In Pursuit of Peace in Africa: An Autobiography, by retired Kenyan Army Lieutenant General Daniel Opande, was published a few months ago in Nairobi, Kenya, but sharp-eyed readers will spot that the photograph gracing the cover was taken by the Virgin Islands’ own Hezekiah Maddox.
Mr. Opande’s parents were Seventh-day Adventists who taught their children to adhere to a strict moral code and regulate their daily life, qualities which he would display in his later lifer. While they were both teachers, his father rose to the well-paid rank of inspector of schools for two districts. However, when he fell ill, Mr. Opande had to accept responsibility for his extended family and abandon high school.
The Kings African Rifles (KAR) was recruiting military cadets to train native Kenyans to fill the top ranks then held by British officers before, but Mr. Opande had to overcome his father’s reluctance to approve his application. His father’s only brother, Ololo Ouko, had been declared missing in action while fighting the Japanese in the Burmese jungle during World War II, and the colonial authorities had been unable to give any further details. He was eventually declared legally dead.
Mr. Opande graduated from both the British Army Staff College and the United States National Defense University and eventually rose to being appointed commandant of the National Defence College, Kenya’s highest military institution. However, his greatest distinction came as UN peacemaker and mediator, notably in engaging with rebels during peace operations he led in Namibia (1989-90), Mozambique (1990-93), Liberia (1993-95) and Sierra Leone (2000-2003).
The UN secretary-general appointed him force commander of the newly established UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) in 2003, where he led 15,000 multinational troops in the disarming of the country’s three warring factions. His work in civil war-torn Liberia is featured in an acclaimed hour-long documentary, “Taking Guns from Boys” (2007).
He was recalled from early retirement to play a major role in arbitrating a peaceful settlement in South Sudan in the aftermath of the 2015 upheavals, but was a bit disappointed when the tribalism at the root of the fighting later led to temporary breakdown of his efforts.
In the VI
I first heard of Mr. Opande in January 2011, when, after a short absence myself, the Saturday Morning Walkers sent a tribute to “Our friend Daniel” for some photos from the previous walk he’d circulated, and I was particularly puzzled by references to him being a Kenyan general. However, I discovered he was staying with Dawn Smith, another Saturday Morning Walker and a former next-door neighbour, whose photograph appears in the book.
Mr. Opande has been able to trace his ancestors by word of mouth, back roughly 13 generations, without benefit of records on the internet. However, he also reads as much as possible about the Burma campaign, hoping one day he’ll find out what happened to his uncle. All he’s traced so far is the personal file opened on his enlistment into the KAR and being sent to Burma, just another conscript during the war. Books about the campaign shed little light on individual African soldiers or their contributions.
Mr. Opande told me that there are several war memorials in various parts of Kenya similar to the one I mentioned in my “Memories of Malawi” commentary series. I told him that I should have liked to have seen a similar tribute to the sacrifices made by the non-white “colonial” troops in both World Wars prominently erected in London.
A few months after I first met him, he visited my cousin at the Sarit Centre shopping mall in Nairobi. I’ve never myself met that cousin face-to-face: I only found out that he existed at a jumble sale in England where a book of photographs of Kenyan people written by another Peter Moll was my first hint that I had Maasai cousins. I hadn’t bought it as we were disposing of books at the time prior to moving back to Tortola, but later shared family history on the internet.
A couple of months later still, Mr. Opande sent me a photograph of himself with Kofi Annan and a former president of Tanzania, in Nairobi to review Kenya’s progress on implementation of the peace accord signed after the 2007 post-elections violence. Then in November 2014 he shared with the SMWs a photo of prominent South Sudanese participants in Addis Ababa, with the comment that he “had travelled to Ethiopia to help mediate the unfortunate political and military upheaval taking place in South Sudan. On 15th December 2014 it will be one year since hell broke loose in that young country. I have been shuttling between Juba and Addis Ababa to meet with the top leadership of the warring parties to help them reconcile.”
Ms. Smith took one of my most cherished photographs of my walking days, outside Big Ben’s Superette, with me standing like a beanpole supported by two baobabs: Mr. Opande on one side and the late lamented Elton Georges on the other.
Mr. Opande’s greatest leisure interests are golf and photography. He still tries to play golf with seniors every Saturday and Sunday, but after winning a tournament modestly comments that his main contribution, as usual, was sharing pictures he had taken of it.
Mr. Opande sent Mr. Georges and me photos of his land in Eldoret in western Kenya. While we had been enjoying our early morning walk, he had been fencing part of his shamba (farm) to keep his neighbour’s cattle out.
He told us that like most Africans he’d try everything when there is land and rain available: a bit of horticulture (all sorts of veggies); growing tomatoes commercially in two large greenhouses; planting cattle feed for his milk cows, trees for wood and other uses; and, last but not least, wheat every four years as a rotation crop in place of maize.
In April 2014, he and Ms. Smith took several SMWs on safari on two different itineraries, including one that included an introduction to President Barack Obama’s mother. They practised some basic Swahili during the outward flight, having been assured that English speakers can “call it like they see it” and pronunciation will be just about right.