Demystifying “Gonya”, “Konya” Concept and How to Address It.

Image by mpasho Kenya  on their blog {link to}.

Ever since former US President Barrack Obama returned to Kenya, mainstream media in the country has spent been a lot of space and time analyzing a now-famous phrase used by Dr. Auma Obama during the inauguration of the Sauti Kuu Foundation in Siaya County. The phrase in question was “Gonya Gonya” and “Konya Konya”. As a young Luo man from Kisumu county, with some knowledge of Dholuo and an understanding of Luo culture, here is my opinion about the use of this phrase that seemed to have irked a good lot of the Luo folk.

Foremost, we belong to the side of the argument that agree with Dr. Auma. However, the contextualization of her statement and the conceptualization of her acronyms has been shrouded by lots of factual errors. Having cleared the air that these concepts exist; it could be justified that we begin by defining the concepts.

Gonya is a Luo verb which means “untie me” (literally). It is used to refer to tethered animals who cannot graze freely in the land due to the food crops surrounding their pastures. The verb could also be used to refer to ploughing bulls that have a yoke harnessed around their necks. Gonya is used as an adverb to express the kind of slavery or helplessness an individual is in. When a youth or a Luo of any age tells you “gonya”, what the individual implies is “get me out of this situation”. From the analogy of the tethered cow or the harnessed bull, an individual “ma’ ‘otwe” is one who has been grounded. One whose only solution is “gonya” – untie me! However, the term has morphed to mean “give me a hand out”.

Konya” on the other hand means “help me”. Help is often given to an individual making an effort to solve the issue at hand, but whose ability is limited due to either lack of resources or inability to access the said resources. The Luo people have a euphemism that goes – “Jaluo oksechi” (used to mean – a Luo never begs). Despite the fact that this statement could be misconstrued as pride, it is based on an elevated self-esteem (fighting your way till you find the solution) that is a peculiar character of most Luos. Because “a Luo never begs”, the use of the term Konya is rare and could be considered a sign of helplessness. To avoid hurting their ego, young people often settle for the term “gonya” to simply mean, help me in my current situation (either my next meal, to purchase alcohol or cigarette to wash away my frustration).

Therefore, the question that begs is; how did many young Luos in both the villages and towns get into this situation? The answer to this question has to be contextualized historically. Most Luos prided themselves as professionals. There was a skill that an individual had to possess to boost his (her) self-esteem (“nyadhi”) and provide for his household. This could either be as a tailor for the Asians or colonialists, as a mason, carpenter, cobbler and so on.  With the rise of formal employment came a lot of pride attributed to being a clerk, a secretary, an office messenger amongst other low cadre white collar jobs. As a majority of the Luos acquired formal education, their skill sets graduated to enable them become teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers et cetera. That is why the cliché phrase “majority of the professors are Luos” could easily sell.

However, all these achievements took a nose dive when the economy of the greater Luo land began getting a beating with the death of industries and other economic stimulants that the typical Luo will attribute to bad politics. This also went in tandem with the dwindling academic performance of some of the hallmarks of education in Luo land – the “old” big secondary schools like St. Mary’s Yala, Maranda, Maseno, Rapogi, Ng’iya, Lwak, Kisumu Boys and Kisumu Girls. With their dwindling economic fortunes, majority of the parents could not afford to pay for the education of their children to these and other prestigious schools. This meant that many of the growing young boys and girls could not benefit from the good quality education these schools offered.

Secondly, the Luo land adjudication policy that encourages “goyo dala” (building a new home for the sons) further ate into the limited arable land that was available. Majority of the land was so fragmented or sold out of poverty, to an extent that it interfered with the traditional mechanisms for ensuring that food security.

Third, was the poor healthcare associated with infectious diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, waterborne diseases amongst others. This led to a widespread death of many breadwinners in the homesteads and exacerbated poverty in the region.

What I am trying to say is that, the concept of “gonya” is more deeply rooted and systemic phenomenon than a behavioural attribute in the rural areas of Luoland to be frowned upon as may have been portrayed in Dr Auma Obama’s address It is a clear evidence of despair and helplessness that an individual doesn’t know what to do to make a decent livelihood. It should not be laughed about, rather it should be solved by addressing the root causes. Commanding young semi-skilled youth to “just go look for work” when that opportunities are limited may sound a tad bit too condescending and rude – which may have been the message that many got from Dr Auma’s speech.

How do we move from here? Foremost, to achieve growth and sustainably ‘untie’ a Luo youth, economic empowerment programs should be given the same seriousness as the previously held campaigns on health promotions and disease prevention for infectious diseases and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) initiatives in Luo land.

These economic empowerment models have worked in Central and Rift Valley regions of Kenya through groups such as USAID funded Land O’ Lakes amongst other development partners. The county and national governments should set aside skills training, working scholarships and bursary programmes to adequately pay for the education of the young people. This will not only impart the youth skills but also empower them to think differently. Also, there ought to be in place a well-established revolving fund and a working credit system which properly filters beneficiaries based on their skills and abilities to allow them to grow. Lastly, the locals should avoid only investing dead capital (as referred to by Prof. Bitange Ndemo) but create income generating activities back in the villages.

When these and other initiatives set up by both governmental and non-profits (such as Sauti Kuu Foundation) are made to work, we may soon forget “Gonya Gonya” or “Konya Konya” and proceed to being the helpers of the greater society.

By Gerald Omondi.

Biomedical Scientist based in Eldoret, Kenya.

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