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In the cottage with: Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga – On Death, Regrets & Women

By Yvonne Aoll | Tuesday, Feb 9th 2016 at 10:10
Raila Odinga with Yvonne Aoll during the interview

Question: How does one plan to meet up and chat with the former Prime Minister of Kenya in a casual setting?

Answer: You don’t. You don’t plan. Sometimes, things just happen. And when they do, you make as much out of them as you possibly can.

My session with Hon. Olago Aluoch was ongoing, when his phone began buzzing endlessly. A guest  was on his way to the island for lunch, and preparations needed to be finalized.

“Sorry, we have to wind this up soon,” Hon. Aluoch said. I asked another two questions and our session was up.

Twenty minutes later, there was movement within the island. Trees were swaying vigorously from side to side, tied up cows were aggressively and fearfully attempting to pull off from the trees they were attached to, and guests were all gathered a few meters from the island’s helipad.

The helicopter was landing, and in it, was Rt Hon. Raila Amolo Odinga.

Raila disembarked with some comrades, a few fellow politicians-cum-friends. The politicians looked eager, to shake the hands of the unexpecting wananchi who were in the island. To indulge the children who would probably never forget this day. This one day, when they got to meet and say “hello” to Raila, a Statesman whose family lineage exists in all of Kenya’s History books: in schools and in archives and in homes.

After saying hello to “the people,” Raila and team were shown around the island. Hon. Olago being quite the host, took them around the chalets, the fishponds, the artistically and meticulously landscaped path walks and finally, to the main block of vacation suites.

And then, they disappeared.

This team of politicians settled at the suites’ balcony, with a beautiful view of the picturesque island, they indulged in their drinks and their stories. What kind of stories do a group of politically-inclined men share when by themselves, and in a relatively far away island? I wouldn’t know, but it’s probably a mixture of stories: on 2017, on the weather, on Cyril Ramaphosa, on cows, on KDF, on tusker, on Donald Trump, on wives, on West Pokot and perhaps even on their barbers. Do men talk about their barbers? Do they share barbers? Or do they get pitifully territorial like women?

As they told stories and waited to be served their meals, RAO, as he’s affectionately known by his fans and followers, got up to take a short walk and it’s at this stage, that we bumped into each other, heading towards opposite directions.

This time, RAO, who was once the Deputy Director of the Kenya Bureau of Standards, was only accompanied by two of his colleagues. We shook hands, exchanged greetings. He said he’d been told I’m a journalist. I confirmed that I was, then I enquired if, by virtue of being a profile writer, I could ask him some questions. (I really had no idea what about. I, on that day, hadn’t woken up expecting to interview the son of Kenya’s first vice-president).

He said yes. No questions asked. He said, he’d go back to the balcony, and once he’d had his lunch and my crew and I were ready, we could have the interview.

This, was however, under one condition: that the interview would take no more than 10 minutes. I was allowed to ask him two questions or 500 questions if I liked, but I could only ask them in 10 minutes. I agreed. And then I panicked.

Four years, in a highly accredited Journalism School, and not once, did they ever teach us how to conduct an interview with a country’s former Prime Minister in less than 10 minutes. What a tragedy. But then again, if teachers taught us everything, what would life teach us?

And speaking of life, my interaction with Raila, who was, according to various publications,  only informed of his mother’s death after a couple of months, left me with a lot to ponder on. Among them was the biggest lesson of all: people who really want to do something will always find a way. This notion of “friends” always being “too busy” to call back or to show up in a time of crisis is absolute nothingness.

Sit down and hold a conversation in a café with the phone in your pocket. We don’t need to see your Samsung Galaxy S6, IPhone 6 and Tablet displayed on the table for a catch-up that’s not work-related, because you’re a “very busy person.”

Look, we get it, you work for Deloitte. We are happy for you. Now, please get over yourself. This self-imposed need for personal importance ought to be done away with. People are mostly only half as “busy” as they claim to be. Raila, the head of the government’s Opposition had a sitting with a stranger, and not once, did he take out his phone. I, in fact, do not know what color his phone is. If Jakom, can make time, what is this you do, that makes you “busier” than him? Eh? Shamwari.

With his chopper serving as the backdrop for our interview and, with the 10 minutes I was granted, I looked for some answers. It is almost impossible, to have an interaction with a man of Raila’s caliber, his past, present and future, and not include politics, but we tried not to dwell on it.

What really happened to Fidel? What does he think of women? What’s his retirement plan? With remarkable poise and grace, here’s what he said…

First things first, 2017, what’s the plan?

I’ll vie for presidency… but, detailed plans can never be revealed.

Why vie for presidency again?

It’s all about the people. I said, if the people want me, I’ll do what the people want. And, so far, the signs have been very clear.

If, God forbid, you passed away tomorrow, what would your greatest regret be?

Not having led our country the way I always hoped to.

Which is?

Giving the people what they’ve always wanted.

Which means? Having you as president?

Yes.

Will you ever retire from politics?

Certainly. No one is immune to old age. In another 50 years, I definitely won’t be in the game. But I hope to have left behind a strong government structure that could serve our people well.

Where do you plan to retire?

I’ve already told Mheshimiwa Olago I’ll be happy to be his neighbor. Somewhere around here, not too far from Maboko Island. Fidel had a piece of land nearby, I’ll be doing the same. I’ll definitely retire around here. It’s a great area to have some investment. Mheshimiwa Olago has done very well.

Speaking of Fidel, are you at peace with his passing away?

(Looking into the distance) Certainly not. It was a big shock. I don’t think I’ll ever be at peace with his departure. A parent should never have to bury a child. Fidel was young and energetic, he had so much life in him. He went too soon.

What was the cause of Fidel’s death?

We don’t know what caused his death. Investigations are still on-going, and we are awaiting the coroner’s report. We, too, hope to find out soon enough, then we can settle the issue.

Does death scare you?

You know, I’m a great student of literature. And in literature they say, death is a necessary evil. It must come sooner or later. There’s no need fearing it.

Any particular fears?

Fear? Oh, there’s nothing I fear. I’ve been through a lot of hardship in my life. I’ve seen things and gone through things. At this stage in my life, absolutely nothing makes me scared.

What do you think of your critics?

You know, thankfully, the people who dislike me are fewer than those who love me. You can’t be loved by everybody, this is human nature. You’ll always have people who detest you, some for personal reasons and others, because their views of the world differ from yours. All you’ve got to do is be very self-aware and pursue your mission with conviction.

What was your greatest worry when you were 18?

Oh, I was adventurous at that age. I had very few worries.  I think I really did try everything I could.

Including being rebellious?

(Laughs) Yes, rebellion too.  There isn’t much I didn’t do, if anything. I documented all that in my book, “The Flame of Freedom”

Any regrets of your younger years?

No, not really. Life is to be lived. I lived my youth.

What’s been your biggest lesson in life so far?

That opportunities are to be embraced. Say yes to opportunities, however small, look at the big picture and go for it.

This country is made up of men and women who are capable of so much more than they realize, if only we made great use of the opportunities that come our way.

Women, what do you think of them?

You know, I’ve interacted with many of them for years under different capacities: personally, in social settings and worked with others in politics. I think women have the capacity to transform a nation. Their diligence and resilience can be remarkable. However, not all women are diligent, some are complete jokers(Laughs)…but then again, so are men.

On a more serious note though, it takes tolerance to work and live with one another for a common good. We are all part of the human race, we should always try and be tolerant.

What does Raila do, when he’s not at Maboko Island and he really wants to unwind?

Raila is generally quite busy. But when he’s not on a schedule, he tries to spend time with family.

Where do you spend time with your family?

Not too long ago, we came back from a 10-day holiday in Mozambique. It was in a very secluded beach, with a lagoon, somewhere out of Maputo.

We had a wonderful time, I make time for my family, when I’m not engaged with politics.

Politics can be really engaging, and I’ve also got private businesses that I attend to, these can take up quite a bit of my time. So when I can, I try and spend time with family.

Seeing as you’re currently not in government, what are these things that take your time?

Apart from being the head of Opposition, I help MPs, senators, governors, MCAs who seek my support, advice and guidance. And I also have personal businesses that require my input. My cup is almost always full.

How would you like to be remembered by Kenyans?

I’d like them to remember me as a Kenyan who lived, at a time of great national transition and difficulty, and who tried his best to transform the society.

What are your words of wisdom to a 25 year old?

In the words of our own Lupita Nyong’o, your dreams are valid. They really are. Dream big. Believe that you can achieve your ambitions. Believe that it’s possible to achieve your vision, working in a straight forward manner, rather than trying to cut corners. Despite all the obstacles that come along, it is possible to achieve what you aim for.

Yvonne Aoll is a writer and freelance journalist. You can read more of her work here http://www.cottageaoll.com/  

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