After clinching the Nyaribari Masaba Constituency seat in the 1988 General Election, Professor Sam Ongeri was immediately appointed as Minister for Technical Training and Applied Technology. This was a newly-created ministry, therefore Ongeri and his team had to define what its mandate was going to be.
“I remember we were given the eighth, ninth and tenth floors in Jogoo House B and a desk, and we sat down and conceptualised, strategised and came up with a format. We interpreted its mandate as vocational training and youth polytechnics, institutes of technology and then national polytechnics,” Ongeri recalled.
Close acquaintances describe Ongeri as a man who would never pick a fight
“However, we faced many challenges because at that time Kenya was facing hostility from the West and hence no donor funding was available. We decided to take advantage of the Directorate of Industrial Training, which had been moved from the Ministry of Labour, and embarked on upgrading the skills of workers both in the public and private sectors at its facilities in Mombasa, Nairobi and Kisumu,” he added. Ongeri is currently the Senator for Kisii County.
The net effect was to completely change the mentality of Kenyans as the goods produced by the jua kali (informal) sector became more presentable.
“That is how we were able to replace the Asian business community on Biashara Street, Moi Avenue and River Road, among other places,” he said.
Ongeri admitted that he is proud of what he achieved because after five years of hard work, jua kali became the beacon of hope for Kenyans and provided 40 per cent of employment opportunities.
“While the rest of the world expected us to collapse, we did not,” he said. “That is how we were able to sustain the country.”
In the multiparty elections of 1992, Ongeri lost in the KANU party nominations to Dr Hezron Manduku, who went on to clinch the seat. After the elections, Moi appointed Ongeri as Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). He also appointed him Chairman of the University of Nairobi Council.
At UNEP, he led a successful fight to defeat a plan to move the body’s headquarters from Nairobi to either Europe or New York. According to Ongeri, those behind the scheme cited the reason as lack of communication between Nairobi and New York.
“I thank Kipng’eno arap Ng’eny, who was the Managing Director of the Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation, for moving very fast and, together with me and the President, laid a fibre optic cable linking GPO and Gigiri. So the excuse they used was no longer valid,” Ongeri recalled.
At the same time, he engaged in intensive shuttle diplomacy to secure various Conventions, including the Framework Conventions on climate change, biodiversity and biosafety, and hazardous wastes.
Ongeri reclaimed his seat from Manduku in 1997 and made a comeback to the Cabinet after he was named Minister for Local Government. On joining the ministry, he was confronted by mountains of solid waste, potholed roads and dilapidated infrastructure. With the support of the World Bank, he launched the Kenya Urban Development Programme and embarked on rehabilitating all roads in Nairobi and other towns. It was during his tenure that the fountain at the Kenyatta Avenue/Uhuru Highway Junction was built.
In a Cabinet reshuffle in 2000, he was moved to the Ministry of Health. Among the successes he cited were the purchase of ambulances, improvement of the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) and promotion of preventive and promotive healthcare.
“We conducted massive immunisation campaigns and hence were able to deal with communicable diseases. The number of immunised children rose to 93 per cent but now it has gone back to 80,” he said. He also worked towards improving the remuneration of workers and creating various professional cadres.
In 2002, he was once more defeated by Manduku. In this election, the FORD People party, whose leader Simeon Nyachae was gunning for the presidency, won all the seats in the entire Gusii region, and candidates from other political parties stood no chance.
Ongeri married Elizabeth Wangari, a fellow medic, in 1968 before they both went to the UK for further studies. They both studied at Kamagambo Mission School and Bugema Missionary College in Uganda. The couple have five children. Ongeri comes from a family of staunch Seventh Day Adventists and is a church elder at Nairobi Central SDA Church, Maxwell.
Coming from a humble background, Ongeri described his parents and the entire community as simple people who stood for the truth and took part in the fight for Kenya’s freedom. His father, Benson Ongeri, was an Assistant Chief in the colonial era but quit his post when he was instructed to travel to Nairobi to help suppress the colonial uprising. His grandfather, Nyamatenga, was shot dead by colonialists while resisting them in Kiogoro, near Keumbu, so Ongeri never got a chance to meet him. In his opinion this legacy of struggle created an impression in the minds of the younger generation that they had to fight for every right.
Close acquaintances described Ongeri as a man who would never pick a fight; that he is tolerant even under extreme pressure. Mobisa Ondimu cited an incident during the 1992 election campaigns when supporters of one of Ongeri’s opponents in the KANU primaries attacked him with molehill soil at Ibacho Secondary School. Ongeri simply kept his cool and went back to his vehicle. He went on to win the nomination.
“Having served as minister during the previous term, he had armed bodyguards and could have easily asked them to react. But he chose to retreat, almost in shame,” said Ondimu.
A medical doctor by profession, Ongeri started his education at Gesusu Sector (now Moi High School, Gesusu). His teachers told him that his grandfather had prophesied that one of his grandchildren would be a leader. Because he was always at the top of his class, they identified him as the ‘anointed one’.
After his Kenya African Preliminary Examination (KAPE), he attended Kamagambo Mission School and obtained a Cambridge School Certificate before joining Bugema Missionary College in 1952. He left in 1957. For part of this time, Ongeri lived in Nairobi selling SDA books.
After graduating from Bugema, Ongeri was hired as a teacher at Nyachwa SDA Primary School in Kisii between 1958 and June 1959. The Inspector of Schools, Solomon Adagala, wanted him to go to Siriba Teachers’ Training College for further training because he wanted to promote him to the post of P1 Teacher on account of his efficiency. But Ongeri declined, choosing instead to study medicine. When he came across an advertisement seeking applicants for Indian government scholarships, he immediately applied. Out of the 300 applications, he was among the eight that were shortlisted. He studied at Delhi University and graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine (Surgery) in 1966.
On returning to Kenya, he joined Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) as an intern. Upon graduation, he was seconded to the Kenya Army, Kenya Police and Kenya Prisons. He revealed that it is during this time that he first met Moi, who at the time was the Vice President and Minister for Home Affairs. Moi had come to check on his driver, who had been involved in an accident. Ongeri was in charge of the casualty ward and Moi was pleased to see KNH staffed by young African doctors.
Ongeri worked as a registrar at the hospital for two years before leaving for the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, for his postgraduate education. In 1970, he joined the University of London where he trained and qualified for a Diploma in Child Health. He returned to Kenya in 1972 with his wife and re-joined KNH as a medical doctor while teaching medicine at the University of Nairobi. He was part of a team of doctors that established the first renal dialysis unit in the country and conducted the first kidney transplant at KNH.
At the University of Nairobi, he rose through the ranks to become a professor and admitted that he was proud of having trained many undergraduate and postgraduate students who are now steering the country’s schools of medicine and health facilities.
Asked how politics had affected him businesswise, personally and professionally, Ongeri explained that one does not enter politics for gain but to serve. He therefore has no regrets taking the political route.
“Politics is one of the service points. You go in to address challenges people face. When you are an MP or senator, people come to you to solve almost anything. It is not their choice; it is because of poverty, which you must tackle,” he said.
At a personal level, he advised that once you enter politics, there is no privacy and as a public figure, one was not at liberty to engage in things that were repugnant to society since one was expected to be a role model.
Ongeri believes there is an urgent need to seize the destiny of the country. In this regard, he was fully in support of the Building Bridges Initiative spearheaded by President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister, Raila Odinga.
“One thing I learned from Moi is that he always sought peace and pursued it, and would always engage when the stability of the country was threatened,” he said.