Rough journey to the media spotlight

Saturday September 11 2010

Government spokesman Dr Alfred Mutua. Photo/Elvis Ogina

Government spokesman Dr Alfred Mutua. Photo/Elvis Ogina 

By DANIEL WESANGULA, [email protected]

When he awoke on the morning of August 22, 1978, little Alfred was in dreamland. It was his birthday, and it looked like it was going to be a good day. He wasn’t expecting a flashy or expensive present, but he knew something would be different.

During the course of the day, the mood in his neighbourhood went from excitement to fear. Alfred Mutua’s birthday was soon eclipsed by an event of far greater significance — the announcement of the death of President Jomo Kenyatta.

“All I remember was the fear in people’s eyes. We locked ourselves in our houses. No one dared go out,” he said.

If by some strange twist of fate he had been occupying the office 32 years ago in which he now sits, the burden of breaking the news to Kenyans in an emergency broadcast from the Voice of Kenya studios would sit squarely on his shoulders. Part of the job description of the government spokesman involves serving as a link between government and the public.

Likes talking

Even away from the glare of the media, Dr Mutua is not a man who keeps to himself. He likes talking. He calls it his gift, one that has resulted in some unflattering remarks about him in the past.

“The only people I owe are Kenyans, because I am here for a purpose, and the purpose is to serve them,” he said, leaning back in his chair.

On a hot Saturday afternoon, his choice of wardrobe deviates from the picture of a suited, animated slightly slender man who presents himself once a week on national television to communicate the government’s stand on various issues.

He is wearing a blue and white striped shirt, a matching pair of jeans and brown leather shoes. Today he has chosen not to wear socks.

As he leans back further in the chair, casually nodding to strangers acknowledging his presence and occasionally referring to others as ndugu, it is easy to assume he is a man who has had it easy all his life.

“I got to where I am through hard work,” he insisted. When he closes his eyes and thinks back, two things stand out from his childhood; a filthy pit latrine and the joys Idd-Ul-Fitr brought into their world in the form of feasts put on by generous Muslim neighbours.

Now, each morning a government car is waiting for him, and a media empire awaits his instructions.

“I never asked anyone to lobby for me. I am certain there are people out there better at this job than I am, but the opportunity happened to come my way,” he said.

One day when he was sitting in his associate professor’s office at Zayed University in Dubai, the phone rang.

“Are you Alfred Mutua,” the caller asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

“You have been head-hunted for a position in the Kenyan civil service. Can you send us your credentials?” the caller continued.

With nothing to lose the 32-year-old sent his CV, then forgot about the whole thing.

At the time, he was lecturing at the university as well as consulting for a Kenyan TV station that had just embarked on re-branding so he split his time between Dubai and Nairobi.

After a couple of months he got another call informing him that he had been short-listed for the position of government spokesman.

His CV listed employment in media and the communications industry in Nairobi, Australia, and the United States as well as experience as a documentary filmmaker in the deserts of Dubai.

But he said none of this would have been possible if he had not made a road trip from Nairobi to Harare.

In December 1999, Mutua was in Australia, dying for a trip home, but he didn’t have the money to buy a return ticket from Sydney to Nairobi.

So he came up with a plan and bought a one-way ticket to Nairobi, and booked return from Harare to Sydney. It was the cheaper option, but he still had to get from Nairobi to Harare.

So one morning he hopped onto a bus to Dar-es-Salaam, then took the TAZARA railway into Zambia. But he was delayed for several hours for filming a Zambian border town with a borrowed camera and ended up spending the night in Zambian police cells.

After paying some rands, the following day he proceeded to the capital, Lusaka, where in between buses, he and fellow travellers decided to unwind as they waited for the next stage of the journey.

So they went to a bar to relax but a fight broke out. One patron was stabbed, Mutua was mugged. In the midst of the melee, the bus left for Livingstone, Zimbabwe without him.

A fellow traveller offered him some money, but the only available means of transport was an already full matatu. But he had a plane and opted to perch on a wooden stool between the seats for the two-hour trip to Harare.

“The journey could have taken much less time, but since it was New Year’s Eve, the matatu driver stopped at every shopping centre for a drink,” he said.

He barely made the flight, but he managed to capture the entire journey on tape and later showed it at an Australian university. He called it one of the best decisions he ever made.

Radio show

A radio producer in the audience saw the tape and invited him to be on a radio show. Later, the US news programme Dateline also showed interest in the documentary and hired him as a foreign correspondent; all the while he was lecturing, covering the 2000 Sydney Olympics, writing a newspaper column and completing his doctorate.

For as long as he can remember, the man who was once a Sunday school teacher said he always has more than one thing on his mind. In 2004 he revived Golden Dreams, a company he and a friend had set up in 1997.

Its main aim was to be a showcase for their writing and publishing ambitions. They managed to churn out several issues of a Christian newsletter called Golden Times before going under.

Enter Cobra Squad, his detective series that spawned numerous offspring that have found homes on different TV stations.

He had already met one of the goals he had set when registering the company; he wasn’t yet certain about the other.

But earlier this year an opportunity presented itself when True Love magazine closed. Three weeks later Passion magazine was on the newsstands.
After the positive response he got from writing a finance column in Passion, he decided to do a motivational book — How To Be Rich in Africa and Other Secrets of Survival — that was launched last week. But where does his family fit in between his government spokesman job and his position as Golden Dreams CEO?

“At the centre of my universe,” he said. “I spend Sundays with them and make sure I am present at breakfast and dinner with them every day.”
Is his success in the business world attributable to his position as government mouthpiece?

“Maybe, maybe not,” he said. “But I am sure I deserve whatever life has offered me. I work harder than the average guy,” he says.

What would he do if he woke up one day and discovered that everything he had worked for had disappeared?

“Life has a funny way of balancing itself. I would simply live like a bird with no worry of tomorrow because God has a plan for each of us,” he said.
Although he is quite the optimist, he admits to having had moments that have severely dented his joyous outlook on life.

Top among them was the 2007 post-election violence.

“There are times wher