Two weeks ago curtains came down on Carolyn Odongo, an African American who was the first woman in Kenya to be detained without trial under a draconian law introduced by Attorney-General Charles Njonjo in June 1966.
In introducing the Security law, Njonjo told Parliament about the dangers of war, internal disorder, breakdown of economic order and natural disaster.
Two years later, Carolyn was detained without trial despite there being no clear indication of the security threat she posed. Her apparent crime was that she was helping Kenya’s first Vice President Jaramogi Odinga write his autobiography Not Yet Uhuru that was critical of government policies.
Born Carolyn Jackson in the American city of Marshall, Texas, in 1935, she married Tom Odongo, who later became MP for Kisumu Rural and assistant minister, in Washington DC in 1959.
Odongo was among the first crop of American-educated Kenyans who returned with African-American wives after their studies. Others included Julius Kiano, who served as a minister, and Simon Mbaya who became the Meru South MP.
To comply with the law that prohibited dual citizenship in 1962, Carolyn renounced her American status and became a Kenyan citizen.
In 1964, she became Jaramogi’s private secretary. Her appointment could have been partly influenced by her husband’s close friendship with the vice president.
By then, the political eclipsing of Jaramogi by the so called “moderates” who had labelled him a “communist”, was slowly taking shape, and anybody associated with him was viewed as an agent of subversion.
In fact, in 1965 Odongo, then assistant minister for Finance, attracted the wrath of Economic Planning minister Tom Mboya after he told students at the communist sponsored Lumumba Institute in Nairobi that Kenya was leaning too much towards the West, and that it should also embrace the East to strike a balance.
In a matter of hours, Mboya was on national television, criticising the “dangerous” remarks because the public would assume the assistant minister was speaking on behalf of the government. After asserting that he had the blessings of Odongo’s boss, Finance Minister James Gichuru, Mboya declared his as the authentic government stand before complaining that Kenya’s efforts to develop trade with the communist bloc had been disappointing.
This battle of ideologies in Kanu, which was largely underlaid by personal ambitions, worsened during the year and finally culminated in the resignation of Jaramogi and his allies from government and Kanu in 1966. The former VP went on to lead Kenya People’s Union (KPU).
Also joining him was Carolyn, who continued serving him as secretary. Her husband, who had also resigned in solidarity with Jaramogi, was among the officials of the new party.
It was during this time that the security law, which gave the government powers to detain anybody without trial, came into force. Njonjo, while introducing the Public Security Act in Parliament, had sought to allay any fears of its misuse: “The purpose of this Bill is to enable the government, subject to the control of Parliament, and subject to proper constitutional safeguards, to meet quickly and effectively any of those situations menacing the public.”
But immediately after it was passed, the law became a weapon of silencing government critics. Jaramogi’s supporters, in particular, were arrested and detained under the pretext of planning to start a communist-inspired revolution.
The panic in KPU over the crackdown is evident from a 1966 letter Jaramogi wrote to the Russian embassy in Nairobi. He was requesting a Russian passport for Sonia Okoth, an American woman who, like Carolyn, was being pursued by the Criminal Investigation Department. The efforts showed how much he valued the services of the two American women.
“I know that when we come to control this country she is one of the rare ladies whose services will be very valuable to us like those of Mrs Carolyn Okello Odongo. It will be too late if Sonia won’t be absorbed into Russia in a few weeks,” Jaramogi wrote.
On August 22, 1966, police raided Carolyn’s home and shuttled her to an unknown prison. A gazette notice number 3207 issued by A J Omanga, Permanent Secretary Ministry of Home Affairs, read: “Carolyn Okello Odongo has been detained under regulation 6 (1) of the Public Security Regulations 1966 (L N 212/1966).”
At one point, Home Affairs minister Daniel Moi even thought of deporting her secretly to America even though she had renounced her US citizenship. Not even her husband knew her whereabouts. Her twin sister Marilyn Jackson, who worked as Secretary to the US Ambassador in Greece, travelled to Kenya to investigate her plight but went back without achieving anything.
Although Carolyn’s family was finally allowed to contact her after pressure by Amnesty International. Njonjo accused the organisation of attempting to interfere in Kenya’s internal affairs.
However, in May 1968, after almost two years in detention, two human rights organisations were allowed to contact her in prison. One was the West German Women’s group of Amnesty International which sent her a letter on May 27, 1968, enquiring about her well-being. She responded in a letter which was published in Amnesty International’s monthly newsletter of September 1968, saying:
“I am doing well and I am so comfortable, perhaps as one can expect in prisons. Much of the time is spent reading or doing needlework. There does not appear to be any problems with the family at home and l receive money and books from them time to time.”
She was finally released in December 1968 without trial after spending two years and four months behind bars. No explanation was given for her release.
The following year, Carolyn’s husband was arrested and detained alongside other opposition politicians after a crowd heckled and charged towards President Jomo Kenyatta during the opening of New Nyanza General Hospital in 1969. Jaramogi was also detained.
During this period, Carolyn remained a marked woman, and was constantly harassed. In 1979, together with her husband, they were ordered to surrender their passports to the principal immigration officer in Nairobi, failure to which they were to be prosecuted.
Despite the persecution the couple led a happy life and were able to bring up a family. After her husband’s death in 1991, Carolyn continued living in Kenya until 1999 when she moved to Washington DC. Even then, she maintained close contact with her husband’s family members and relatives, regularly visiting them.
A graduate of Wiley College in Texas, she will be buried alongside her mother Birdie Jackson at Holland Quarters Cemetery in Carthage Texas on June 29.
The writer is a journalist and researcher based in London