Omieri the snake and the people of Nyakach

Omieri was part and parcel of village life in Nyakach. Akin to a deity, her sighting meant only one thing – good fortune. The heavens would open up, it would rain, and a bountiful harvest would follow. Everyone loved her. The children reportedly massaged her beautiful black and tan back while men and women would lavish bread and ugali on her. Some even left prized young goats and chicken unattended for her to pick up.

Omieri from Nyakach
A pyhton of Omieri’s decent – Photo Courtesy

An MP would insist she was a star attraction and when the Americans and the British got wind of her being around, they trooped to Kenya to see and take photos of her. When she died, the people mourned deeply. Condolence books were opened for messages of sympathy to her husband, Nyakach. They raised funds towards her burial.

Omieri, for that was her name, was no ordinary girl. She was a snake, nay, a manifestation that slithered her way into national news in 1987.

The python is a cultural and ecological heritage that has appeared several times.

In his book, Bewitching Development: Witchcraft and the Reinvention of Development in Neoliberal Kenya, James Howard Smith describes Omieri as “a python that appears at times of great portent for Luo people”.

The people of Nyakach believed it was a reincarnation of a woman named Omieri who had returned as a serpent, bringing fertility to communities and to the individual women to whom she appeared. He describes how tourists – domestic and international – travelled to see the serpentine visitor and how local businesses thrived, such as sale of “soda, samosas and doughnuts to the tourists”.

The United Press International (UPI) reported in March 1987: “Villagers say Omieri appeared in Nyanza last December and lived happily in a sisal patch, crushing chickens and small goats left tethered for her by villagers grateful for her auspicious presence.”

The UPI news report quoted Richard Leakey, then National Museums of Kenya director, explaining how the 15-foot snake burst into the limelight.

An excited villager keen to show it off to a visitor had lit up the sisal patch hoping to smoke it out.Omieri got burnt and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) came to her rescue, ferrying her to Nairobi for treatment. Many never saw any good in the gesture. The people of Nyakach predicted disaster following the caging of this super creature in distant lands.

Soon, calls for her return home reverberated across the breadth and width of Nyakach and beyond. UPI cited worried residents missing her and pleading for her immediate return to her now lonely husband, symbolically named Nyakach.

The troubled minds wrote:

“Omieri is our gift from God, given through our ancestors’ spirits to bring good tidings… We hope to get a good harvest, rainfall and a good omen after seeing our serpent. We beseech you to hear our cries and return our snake before we face untold suffering and a curse from our ancestors.”

Smith captures the people’s belief in Omieri: “The python is a local symbol of mutation, change, and ambivalent power, and has also come to stand for local history and the uncertain but promising potential for the future.”

The prediction came to pass, or so they believed, when rains poured unexpectedly shortly after KWS took away the goddess. Heavy floods swept away homes amid other havoc.

In Parliament, the then Nyakach MP, Ojwang K’Ombudo would emerge an authority on Omieri and the face of those urging her unconditional and immediate return. Reuters quoted him informing Parliament that Omieri was a harbinger of good tidings, and that the Tourism and Wildlife ministry had, in taking her away, halted the streak of good fortune for the Nyakach people.

“The Nyakach water supply and a local road have had serious problems since Omieri went to an orphanage in Nairobi,” K’Ombudo reportedly said in March 1987. And while discussing a motion related to national parks on July 8, 1987, K’Ombudo informed Parliament that locals in his area had set aside land for a national park at Wasare for Omieri.

Oloo Aringo, the Education minister, on the other hand lauded KWS’ return of Omieri, or Nyang’idi – as people also called her – to Kisumu Museum, a move he said had seen thousands, including himself, troop there and pay to catch a glimpse of the serpent.

He clarified that contrary to public perception “doing enormous harm to us”, the Luo had never been snake worshippers. Aringo explained that locals only loved Omieri for its attraction and harmlessness.

In the same debate, Butere MP Martin Shikuku sparked off a live wire when he claimed that K’Ombudo had refused to lift Omieri back home from Nairobi after it was treated for burns and fully healed.

K’Ombudo is reported to have replied,

“That is a big lie… We are still waiting for Omieri up to now. If I was given Omieri, I would be very happy to take it to Nyakach.Omieri is in Kisumu, it is not inNyakach. I was not given the opportunity to take Omieri back anywhere”

On the same day, during a different debate, Dr AM Mango (Busia East MP) provoked K’Ombudo’s ire when he referred to “Hon K’Ombudo and his Omieri….” The latter responded, amidst bouts of laughter from colleagues: “I do not own Omieri; Omieri is owned by the people of Nyakach and the people of Kenya as a whole. Omieri is a tourist attraction!”

A witty Shikuku, otherwise known as the People’s Watchman, took exception to the assertion that “we” in Kenya own Omieri. “I am in Kenya, and I do not own Omieri,” he retorted.

Come July 20, 1988, K’Ombudo, while moving a Motion intended to promote tourism in Western Kenya, noted that tourism there was “tremendous and untapped”.

This was unlike other such areas in Central, Rift Valley and Coast provinces where the Government had developed tourism. In particular, K’Ombudo cited the example of Omieri, one of the very rare reptiles along the Lake Victoria shores, as a natural tourist attraction the Government should promote. He said Omieri is found in the Western part of Kenya, and nowhere else.

He added,

“This is the biggest snake in the world. When the Americans, British and so on heard about this snake, they came to Nairobi to see it, but it would be better if it was seen in its natural surroundings.”

He put Omieri in the league of natural attraction sites like the Kit Mikayi, Kolowa and Kakamega bird sanctuaries, Ndere Island, the huge caves in Muhuru Bay, Mt Elgon for its coffee and the naturally nice Luos for their beautiful girls and handsome men.

The then Health minister, Mwai Kibaki saw no merit in catapulting Omieri to become a crowd puller let alone a tourist attraction.

Coincidentally, as the Omieri saga was unfolding, an epic duel between Wambui Otieno and her husband, lawyer SM Otieno’s Umira Kager clan over his burial ensued. “The rhetoric of the Omieri campaign drew upon, and in turn fed and enriched, the campaign of the Umira Kager for the return of SM’s remains,” said ES Atieno and DW Cohen in the publication, Burying SM Otieno: The Politics of Knowledge & the Sociology of Power in Africa. The authors say Ndolo Ayah, then Kisumu Town MP, pointed out the connection between SM and Omieri.

Ayah told the SM funeral on May 23, 1987, that in the previous few months, the entire Luo community had revolved around three things:

– the (SM) Otieno court wrangle, Omieri, and Gor Mahia football club’s performance at the continental level.

The community, Ayah stated, had scored victories in having Omieri returned to Kisumu, and SM buried in Nyamila. Later, Gor Mahia went on to win the (Africa) regional title.

When the curtains finally fell on Omieri in 1989, the news hit the front page of local dailies. The death, mourned by multitudes, was blamed on her exile to Nairobi, says Atieno and Cohen.

Kenya Times wrote:

“(Omieri) had been estranged from her legendary husband. For three months, she missed the ancestral drinking water from River Asawo and the Odoro stream… It was a long time since she had last taken her traditional swim in the river.”

The Nyakach people in Nairobi made burial arrangements for her, raising money for the funeral besides opening a condolence book at Kaloleni Social Hall. Museum officials also opened a book of condolences of their own at Kisumu Museum, Atieno and Cohen further quote.

The Standard reported a welfare official, Oluoch Omollo’s “sorrow” following the untimely death of a colleague. He said a funeral fund had been launched, and Sh400 raised for burial expenses, adding “We send her husband, Nyakach condolence messages during this time.”

The story of Omieri did not end there. Another Omieri was sighted in 2003 in Wasare village of Nyakach as she came out to hatch her eggs on the edge of a swamp. Locals fed it on bread and ugali, though it rarely ate. Then Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife minister, Newton Kulundu warned in Parliament on April 6, 2003, that while the incubating Omieri lay docile, it could turn harmful if people rattled it. He promised to fence off the area – to protect her – at a cost of Sh25,000. Kulundu offered,

“This government respects people’s spiritual beliefs and if the people in Nyakach believe that Omieriis some kind of a god to them, we cannot interfere.”

And so Omieri lives on. A tale ever so fascinating! 🐍

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