Myth intersects with reality as Omieri, Kenya’s mystical python, is celebrated on its return

African myths and folktales have long been used to pass across messages of hope, justice, and good morals from one generation to the next, and it is not uncommon to find that animals take center stage in majority of these stories. However, the Luo community of the Kisumu county in Nairobi, who traditionally valued pythons as bearers of good fortune, have one of such myths founded in reality.

According to ancient Luo folklore, a massive 16ft python was sighted brooding over her eggs in Wasare village, Nyakach near a woman’s home, after which it was fed goats and chicken until the villagers developed an interest in the python. It was believed the snake, which lived in Lake Victoria, appeared on land in times of drought to summon the rains and bring good luck to the community.

People came from far and wide to see the snake which had earned a reputation, including international tourists. In 1987, however, in a bid to show visitors its whereabouts at night, a villager burnt the grass surrounding the snake from which it sustained injuries and was transferred to the animal orphanage in Nairobi for treatment and recovery. Nyakach people declared 3 days of mourning after its death two years later.

In his 2008 book, Bewitching Development: Witchcraft and the Reinvention of Development in Neoliberal Kenya, American historian, James Howard Smith, notes that the Luo believe the python is a reincarnation of a woman named Omieri “who now returns as a serpent, bringing fertility to communities and to individual women to whom she appears.”

The revered python of the Luo community was a national sensation, even going on to be debated in Parliament, and when it died, a condolence book was opened at the Kaloleni Social Hall and the Kisumu National Museum.

Omieri at the Kenya National Museum’s Snake Park. She has been immersed in a liquid composed of 70% methanol for preservation. Photo: Hivisasa

The non-venomous African rock python Omieri may be long dead, but it still holds legendary status among the residents of Nyakach. And now, almost thirty years after its death made newspaper headlines, the legendary python is back in the limelight, amid excitement at its former home in Kisumu County. The python is once again the subject of discussion as the government plans to return its remains to Kisumu, according to Standard Digital Kenya.

Next month, residents will have a chance to view the remains of the giant snake which is set to make a return to the region when the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) transports it to Kisumu for a five-day cultural event. According to the Director General of NMK, the snake will be brought to Kisumu for viewing during a cultural festival organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) bringing together 47 counties. Currently, the remains of the legendary snake are kept in a cubic glass tank filled with industrial methylated alcohol at the National Museum in Nairobi.

Whether there is evidence to whether Omieri really brings good luck is not known, but as attractions for the snake increased, tax free income from those who came to see the snake brought a small fortune to the community which improved the living conditions of those in the immediate environment while also preserving what was believed to be among the very rare reptiles along the shores of Lake Victoria to grow to the size of 58kgs.

Many African nations have had traditional beliefs and folklores totally expunged by imported religions, but even an Anglican bishop who disagreed with the locals’ perception of the snake as he believed that biblically, a snake is demonic, faced enormous resistance from the people of the Luo community.

“A lot of miracles used to happen whenever Omieri appeared and our people never went hungry whenever it appeared,” said Nyandiko Ongadi, one of the elders of the Luo Council of Elders to Standard Media. “Since Omieri died, we have never seen such a miracle, its return is a blessing even though it is dead,” he added.