January 20th 2018

Media / Watchdog

Boniface Ongeri: The journalist who became an adopted Somali son

The Standard Group was still yet to fully appreciate Ongeri’s experience; until his death he served on a monthly retainer, working in hostile territory without medical cover or allowances.

By Cynthia Iranducirandu@kenyafreepress.comSaturday, 18 Jun 2016 15:22 EAT

A photo the deceased posted on his Facebook page after his graduation.

Boniface Ongeri, a long time correspondent for the Standard Group in North Eastern, passed away this Monday, his employer has announced. The cause of the death was brain tumour. He leaves behind an expectant wife.

Ongeri, 38, was the longest serving correspondent of any national newspaper in the entire northern Kenya. His breadth of knowledge, wealth of contacts and absolute confidence from the Somali community allowed him to cover the region in a way few journalists could. A true journalist who defied boundaries of culture and religion, he was fluent in the Somali language and was greatly admired in the community, many of whose upcoming journalists he mentored.

For more than a decade, Ongeri was the only full time journalist who committed every moment of his work life to covering North Eastern, and the country depended on him to inform us on the events in the region. He bonded with Somalis because he was objective in his work and, from elections to the internecine interclan violence to terrorism in recent years, he covered all sides to an issue without fear or favor.

His remaining above internal Somali politics helped him to survive the region during very difficult times. Since 2006 when Ethiopia invaded Somalia to oust the Islamic Courts Union, North Eastern became an extremely hostile place for journalists, a climate that got only worse with Kenya’s invasion in 2011, which opened up the region as a theater of terrorism and spy networks.

Ongeri first went to North Eastern in 2001, straight out of a diploma course, to do an internship with the Kenya News Agency, the government owned wire service. He and another colleague, Martin Odhiambo, landed into the mentorship of Victor Obure, then a correspondent for The Standard in Garissa. He soon quit KNA for another internship with the Standard, based in Wajir but also covering Mandera.

Obure, who now works in government, recalled in an interview for this article that Ongeri fell in love with North Eastern. From his early days, Ongeri knew that the way to the locals’ hearts was through learning the Somali language, which he came to know better than many young Somalis. Over the years, he learned a lot about Somali culture too.

“Ongeri was a true journalist, he went where the story was and endured tough conditions,” said Obure, who recalled that Wajir those days lacked even basic housing. There was not even basic sewer infrastructure, and most residents relieved themselves in buckets. But Ongeri’s humility helped him blend in the community, which in turn accepted him as one of their own. 

It was an acceptance so profound that the conservative community around Wajir hardly minded his ways, some of which had been considered outlandish before him. In the late 2000s, he broke new ground for social relations in Wajir by going about an open relationship with a local Somali girl not officially married to him. He contemplated converting to Islam many times but never got to do it.

David Ochami, the current Standard bureau chief in Mombasa, who also worked with the deceased in Garissa, spoke of Ongeri’s hard work and integrity. “Ongeri’s main asset as a journalist was his credibility,” Ochami said. Ochami who worked in North Eastern from 1997, was the first non-Somali journalist to make the region his second home. He worked there for the Kenya Times till early 2000s, and only returned sporadically in 2007 to report for the Associated Press. But even he marveled at Ongeri’s commitment to the region. As late as last year, when the region was in turmoil, Ongeri was still working from Wajir.

Among journalists Ongeri was a rare ambassador for Kenyanness. The bureaux of major media companies are filled mostly by journalists from those localities. It therefore goes without saying that the Somali community, which has had few recognized journalists, has been marginalized in media coverage. It is this marginalization Ongeri sought to address, and for which the community loved him.

His news coverage highlighted not just security challenges for which the region is well known, but also economic transformation, the fusion between national and local dynamics on important issues and generally a defense for Somalis against ethnic profiling. In one article last July, he chronicled his visit with a family in Bodhai, Garissa County.

Bodhai is located in Ijara, south of Garissa, one of the most insecure and alienated regions. He was not accustomed to the numerous security checks the locals in Garissa go through daily. Without a national identification card, one is no different from a prisoner. Ongeri narrated the warm welcome he got from his host, a family of newlyweds. They shared food, straight from one plate with no reservations. He even slept on their matrimonial bed.

After the December 2015 terrorist attack on a Mandera-bound public service bus, in which a few courageous Somali passengers shielded their non-Muslims counterparts being quarantined by the terrorists for shooting, he took to Facebook to praise of the community. “A lot of mud and stereotype has been thrown towards the Muslims and particularly the Somalis, but today you proved us wrong by standing with us against al-Shabaab...Any Christian of sound mind now knows that you are peace loving and you detest al-Shabaab and their evil mind.” Like many of his other writings, that Facebook post and his subsequent report on the subject received exaltation from the locals.

While his death has left a huge gap in the hearts of family and colleagues, Somalis have felt a particular loss as well. Since the news of his passing went out, his Facebook page has been filled with eulogies from Somalis describing him in superlative terms. In the words of Suleiman Hassan, a journalist, “Ongeri was a true friend of the people of North Eastern…His unmatched journalistic skills put the region in its rightful place…while his mastery of the Somali language and occasional jokes would put a smile on our faces whenever he put pen to paper.”

Amhednadhir Omar wrote, “NEP lost an adopted son who understood NEP even better than its own sons.” And Hon Adan Keynan, the Member of Parliament for Eldas, said, “The man has been covering the region’s issues so positively that we knew him as our son.” Some of Ongeri’s closest friends from the region have launched a campaign on Facebook to help raise funds for his funeral expenses and support for his widow.

Ever the hard worker, Ongeri did not let the marginalization of North Eastern stand on the way of his professional progression. He created time to shuffle between Wajir and Nairobi to complete a degree in journalism at Daystar University. But the neglect of NEP unfortunately meant that even his employer did not fully appreciate his experience. He never attained full employment till his death, only serving on a monthly retainer, without medical cover or other benefits.

His will be buried on Friday June 24 at his father's home in Nyatieko, Kisii.

Additional reporting by John Onyando

The writer is a journalism student at the University of Nairobi and intern writer at the Kenya Free Press.

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