He now walks with considerable difficulty due to a bad hip, but his fighting spirit is relentless and continues to roar with his trademark laughter.
During the campaigns ahead of the March 4, 2013 poll, Jubilee Coalition leaders mocked him as a relic of the past, a subject of history books and a dinosaur fit for the museums. Deputy President William Ruto even compared him to ancient Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama.
But sharp-tongued William Ronkorua ole Ntimama responded in kind, saying he may be frail in body, but intellectually, his younger opponents could not hold a candle to him.
The ebullient 83-year-old Ntimama was this week at his most mellifluous when the Saturday Nation met him at his Lavington home, where, amid the chirping of birds and the whistling of the July breeze, he regaled these writers by reciting lines from such orators as Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King.
The octogenarian, who straddled the length and breadth of Maasailand for four decades — 15 years as chairman of the powerful Narok County Council and 25 years as MP and minister — was unrepentant on his utterances, some of which were the subject of the Akiwumi inquiry into tribal violence and which are blamed for the uprooting of hundreds of Kikuyus from the Rift Valley in 1991.
While some Kenyans see him as an indefatigable defender of the Maasai, there are those who regard him as an eloquent warmonger.
He gave a stinging assessment of former President Mwai Kibaki, a man under whom he served for 10 years. During his retirement, the old man, who has probably the largest home library in the country, hopes to put together his memoirs in which will capture his reflection on post-independence Kenyan politics — and the place of the Maasai.
Q: Maasai men, especially of your Ilnyangusi generation, pride themselves on marrying many wives. How come you have only one?
A: (Stanley) Oloitiptip had eight, (Lerionka) ole Ntutu had 12, (former Narok South MP Partasi ole) Nampaso and (Chief Samuel ole) Koriata had more or less the same number. Maybe I had many others out there myself. But seriously, what did not please me was the fight among the various houses that polygamy brought about.
Q: You are a voracious reader and you have the biggest home library in Kenya. How did you become a reader?
A: What many Kenyans may not know is that I am a self-taught man. I never saw the inside of a secondary school class. I joined the teaching profession after my elementary school certificate.
Then I embarked on my O-level certificate, which I read on my own. Then my headmaster told Carey Francis at Alliance: “There is a young Maasai boy who would like to have your school as a centre for his examinations.”
Carey was excited about it. During the exams, my desk mate was Kenneth Matiba. I passed to proceed for my A-level and two years later I was back at the school to study history, literature and religious studies. Matiba became a lifelong friend.
Q: So what is your education?
A: I acquired a diploma in Legal Studies from Oxford University, which I studied by correspondence. It is this situation as a self-taught student which made me a voracious reader. Being an independent student, you have to be very disciplined. I stopped pursuing higher education when politics and family came in.
Q: What kind of books do you stock?
A: All manner of books on history, literature and biographies of great people. I have been collecting these books whenever I travel to America and Europe. I am now donating them to Narok Library, which is the heritage I have left to my people. We built the library when I was the minister for Culture and Heritage.
Q: You have been busy. Do you find time to read even now at 85?
A: Well, I have slowed down a bit and I now read newspapers and one or two books. I read late into the night.
Q: Leaders of your age have been accused of going away with invaluable insight. Are you writing your memoirs?
My family and friends in Europe and America, who concur that my 40-year unbroken record in leadership, have advised me to record my life. I have not settled on writers. I am inviting you to write the book because you have access to vast information on me from your (Nation) library.
Q: Which leaders have most influenced you?
A: Martin Luther King, for leading the civil rights movement, and Abraham Lincoln, who emancipated the black man from slavery. This was the 1800s and a white American president declared support for the blacks.
More people died in the ensuing civil war between those supporting emancipation and those against it than in any other war. Perhaps my greatest hero is Winston Churchill. If it were not for his win in the war against (Adolf) Hitler, we would all be slaves now under Nazism.
I will never forget the statement he made in the House of Commons when he had just come to Parliament. He said of then Prime Minister Lloyd George: “Mr Speaker sir, honourable ladies and gentlemen, the heart of this man is full of surrender.
I don’t think this is the kind of man you need.” Lloyd George was voted out. The other is Mahatma Gandhi, who went to London in a shuka-like cloth and sandals during winter defending his country.
Q: You have in the past dismissed Ngugi wa Thiong’o, regarded by some as Kenya’s Chinua Achebe, while at the same time admiring Charles Mangua, known for his liberal use of profanity.
A: No, no, no. I only criticised Ngugi at the time because of some unrest in Limuru attributed to him. But as a writer he is great. So are Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Taban Lo Liyong’.
All these great writers have an association with Leeds University. And oh yes I like Charles Mangua kabisa.
Q: What are you reading now?
A: I am reading a little interesting book I picked in New York. It has this debate between Churchill and (Clement) Attlee. They are arguing whether India should be granted self-determination. Attlee is for the idea of decolonisation whereas Churchill asserts that the sun will never set on the British Empire.
Q: Being a fierce Maasai rights defender, you changed tune in the last election, presenting an image of a benevolent host who had let immigrants to settle and prosper in Narok. Why the change of heart?
A: Well, I still lost. I wanted to bring the people together. They still voted massively against me.
Q: But at 85, what was the wisdom of seeking re-election?
A: Honestly, this was the time I should have left the political scene. It was a mistake. Consensus in my family was for me not to stand, but my constituents filled this compound to ask me to stand one last time. I never wanted to retire in defeat. I had never lost an election.
Q: You were a pillar of the Nyayo regime accused of committing atrocities, perpetuating tribalism and corruption. Are there things you think Moi should have done differently?
A: Moi is a personal friend. I can pick this phone even now and he will tell me ‘come to Kabarak.’ He is very generous and kind. He can pay school fees for children from poor families and bare-foot women from Baringo could go to his house and eat with him.
If it were not for Moi, the Kalenjin would not have been educated. But as President, he did not want anybody to go ahead of him. This made him one of the worst dictators. He even detained me in 1983 for 102 days for alleged incitement.
Q: Despite your Kanu background, you are a fierce defender of Raila Odinga, who cut his political teeth fighting Moi. Like Paul of Tarsus who was converted on his way to Damascus, when did you see the light?
A: I had experienced the dangers of a dictatorship. I wanted freedom. Raila had suffered for all of us. That is why I decided to lend him support.
Q: Do you see him seizing the presidency in your lifetime?
A: You never know… Maybe he will never win… At least some of us would have loved to see him ascend to the presidency. He has not been lucky. Poor man.
Q: You guys waged a formidable campaign yet, you lost the election.
A: The TNA machinery was determined to finish Raila and all of us. We did not lose. They stole the election. There, are of course certain areas we should have done better, but we were winning.
Q: Cord today is out-marshalled and outmanoeuvred. There are those who think it is time Raila handed over the baton.
A: Maybe it is a small lull. They will wake up. But I don’t see anybody who can step into Raila’s shoes. The whole area is empty.
Q: Not even Kalonzo Musyoka?
A: Ha ha ha. Don’t antagonise me with my friends but that coward… he can’t even put his own house in order.
Q: Was it the antelope or the envelope?
A: Ha ha ha. Oh that incident. There were all these people all over Narok destroying our water catchments and I told them to lie low like an antelope. It was an antelope, but the press picked envelope and it became so popular I didn’t want to interfere. It remains envelope in the books of history.
Q: Do you regret the consequences?
A: No. I never regret when I say what I believe in. Sometimes I don’t get time to put it nicely but I don’t retract.
Q: What is the most memorable interaction you had with Moi?
A: Nothing specific really, but I can just tell you he never really caught on well with any Kikuyu leader, and he used me.
Q: Use is certainly a heavy word. What kind of use was it?
A: Well, he used me when I was happy to be used. He used me to shout at the Kikuyu to lie low.
Q: You served in the Kenyatta, Moi, Kibaki and the Grand Coalition government. Which one do you consider to have been most inclined to public service?
A: The coalition government. This, we achieved, not because of, but in spite of, Kibaki. Huyo mtu ako na roho nyeusi kabisa (that man is very selfish). He has few friends and he was a silent dictator. He had no interaction with Cabinet ministers.
He is a self-seeker and out of touch with the common man. Take the quarrel over his office space. He has big houses in Othaya and Muthaiga and we have built him another in Mweiga.
But still he has not found it fit to advise against such waste and recommend the money be spent in worthy causes. Even Kenyatta may not have been like Moi in the heart, but he at least he would welcome women to sing for him even if they may not have eaten with him.
Q: You had this on-and-off friendship with George Saitoti. What are the recollections of the man who was a challenger to your position as ‘king’ of the Maasai?
Saitoti was very afraid of me. But he was also a hypocrite and a coward. He made so much money from this Goldenberg thing that virtually half of Lavington belongs to him.
I saw his mausoleum and it is more glamorous than Kenyatta’s. He left colossal amounts of money. He did some things with Moi, but Moi refused to endorse him completely when it came to the matter of succeeding him. Moi said that the man could not lead.
Q: Was Moi a good judge of character?
A: Not really. I think it was just his whims of like and dislike.
Q: The UhuRuto administration is marking its first 100 days. What is your rating of their performance so far?
A: They have not done anything to earn any marks from me yet. However, Uhuru Kenyatta handling the drug issue and good deeds must be appreciated. But there are also issues like (Deputy President William) Ruto asking for Sh100 million to furnish his official house, which has already gobbled Sh400 million.
Q: You have insisted that historical wrongs dating back to the Anglo-Maasai agreements of 1904 and 1911, which shrank Maasailand by more than two thirds, be righted. How is feasible is it to return all these lands?
A: The so-called agreements were fake as there is no mention of an interpreter. We might not have lost as many lives as those lost during the Mau Mau but we lost a million acres of land and people. We still have it in our hearts. What my friend Paul Muite has started with the Mau Mau has borne fruit with the impending compensation. It can be done with our case.
Q: A son of the Iltaarosero clan, you have fashioned yourself as a champion of Maasai rights. What do you consider the fruit of your crusade?
A: On returning land, we have achieved almost nothing. But we have ensured young people of your generation know they were robbed. They are now conscious of their rights and could fight for a restoration of their lost heritage.
Q: But there are those who say that you are Meru.
There was a time when this country was focusing on me and they asked: “Why do you fight the Kikuyu yet you are one of them?” I said I am not, then they said: “but your wife is said to be Kikuyu.”
I said she is not. That is when they started “we hear you are Meru. Do you have Meru blood?” Like the envelope incident I did not deny it. The truth is that in the course of our migration from Laikipia, I was almost born in Meru as my mother was heavy with me. But, as fate would have it, she dropped me in Narok.
Q: As a young Maasai man, did you kill a lion? How many head of cattle did you bring home from raids?
A: No, no, I didn’t do those things because I went to school. The chief moran would not have allowed it. Well, during the holidays, I would join in the Moran activities.
Q: A defender of the Maasai who did not bring home any cattle?
But I protected their cows for all these years. There are now loud cries from there (Narok).
Q: The Maasai have been celebrated all over the world as the authentic face of Kenya. Some have, however, decried the commoditisation of the Maasai moran as dehumanising. What is the place of Maasai culture in modern Kenya?
A: The Maasai and the lion are the face of Kenya abroad and there is nothing wrong in morans jumping up and down (for tourists). The importance of culture cannot be gainsaid.
Q: Why then do you support female circumcision?
A: I have never uttered a single statement in support of female circumcision. What I don’t like is the harassment of old men and women who carry out the practice. Eradicating it should be done in a more humane manner. The whole thing has been turned into a multi-million industry where people purporting to fight it are collecting money from America.
Q: You are certainly a wealthy man with some claiming you own half of Narok Town, yet you bear the face of an ordinary Maasai.
A: I am not wealthy. I have only enough to eat and something more so they may not ask me what I have done all these years. I have only 200 head of cattle and about 600 sheep and goats.
Q: How do you spend your time now?
I look after cattle, like other Maasai, as well as lend my voice to causes which require my leadership on the community’s front. I also visit with my age mates like John Keen, another firebrand with no brakes.
Q: The settlement of the Mau Forest has been blamed for the declining water levels in the outlying areas and you have been on the forefront advocating its rehabilitation. Yet as chairman of the Narok County Council in the 1970s and 80s, you were instrumental in carving out the land to people including to Moi.
That is not true. I never gave out the water towers. I still believe that if we don’t protect our water towers, we will be in big trouble.
Q: You seem keen to hoist womenfolk in your household. Where are the Ntimama boys?
A: I don’t know, you ask them. But I think like in any other family sometimes girls overshadow the boys.