public office was not an opportunity to serve the nation, but oneself. Those who resisted this “most infamous betrayal of the Kenyan people” were thrown out of the regime; others were detained, exiled or assassinated.

Freedom fighter Bildad Kaggia was among several members of Parliament who lost their seats in 1966 when, led by former Vice President Odinga, they formed an opposition party, the Kenya Peoples Union (KPU), to resist the capitalist policies of Kenyatta. In the ensuing by-elections, President Kenyatta travelled to Kandara, Kaggia’s constituency, to campaign against his former fellow detainee and assistant minister. He addressed Kaggia as follows:

“Kaggia, you are advocating for free things, but we were together with Paul Ngei in jail. If you go to Ngei’s home, he has planted a lot of coffee and other crops. What have you done for yourself? If you go to [Fred] Kubai’s home, he has a big house and a nice shamba. Kaggia, what have you done for yourself? We were together with Kung’u Karumba in jail and he is running his own business. Kaggia, what have you done for yourself?”

Days later, Kaggia, responded to Kenyatta’s jibe thus: “I was not elected to Parliament to obtain a large farm, a big house or a transport business. My constituents sleep in mud houses; they have no shambas and have no businesses. So I am not ashamed to be identified with them. By the time they have these things, I will also be able to have them for myself.”

In the years after Independence, Kenyatta and his henchmen pursued economic strategies featuring close ties with western industrial nations, especially Britain, to gain foreign aid, investment, and build overseas markets for local products and tourism. These policies, plus the repressive climate and deepening corruption in the Kenyatta state, worsened poverty and heightened the sense of disappointment with Independence.

It was in this period that former Mau Mau detainee and legislator, JM Kariuki, himself a very wealthy man, made his famous statement about Kenya’s 10 millionaires and 10 million beggars:

“A small but powerful group of greedy, self-seeking elite in the form of politicians, civil servants and businessmen has steadily but surely monopolised the fruits of Independence to the exclusion of the majority of the people. We do not want a Kenya of 10 millionaires and 10 million beggars.”

JM Kariuki was assassinated in 1975 and his murder remains unresolved.

Another Kenyan historian, Bethwel Allan Ogot, observes that, under Kenyatta,

“…significant portions of the Kenyan population still remained on the fringes of society. They felt deprived of a place of dignity in the national life by barriers of class, ethnicity, gender or even geography. On the other hand, many Kenyans who were already enjoying the fruits of Independence were reluctant or even opposed to sharing their fortunes with the disadvantaged groups. Questions were asked as to whether Kenya could any longer be regarded as one large community, one large family, when a significant number of its members remained alienated.”

Much later, another famous Kenyan nationalist, Ramogi Achieng’ Oneko, would remark sadly that:

“A people who stood tall at the end of their liberation struggle and had made great strides towards meaningful political Independence, social justice and economic emancipation have failed to marshal their human and material resources today to achieve basic self-sufficiency in human needs. The political greatness of Kenya, which we fought for so hard and for long, has failed to materialise.”

It is 45 years since Gabriel Omolo’s classic hit Lunch Time was released. The picture of poverty in Nairobi (and other towns across Kenya) at lunch time remains largely the same as the benga maestro captured it. Things are much worse in many rural areas and the so-called informal urban settlements (slums).

Adieu, Comrade Gabriel! The struggle continues.

Henry Makori is a journalist in Nairobi

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