The Day Raila Odinga Dressed As A Woman

Forme Prime Minister Raila Odinga recounted how he dressed like a woman to evade arrest during the clampdown on those Kanu regime labelled dissidents in the early 1990s.

Raila, who was variously detained for nine years, had to change his name three times to evade the then dreaded Special Branch officers pursuing him as he escaped from Nairobi under the cover of darkness.

Speaking at a luncheon at Uzima University College in Kisumu, Raila once revealed how Catholic Archbishop Zacheaus Okoth planned his evacuation from Nairobi after an attempt to seek refuge at the American embassy backfired.

Although this account has been given in his widely read autobiography written by a Nigerian, Dr Babafemi Adesina Badejo, it was the first time Raila was telling it himself.

He wore a pensive mood as he told the story of his involvement in the struggle, dubbed the ‘Second Liberation’. “I had just come from my third stint in detention and I was staring a fourth one in the face,” he said.

“I have had a long time relationship with the Archbishop because he saved me from going to detention for the fourth time. This is why I have come to support Uzima College, a brainchild of his Archdioceses,” Raila told the audience.

He added: “The Archbishop assisted me at the time of need. I was holed up in a house in Nairobi where my colleagues Mr James Orengo and Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o had hidden me. Time was running out and the police were closing up on us.” Today Orengo is Lands Minister and Nyong’o Health Minister.

He said the plan to sneak him out of Nairobi and into Uganda through Lake Victoria, was hatched after police foiled an attempt to sneak him into the US Embassy in Nairobi.

As the clock ticked and police combed Nairobi and other towns, Catholic Church officials in Nairobi, working under Archbishop Okoth’s instructions, hatched an escape plan. They brought in a saloon car and assembled a team comprising a priest — Father Kwanga Mc’Opiyo and two nuns to execute the plan.

“It was a delicate operation but we had to do it. I sat sandwiched between the two nuns on the backseat. I wore dark glasses and pretended to be reading a newspaper. Fr Kwanga was driving,” he said.

Raila said there were several roadblocks between Nairobi and Kisumu and every time they were stopped, the police would peep at the passengers and wave them on.

Home sweet home

“My heart missed a beat every time they stopped us but they did not recognise me through out the journey. We reached Kisumu at nightfall and I breathed a sigh of relief. At least, I was home.”to

From Nyamasaria, the team drove through a ‘panya’ route, heading towards Ukweli Catholic Pastoral Centre on Riat Hills, where he yesterday had breakfast with Archbishop Okoth and Nyong’o.

“At Ukweli, I booked into a guest house as ‘Father’ Augustine from Machakos. The attendants looked at me but did not say anything.

The toughest moment came at the time for prayers. I did not know how to use the church’s traditional signs of the cross while praying but I quickly copied Father Mac Opiyo.

At this point yesterday, Raila posed to wipe sweat from his brow and enquired if Father Mac’Opiyo was at the function, but he was not there.

The second leg of the tricky journey was to take him to Kampala through Lake Victoria. “We reached the lakeshore at dusk and set on the long and treacherous trip,” he said.

“The water was rough and mosquitoes made the journey more difficult. We reached Ndeda Island at night. To avoid suspicion, I used a scarf to disguise myself as a woman.”

At Ndeda Island, Raila and his team picked more passengers in their boat and headed for Sigulu Island in Uganda.

“At one point during the journey, I saw a woman passenger shivering in the cold and I gave her my scarf,” Raila said, amid shouts of ‘pole sana’ from the crowd. He said that at Sigulu, they met a fisherman from Nyahera in Kisumu who lived there with his family. At this time, they were hungry and the fisherman offered them nyoyo (boiled maize) and porridge.

From Sigulu, they sailed to Iganga and travelled by road to Kampala.

“While at Kampala we were tipped by sources that Kenyan Special Branch officers had been sent there to trace me. To beat them I dressed up as an Imam and presented myself as Haji Omar.

Raila said that foreign diplomats in Kampala had been told about his case and were waiting to receive him. They helped him fly out of Kampala.

“The police were shocked to hear I was already out of the country. It was a narrow escape and I thank the Catholic Church for what they did,” said Raila.

He added: “I have decided to tell this story to explain why I had to cancel all my programmes to attend the luncheon of Uzima University College.”

He said some Kenyans did not know how much he had struggled for the country. He praised Archbishop Okoth for championing development projects in Nyanza and asked leaders to support him.

He said Kenya needed more universities to help in achievement of Vision 2030. “A country cannot develop without skilled labour. Furthermore, quality education is a fundamental human right,” he added.

Uzima University College of Medicine is a constituent college of the Catholic University of East Africa.

During the function, guests helped raise Sh11m for the construction of the college.

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