Fred Mwango was the Kiambu District Commissioner. In those days, a DC was a tin-god clad in iron armour. We knew them by name, unlike today when we hardly know the names of the people who replaced them and were given title of ‘Sub-county Commissioner’, but whose shine and status faded with the coming of a species known as governors.
Fred Mwango was among the toughest. I first met him when he was the acting DC of Laikipia District. I was in Form Four at Nanyuki Boys High School and he had come because the students had gone on strike.
It was in 1984 – oops, the Orwellian year – when Kenya and the Horn of Africa were hit by a severe drought that killed more than coronavirus has so far. In Ethiopia, thousands were dying by the day, until world-renowned Kenyan photojournalist Mohamed Amin filmed the tragedy and shamed the world into action. I retain the gramophone recording of the song We are the World, a collabo named ‘US for Africa’, and fronted by Harry Belafonte, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. It drew attention that raised top dollar to salvage the situation for our northern neighbour.
In Kenya, as food prices surged, learning institutions either raised fees or put in place austerity measures. In my school, they chose to cut our rations of bread, meat and rice.
The boys didn’t take it kindly. Early one morning, the students decided to boycott classes and the dining hall. The drama began at the morning parade where, after the roll call and brief remarks, the headmaster, a hefty man called Kenneth Rombosia (we had nicknamed him Bull-dossier), said, as he was wont to, “Parade dismissed and we proceed to classes.”
Nobody moved. Then followed shouts of “No bread, no meat, no classes!”
Wisely, the headmaster called for calm and applied a divide-and-rule tactic. He asked the Advanced (A) Level students to go to class. The A-level students in every school were the mature lot, and were not expected to be caught up in juvenile acts of the Ordinary (O) levels, who they derisively called the Zero (O) levels.
Then he came to the Form Fours. It was a major test for me. I was chairman of the Christian Union (CU). Though Nanyuki High was notorious for strikes, it was a tradition that the CU boys would never be part of. But it always took a strong boy to lead from the front. When the moment came, I knew all eyes were on me – as was my conscience. I walked to class. All CU Form Fours followed. When Form Threes, Twos and Ones were called, all CU members did as they saw their chairman do.
A small digression: It wasn’t that CU students were betrayers or cowards. We believed that the best way to solve problems was to talk with, not to, one another.
Back to the story of the tough DC. Mwango came to our school at about 10am, accompanied by the district police commander (in those days they were called OCPDs – officers commanding police divisions). They wore jungle uniform and berets – a signal that they had come for war.
We were all ordered to go to the dining hall, where the DC would address us. He marched right in and when the headmaster tried to make opening remarks, Mwango cut him short.
“Boys,” the DC thundered, “it is early morning and I can’t afford to waste much time here. I am ordering that you go back to class right away. Whatever grievances you have, give them to the school prefects (he asked them to stand up). They will communicate them to the headmaster. I hereby order him to let me have them by 10 o’clock tomorrow.”
Then he read the riot act as he marched out: “That is what must happen. Do as I have ordered or pack up and be out of the school compound in the next 30 minutes.”
He looked at the OCPD, who promptly saluted as he received his orders: “Bwana OCPD, make sure any student who disobeys my order is out this place in half an hour.”
He then marched out. No student dared disobey. The strike died.
You should know people, that is what former deputy chief justice Nancy Baraza once told us.
So, in the days of Fred Mwango, DCs also decided who won or lost elections. DCs were the election returning officers. Their orders came from State House, irrespective of the outcome at the ballot box!
My next encounter with the tough DC was during the (in) famous Mlolongo (queue) voting of 1988. At the time I was a Nation correspondent in Nyahururu. That year, President Daniel arap Moi had decided to do away with the “nonsense” of ballot boxes where a candidate wasn’t wanted. There would be a mchujo (preliminary) voting through queuing, to sort out unwanted characters.
In Nyandarua, the tough DC had instructions to make sure that the then MP for Nyandarua South Constituency, Kimani wa Nyoike, didn’t make it back to Parliament.
The DC, apart from being the district returning officer, appointed himself the presiding officer in Nyandarua South. We, journalists, kept to his trail, as we knew that was where the action – and hence the big story – would come from. At every polling station, he had police disrupt queues, make a quick “count” and give him the “results”. The candidate with the shortest queue was declared winner. It was mathematics using the Nyayo formula!
It happened on the third Sunday of January 1990. The furore it raised remained in the headlines for rest of the year. The tough DC had convened a meeting to resolve a leadership crisis at a church near Ruiru town. He began by calling church elders to come forward and make their remarks before “he gave his orders”.
The first one to come forward was one Joseph Mwaura, a man with a well kept, long beard .
Once the goatee-man said that besides being church elder, he also was a school headmaster, the tough DC jumped from his seat and cut him short.
“You say you are a school headmaster and you keep that kind of a beard? Have you read the civil servants’ code of conduct? It prohibits your kind of dirty beard. You will shave it right here!”
There and then, Mwango ordered one of his bodyguards to go purchase a razor blade as two others pushed the school head to a corner. A razor blade was brought and the school head was shaved without water, soap, or mirror!
The teachers union, Knut, took the matter to court. The teachers’ employer and the Attorney-General put up a defence. After a back and forth, the matter “disappeared” . The tough DC was promoted to a Deputy Secretary and “hidden” in Nairobi, until he retired to his rural home in Rongo, Migori County, where he still lives.
A few years ago, I was seated with a colleague at a hotel in Kisumu City – but do I say! – when he pointed out a smartly dressed man chatting over lunch with friends. He asked me if I remembered who the old man was.
I looked and – for all the fish in Lake Victoria – I could not tell who he was. He told me it was the once tough DC Fred Mwango.
That raised journalistic adrenalin in me and I decided to hang around until the retired DC and his companions were about to leave.
I would walk up to him and ask for an interview. Journalists in pursuit of a story are like cows on heat: they can’t wait.
When I introduced myself and told him it would be good to write on his reflections as a retired senior officer and senior citizen, the old man told me he would think about it and get back to me. I gave him my telephone contact. But I made sure to give him the last laugh: I told him once he gave me the appointment, I would remember to come clean-shaven. He walked away laughing.
I am still waiting for his call.