Winifred Wangalwa Odera: A light that kept on shining to the end

Mr Muniini K. Mulera

What you need to know:

  • Her physique, her energy and her intellect typified the family into which she was born. Her paternal grandfather, Awori Khatamonga, was a famous nineteenth century elephant hunter in the future Uganda/Kenya border area.

Dear Tingasiga:

There is silence in Funyula, Busia County of Kenya. One of its finest and kindest citizens has come to the end of her sojourn on Earth. There is a cold chill in many homes in Kenya and other parts of the world.

A beautiful, loving, and resolute guide has been taken away from her children, her grandchildren, her siblings, her in-laws, and many relatives to whom she dispensed wisdom with a legendary distaste for equivocation.

There is a chill in my home, for my dear friends, and my beloved cousin Joy, who is her daughter in law, face deep sadness at the loss of their mother – our mother – yet we cannot ease their pain. 

The death of Winifred Wangalwa Odera, which occurred in Funyula on Sunday October 29, has robbed Kenya and Africa of another member of a vanishing generation that lived to serve others. Theirs was a generation that generally did not cut corners or hurt others on their way to material wealth. 

Mrs Odera, a member of that great Kenyan/Ugandan family of the Aworis, was one of those elders with whom one fell in love on account of her children’s stories about her great exploits, her uncompromising fidelity to the rule of law, proper decorum always, and stubbornness in spite of her waning energy. 

Her physique, her energy and her intellect typified the family into which she was born. Her paternal grandfather, Awori Khatamonga, was a famous nineteenth century elephant hunter in the future Uganda/Kenya border area.

Her paternal grandmother, Namangale Osinya, a native of Ebuloma in Samia, was said to have been a strong six-and-a-half feet tall woman, a feature that would be copied down the generations.  

Her maternal grandmother, Wangalwa Naburi Jwaya, was highly respected because of her politeness and generosity, another trait that Winifred Wangalwa inherited in a large dose.

Her father, the Reverend Canon Jeremiah Musungu Awori was born in Funyula, Samia sometime between 1886 and 1888. He was called Musungu (European) because he was born when the remains of Bishop James Hannington, who had been murdered in Busoga on October 29, 19885, were resting in his parents’ home, to which they had been evacuated.

Following his father’s death, the five-year-old Awori’s mother refused to be inherited by one of her in-laws, a break with tradition that signaled a future family trait of independent, liberated women. 

Winifred’s mother was Mariamu Olubo Odongo, who was born into a ruling lineage, and was among the first girls in Samia to get formal education. Professor Watson Omulokoli, a church historian, recorded that Awori “admired her character, and was even impressed by her academic prowess, as she often bested him in mathematics.” 

It was to this high achieving couple that Winifred Wangalwa was born in Butere on March 16, 1931, as the seventh of seventeen children.

A graduate of Nambale Primary School, and Ngíya Girls High School, Wangalwa capped her formal education with a Diploma in Nutrition and Institutional Management from Aberdeen, Scotland. This was a natural path for a girl about whom Professor Omulokoli wrote: “Although the Awori family had six daughters, Winifred was invariably in charge of the kitchen and cooking duties when there were visitors.” 

She married John Frederick Odera Oywaya, the son of another pioneer Anglican clergyman, on December 20, 1950. The couple had six children, all whose career paths would have received an approving nod by their exacting maternal grandfather. 

One of her sons is Philip Samuel Odera, a highly respected economist, banker, and investment executive who has worked in several African and Asian countries. He was the chief executive officer of Stanbic Bank Uganda from 2007 to 2014, before taking on a similar role at Stanbic Bank Kenya. 

In addition to her role as mother and homemaker, Winifred Odera worked as a teacher, then as a caterer at Siriba Teacher Training College, the University of Nairobi, and the Kenya Institute of Administration.

She put this vast experience to profitable use when she opened Virginia Slims Catering College on Brookside Drive, Nairobi. It was there that I first met her about thirty years ago. Subsequent stories about her confirmed why she had impressed me at first sight. 

Over the years, her family members have described her as a devout Christian woman, loving, thoughtful, caring, amazing, beautiful, charming, generous, entrepreneurial, organized, focused, adventurous, fearless, sensitive, diplomatic, forgiving, curious, and a lifelong learner. 

She had no choice but to be one of the best, given her exceptional pedigree. Biographies of her siblings would offer fascinating reading. Her older brother Moody Arthur Awori’s autobiography gives us a look into an outstanding family of talented people among whom Winifred Odera was a natural fit. 

Her best-known siblings are all male. The late Wycliffe Works Wasya (WWW) Awori, a famous trade unionist, politician and legislator who entered the Legislative Council of Kenya in 1952, aged twenty-seven, was among those who struggled for Kenya’s independence. Arthur Moody Awori capped his political career as Vice President of Kenya. Hannington Ochwada Awori was a famous corporate executive.

Professor Nelson Awori was a distinguished urologist in Nairobi. Ernest Awori was a structural engineer who worked on major construction projects in Kenya and Uganda. 

Then there was Aggrey Siryoyi Awori, the Ugandan Olympic athlete and politician who sought the country’s presidency. His story awaits impartial documentation and analysis, for he was really one of the most talented Ugandans, denied his just dues by the collapse of the meritocratic state that had been the national dream at independence.

However, to me it is the Awori girls that fascinate me more than their talented brothers. Like Winifred, they did not allow the patriarchal wider society in which they were born to handicap them.

Among those who are still alive are Margaret Openda, 90, a former matron and home economics teacher at Siriba College in Maseno; Grace Wakhungu, 83, a former insurance company and bank executive; Dr. Elizabeth Mary Okelo, 82, the first woman bank manager in Kenya, and founder of Kenya Women Finance Trust, and Makini Schools; Christine Hayanga, 80, a lawyer; and Naome Nambiro Awori, 54, an upscale chef.  

At 92, Winifred Wangalwa Odera has had good innings. Even as she turned ninety, the lady was reported to be planning some building projects, happily ignoring her children’s advice about retirement, and supporting her Anglican Church and the needy people in her community. She was the proverbial light that kept on shining and shining, even as her batteries were inexorably draining towards their inevitable end.

We mourn her death and celebrate her distinguished life of service, great accomplishments and a rich legacy that is now carried forward by her children and grandchildren. We have them in our thoughts and prayers. 

Muniini K. Mulera is Ugandan-Canadian social and political observer.     
[email protected]