If you know someone like I have known Mary Onyango, your mind gets clogged when you want to talk about her. Words literally get stuck in your mouth. You experience rare mental block
I first met Mary way back in Kisumu over three decades ago at Kisumu Girls High School. I was then a young graduate teacher newly posted to the town I had grown in. Mary was teaching in the same school as a fresh Form Six graduate waiting to join the University of Nairobi later in the year.
What struck me about Ted was her love for life, maturity and her hearty laughter. She was always a party girl who made sure every moment was a celebration.
A few years later, I was again to meet Ted at the University of Nairobi when she had graduated in economics. Despite her chosen discipline, she somehow relished in the performing Arts. In fact it was impossible to imagine that Ted and the late Stella Awinja Muka were not literature students. At that time, it was not easy to find any actress more prolific on stage than Ted and Stella.
I got to work very closely with Ted on stage when I directed her in the Miaha play in 1981. The play was written by novelist Grace Ogot and Asaneth Odaga.
Since the play was in Luo, it was almost impossible to get lead characters that had the command of the Luo language.
I was lucky to have Ted Onyango as the lead character in Miaha. The other thriller on stage was Dr. Penina Ochola- Nyar Kwang'a then of AMREF who acted the role of Mother in Law.
Support actors included Stella Awinja Muka, Val Mosley from the USA, Njeri Luseno from the University of Nairobi and Achieng’ Nyong’o among other actors from the university campus.
When Ted got the script, her mastery and interpretation of Luo idioms and proverbs was superb.
Under the guidance of the late Prof. John Ruganda of Uganda and David Rubadiri of Malawi, Mary’s humility to take criticism from non Luo speakers was humbling.
As the lead actress, she galvanized the rest of the non-Luo speaking cast around the storyline; at times interpreting proverbs and idioms with a lot of ease.
With Prof. Bethuel Ogot at our side to explain the deeper meaning of the story and the authors available to help the actors get the hidden meanings of multiple phrases, Ted took it upon herself to get the entire cast to eternalize the play.
When finally the doors were open at University Theatre for the premier show, we were shocked to have as our guests the renowned American Actress, Cicely Tyson accompanied by the then Foreign Affairs Minister, Dr. Robert Ouko and several American Marines in the audience.
On that night, the cast acted their hearts out led by Mary Onyango. By that time she had accepted her stage name; Nyawir Nyar Opollo- Nyawir the daughter of Opollo.
When it was all over, Cicely Tyson insisted on going back stage to shake the hands of Nyawir Nyar Opollo because in her words, she had never seen such a powerful actress in her life right in the middle of Africa acting in the language she never knew yet she understood the whole story without an interpreter.
This play became a national sensation drawing capacity crowds in Nairobi, Kisumu and Nyanza regions. It was one full month of packed crowds yet Mary the lead character never complained of fatigue.
Later, I was to again reconnect with Mary during the constitution debate in 2010 when she was already a Commissioner with the NCIC. Being active in analyzing the events leading up to the referendum, we were constantly in touch on phone or attending numerous meetings together.
At that time she had been ailing for close to ten years yet in our meetings in Nairobi, Mombasa and other towns, Ted’s uncontrolled laughter and love for life was all intact.
From then on whenever we met we would always laugh about Miaha and she would insist that I call her Nyawir Nyar Opollo. It is the name I called her to her last moments.
I remember her telling me about her condition back in 2010 before I knew I had cancer; that she would live her life until she dropped dead; that her condition would not force her to slow down.
In 2011 when it was my turn to suffer a cancer attack, Mary was one of the first people to tell me not to worry. She assured me that cancer was manageable and that she had lived with it for a decade.
Three weeks before she passed on, she called me after visiting another friend, David Nalo at Nairobi Hospital. When she came out she called me and had a long laugh about what David Nalo had told her about my last visit to him. At that time, she asked me that we should be calling each other more often and talking just to laugh because we had come a long way.
When finally the curtains closed on Ted last Saturday, I was stunned just like all other Kenyans whose lives shed had touched.
Rest in peace Nyawir Nyar Opollo! You fought the good fight and won many battles.