Okeyo Foundation: Legacy

Michael George Okeyo was born on 27th July 1939 to the late Assistant Chief Zephaniah Owuor and late Mama Philida Nyengo of Kaswanga, Rusinga Island. He was the third in a family of five children namely the late Absalom Odhiambo, the late Esther Agunda Okara, Helen Oyugi and late Meshack Otieno Ongili.

His early years were spent on the island where he started his schooling at Kaswanga Primary, later moving to Gendia Mission School and then joined the then prestigious Kisii Govt. High School. During his time in Kisii, he was a fantastic football player and a brilliant student and was also involved in student leadership. This was at a time when the colonialists were in charge of the learning institutions and subjecting them to unfair treatment occasioning suffering in the school. He was among the boys who agitated for the rights of the students persistently, leading to a strike. Although it made a difference for those who remained in the school, he was expelled and not allowed to sit for his final exams. This was a big blow as he was very ambitious and had been intent on going on for further studies to university.

As fortune would have it this was at the time when the late Tom Mboya was organizing the famous air lifts to the USA through the late Sen. John F. Kennedy. He was one of those offered the opportunity and suddenly found himself on a plane to California. Due to circumstances beyond his control he could not even go home to say goodbye to his parents who were eagerly waiting for him. Unfortunately he never saw his father, who passed on in 1965, alive again.

Living and studying in USA was not easy. In fact Michael described his first year in America as the hardest time of his life. He had to figure out how to raise funds for his college fees and shelter after his sponsor pulled out of the commitment. He was starved most of the time and could barely find enough work to help him get by. He realised that in order to get any kind of work he had to register with the Labour Union and managed to do this after being persistent. His first opportunity came and he started by getting work at the docks as a loader. He needed to raise money to stay alive and pay his fees and rent. He despaired and almost gave up trying but thought of the sacrifice made by the people back home to take him to school, their pride in him, and expectations of him. This, coupled with the fact that he was privileged to even get the chance to come to America, gave him the resolve to endure anything that life was to throw at him. He mixed with Americans from all sorts of creed while working at the docks and got street wise. Michael was now ready to take on America.

Since he had not sat for his secondary exams back home, he enrolled in a bridging course which he passed very well gaining him admission to the highly prestigious University of California, Berkeley, where he graduated with a B.A. in Political Science and Economics in 1967 and an M.A. in Public Administration and Economics in 1968.

At Berkeley he was a student leader and activist. These were exciting times of free speech and the Black Power Movement and he got involved. He always wanted to stand up and be counted

In 1967 while still a student he won an Internship with the United Nations Development Program in New York. He also had a stint with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as a Management Assistant based in Washington DC. These were his first footsteps into the United Nations and international development work. The young Michael picked up invaluable lessons from here.

In 1968 Michael came back to Kenya and was appointed Assistant Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1969 the Kenya Government sponsored him for Diplomatic Training at the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, Uppsala, Sweden.

In 1969 Michael was appointed to the Kenya Embassy in Cairo, Egypt. This was just the beginning of an illustrious career in the diplomatic corps. Michael proved to be a consummate diplomat and his efforts were recognised when he was promoted from 3rd Secretary to 2nd Secretary within a relatively short period. He was recalled to Kenya in 1972.

Despite his pressing responsibilities at work and with his young family when he came back to Kenya, the Kenya Government sponsored him at the University of Nairobi for a Diploma in International Relations from where he graduated in 1974. This was to serve him well as it provided excellent grounding for his career ahead. In 1974 Michael was appointed Kenyan Delegate to the United Nations in New York. And during his tenure between 1974 and 1984, he was elected, and continuously re-elected, to various leadership roles in the running of the affairs of the United Nations. Key among these included: —-Committee for Program and Coordination (CPC)-Vice Chairman and later Chairman- United Nations Joint Staff Pension Committee – Member- United Nations Joint Staff Pension Board – Member, and later Chairman – United Nations Committee on Conferences – Chairman

Chair United Nations NGO Committee. Given that some of these elections were through secret ballot and i nvolved all the representative countries, this was a sure indication of the confidence they had in him.

In those days, one had to take up diplomacy as a career and rise through merit. Michael proved to be a consummate diplomat and in recognition of this, in 1988 the Kenya Government appointed him Ambassador of Kenya to the United Nations, a position he held up to 1991. As a diplomat and Ambassador, Michael made a great impact at the United Nations. It was at this time, the peak of his diplomatic career, that his name came up strongly as the next Secretary General of the UN to succeed Javier Peres de Cuellar. But this was never to be. The Kenya Government recalled him back home in 1991 after which he was appointed Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and later in 1993 moved to be P.S. Ministry of Labour and Manpower. Ambassador Michael retired from public service in 1993.

Ambassador tried his hand in business but was soon to throw his hat into the political ring for the Mbita Parliamentary seat which he contested unsuccessfully. Ironically, he did more for his people outside than he would have done in Parliament.

A consummate diplomat and a long serving civil servant, Ambassador Michael George Okeyo leaves behind a legacy of excellence and dedication to the service of Kenya.

‘Atiu ja nam’, as Mike was fondly known, grew up in Rusinga Island at a time when it was a distant jewel on Lake Victoria with no causeway. He came from a large immediate family in Kaswanga and had an extended family that spanned the whole of Suba so wherever he travelled he was welcome. He was very active in school and loved sports, especially football. His maternal grandfather, Pastor Johanna Onyango, was the founder of the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) church in Suba and this influenced a strong Christian background. Having been baptised at a tender age, Michael felt that he wanted to re-dedicate his life to God and was baptized again in 2005 at the Nairobi Central SDA Church( Maxwell) In his native Rusinga Island and Suba, he will be fondly remembered as a world-class soccer player, leader and mentor. His love of learning and belief in education as the way out of poverty, he supported virtually all members of his family and many young students from Suba for further studies not only in Kenya but also in countries overseas, especially in the USA where he worked and lived for many years.

Mike made his relatives proud when he excelled in his career. He was distinguished and smart and ambitious. He dressed with style and lived with a lot of class setting a benchmark for his children and all to emulate. He abhorred mediocrity and believed that everyone could be ‘somebody’ unless they chose not to. He said “yes you can” long before President Obama made it famous. He was always well groomed , had a high sense of self esteem and had one of the heartiest laughs in the world.

“Ja nam” was a true family man. He believed in education as the ultimate access for opportunities in life and he made sure that his children and any of his relatives who passed through his hands got the best education to their highest limit. A disciplinarian at all times you were not allowed to be tardy in his house. You had to wake up and fulfill your duties.Mike believed in total respect for elders and he was a very social person and made dedicated lifelong friends. Unfortunately his best friend, Thadayo Okatch went before him at a young age. His pain over Thadayo’s sudden death never really left him.

Michael loved his entire family and gave them the best he could. He exposed his children into an international lifestyle which influenced their lives positively. Mike’s stay abroad also opened up opportunities for his other relatives to further their education. He always had a place for his relatives to stay when visiting the USA. Mike’s was an open house where all were welcome. He did everything he could to also assist young Kenyans in getting an education through scholarships in various colleges and also internships at the UN. His house was always filled with relatives and friends and his happy family warmly welcomed them all.

Mike hosted great get-togethers at his house where good food and music were in plenty. All those who know him well will remember his love for Congolese music especially Franco, Dr. Nico and Tabu Ley (Rochereau). Living in his house meant that you would be sure to hear him whistle their tunes over and over: till even you would know them by heart.

Michael started feeling the effects of secondary diabetes eleven years ago. It tiptoed into his life but he was not willing to let it kill his lively spirit. It was hard to imagine he was sick as he would strive to get back on his feet each time it got him down. With the help of his wife Debbie, who dropped everything she was doing to turn into a ‘nurse’ and caregiver, he maintained his composure and would still smile and take charge of the situation.

As the illness progressed through time he went to stay with his son Tom in Atlanta, Georgia for advanced treatment and came back home. In 2006 he went back for a kidney transplant which was to be donated by his cousin Josephine Mbeo. During pre-surgery investigations he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. This interfered with the transplant and he had to undergo three months of vigorous radio therapy treatment at Emory University Hospital. This together with his regular dialysis treatment proved to be very taxing and he became very weak.

In 2008 when Michael came back to Kenya and was bedridden, he requested his wife Debbie to be hosting open invitation lunches at her house in Kileleshwa for relatives and friends. This became a ritual every Saturday afternoon. Since he could not now go out and meet people as he used to, the luncheons gave him an opportunity to continue interacting with them and he enjoyed every bit of it. Topics were discussed from soccer, to politics, education, topical issues of the day and other social and welfare matters affecting the family, Rusinga, Suba and even Kenya at large.It is hard to believe that we will walk into the house on Saturdays and not see our beloved Mike ever again.Michael George Okeyo was called to be with his maker on Sunday 25th September, 2011 at 1.15 a.m. with his family keeping vigil in Aga Khan University Hospital ICU.He leaves us with a lot of very fond memories of his kind ways. He will be sorely missed by family and friends in Kenya and across the world.

All these achievements could not have been possible had it not been for the assistance he got from his community which included his Late uncle Thomas Joseph Mboya, Mboya’s friends in the USA who assisted him while pursuing his education in the USA. In his small way, and remembering where he came from he did what he could to give back to his people. Although he intended to setup a foundation that could continue his philanthropic endeavours he got bogged down with constant sickness and died before this was achieved. We therefore felt it was a befitting tribute to fulfil his wish and start the foundation in his memory as a lasting legacy.

If you want to touch the past, touch a rock. If you want to touch the present, touch a flower. If you want to touch the future, touch a life. — Unknown