BY THE BOOK: Jagi Gakunju - Daily Nation

BY THE BOOK: Jagi Gakunju

Wednesday January 10 2018

Jagi Gakunju’s autobiography Living on the Edge is out. PHOTO| COURTESY

Jagi Gakunju’s autobiography Living on the Edge is out. PHOTO| COURTESY 

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Jagi Gakunju’s autobiography LivingontheEdge tells his life story from growing up in a concentration camp during the emergency, to schooling in different parts of the country and becoming a successful businessman and ornithologist.

Jagi, who has climbed Mt Kenya 14 times, was the founding chairman of the Uvambuzi club, an organisation devoted to discovering the wild places of Africa.

He also started the Wajee Nature Park where about 120 species of birds have been recorded.

He spoke his new book, researching to write a non-fiction book, numerous travels and tribalism in Kenya.

Your autobiography ‘Living on the Edge’ is finally out. Why did you find it necessary to share your life story with the world?

The main catalyst in writing the book was from my son BG. Whenever we went camping and for other outdoor activities, he always wanted me to tell him and his friends about my past adventures. His urge gave me the impression that may be, by writing the book, the book would become a tool to motivate especially the young people to become adventurous.

Having lived in a concentration camp during the emergency and witnessed your relatives arrested, do you feel like Kenya has achieved whatever she was fighting for before independence? Was that bloodshed worth it?

Fighting for independence was a natural reaction to oppression. We have examples all over the world.

Fight against slavery, Civil Rights in America, fight against apartheid, fight against dictatorial regimes in Africa and elsewhere, etc.

You can’t subjugate a section of human beings for ever. Unfortunately, the people who gain most from a revolutionary process are those that finish the process not those who started it. The main beneficiaries of the Mau Mau war were those that were on the oppressor’s side.


You seem to have made and maintained many friends from other tribes whom you met as a student in Tambach and Kapsabet. Where do you think we are failing in terms of creation of national cohesion? Why such deep tribalism? 

If you look at couples that have an inter-tribal, inter-racial marriage, you will find that such a phenomenon is supported by the fact that those people grew in an environment where those communities were interacting.

One does not become a victim of toxic stereotype narratives that are spread around about other people.

I grew up in an environment where people came from different communities and I never for once picked up a narrative that indicated that there was a difference between me and a person who was a friend.

I heard about these negative narratives as a grown up and it was too late to change my internal chemistry. My childhood friends have remained my dearest friends to date.

To demystify the divisions that exist in Kenya, I wish we could ensure that all high school students attend schools outside their respective community enclaves.

That is what Nyerere did in Tanzania. To me, Nyerere on this aspect alone deserved a Nobel Prize. I understand CS Matiang’i has started this process of sending children outside their “tribal enclaves”. If this is true, it needs commendation and support. That is the way to build a Nation. The second aspect is to have a National language and give that language prominence. Not English. A national language. Swahili is that language. Swahili in my view has not been given the place it deserves as a Nation building tool.


One of the things I enjoyed most about your book was that you thoroughly researched into the history of the Agikuyu and that of Kenya. I found myself marvelling at a lot of the little-known facts interspersed in your book. Could you tell us about the research and writing process?

If you want what you are communicating to be respected, ensure what you say is supported by facts. Our peoples’ history, and here I mean our African communities, is mainly oral. We need to move it to the level of capturing those stories in written format.

Unfortunately, our stories are told by foreigners because for long, they have developed a culture of writing down their experiences.

I find most African Universities and educational institutions lacking in the area of research, yet there is so much information out there that we can convert into books.

Unfortunately, most of our older generations are going to their graves with incredible stories. That is why some people quip that, the best untold stories about the African past, are hidden in the African graveyards and cemeteries.

I want to do “my little thing”, as Wangari Maathai asked each of us to do. I want to capture as much as I can about our past and share it with others. Information that is not shared is useless.



In your memoir you say that you have climbed Mt Kenya 14 times, how was the experience and why 14times?

The first time I climbed Mt Kenya was after my Outward Bound School where in attempting to climb Mt Kilimanjaro, we only reached Gilman’s point in April 1968 at around 19 years of age. I was totally fascinated by the serene beauty of Mt Kilimanjaro.

Later, I wondered why I should not try Mt Kenya. As I narrated to my friends about the beauty of the two mountains that was made clearer by the photos I had taken, many of my friends requested me to take them up the mountain.

Since I believed I did not have enough words to explain the beauty, the utter calmness at the peak of these mountains, it became easy to keep on taking different groups of people up the mountain. Once the threat of global warming became clear predicting that the African mountains would lose their permanent ice-caps, it became urgent for me to take more people to see this disappearing beauty. That is partly why I took my sons up Mt Kenya when they were only 11.

You seem to be consumed with wanderlust. And you started at a really you age when you defied your parents and ran away to see the source of the Nile in Jinja, Uganda. Is travelling important especially to those Kenyans who do not have enough money to go on expensive vacations?

I can’t pinpoint where the travel bug bit me. It could have been from my father telling us about his travels to Nyasaland during the First World War or his role as a Chaplain-cum-soldier in India and Burma during the Second World War.

It could have been due to interactions with youthful Peace Corps teachers in Kapsabet and later Strathmore College. My guardian Kahiu Waithaka, who spent most of his working time in government outside Central Kenya, could have been another influence.

Whatever the cause of the urge to travel came from, what I have learnt through my travel has been the most cherished “degree” I have acquired in my short life.

I have friends I correspond with in all countries I have travelled to. Some of them have made visits to Kenya and continue to do so.

Travel need not be expensive if you plan. Africans, especially, have a weakness in planning and act on impulse. We need to up our gear if we have to achieve this “degree” that has no alternatives.

If you were sent off to Robben Island for a year, which three books would you take with you?

Wow!Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, Wangari Maathai’s, Unbowed, Peter Godwin’s Mukiwa.

What are your favourite 2017 reads and why?

No God but God byReza Aslan. This book has given me a better appreciation of Islam. Beyond Expectations by Njenga Karume.

It is a local book that shows that you can become wealthy without being corrupt. Looting Machine by Tom Burgis: It gives one chilling picture of the way African wealth keeps being looted with the help of local Africans in high positions who portray an image of “caring leaders to their citizenry.

The Hunt For Kimathi: Ian Henderson with Phillip Goodhart. I wanted to find out who betrayed Dedan Kimathi as implied in the book, History of The Hanged by David Anderson.


Which is the most interesting destination you have travelled to and why?

This is a tough one. In regard to Mountains, I love Mt Kenya. Mt Kenya especially the Chogoria route has no equals.

In regard to countries, I choose Denmark because all cities have catered for all road users by including bicycle paths and walkways around the country.

As for the  most fascinating and unique National Parks, Ngorongoro and the Okavango Delta take the cake. The most beautiful lake is definitely Lake Turkana as you approach it from South Horr towards Loyangalani. Switzerland is also one of my favourite countries because of the contrasts of the mountains and the vineyards down the valleys.