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Feature: Communities in western Kenya still use village criers for critical messages

by Peter Mutai

NAIROBI – The village or town crier who for centuries has been used as a sole means of communication between the rulers and their subjects in the traditional African communities is still a hit in large parts of western Kenya.

Even as the communication trend moves to digital platforms, village criers continue to dominate the announcement scene in the region, passing information to the people in their native languages.

They go about their business announcing forthcoming meetings, political rallies, lost children and livestock, future weddings, deaths of locals, and relatives that pass on elsewhere.

John Ochieng, from Kolonde village in Karachuonyo, western Kenya, is one such town crier that has become very popular with villagers.

Having started his job three years ago, he has excelled in his trade and earned re-election whenever new village office bearers look for a new team.

“My talent has been discovered by the villagers who admire my unique announcing skill,” Ochieng, who is popularly known as “Ochieng Nduu,” told Xinhua during a recent interview.

His fellow villagers elect officials annually to help champion development matters and link them with the local government administrators and elected political leadership.

In his role, Ochieng announces village meetings on behalf of the chairman for free, but he does not have to pay his monthly dues as a member of the same village.

However, for private announcements, he charges the equivalent of 2 U.S. dollars and above, depending on negotiations with the client.

Ochieng often opens his announcement by his signature tune “Mano VoK ma Kolonde….chik iti kendo lor radio,” which means, in Luo, “This is the Voice of Kolonde (VoK), switch off your radio and pay attention.”

Like the management of the traditional media that knows when to place commercial announcements, Ochieng said that he often makes his announcements from 7 p.m. as this is the time to find most people relaxing at home.

“At this hour, many people have returned home from the market, farms, while others are at home preparing food or eating,” the 53- year-old farmer added.

Most town criers usually carry information from the village elders and other clients, walk through the village and shout the message for the villagers to hear.

Some use gongs, drum or bell to help attract people’s attention.

Ochieng, who uses a trumpet in delivering his messages that is repeated twice for clarity purposes, revealed that morning announcements are not received well by the people.

Since Ochieng took over this job, death messages lead in terms of paid announcements placed to him by his clients.

“Meetings’ turnout after Ochieng’s announcement is always excellent given that the villagers are accustomed to his voice and identify it with authority,” John Abeka, the clan elder, said.

Abeka said town (village) criers should be employed by the county government to make public announcements in the villages, for their role is highly valued by the society.

“Ochieng serves us well because he has a loud and clear voice, and above all he is a reliable person,” Abeka added.

According to Humphrey Ojwang, a senior lecturer at University of Nairobi’s Linguistic and Anthropology Department, town criers were the forerunners of the modern announcer who delivers radio and television commercials.

“Town criers are folk media personalities who inform, educate, entertain and inspire,” Ojwang said.

Even though the practice was passed down from father to son for many generations, children these days don’t admire the role, but this has not stopped the practice from thriving alongside social media.

“The crier, just like radio and television announcers, has remained in the forefront in promoting public health campaigns and fight against HIV-AIDS epidemic, besides spearheading development issues within the locality,” Ojwang told Xinhua.

By imparting information and ideas orally, the crier educates the masses and helps in promoting fundamental and inalienable human rights, as a indispensable component of democracy.

In pre-colonial days, especially when many in traditional African societies could neither read nor write, criers were made the chief means of news communication with people of a town or village.

Today, they still serve well both literate and illiterate villagers in Kenya, refusing to fade from the scene, despite new, innovative techniques of sharing information.

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