I was thinking of how to celebrate my birthday, when news of the Great Milestone broke. The “Nyaonic Man” had taken his final giant step into Ancestordom and eternity. Mzee Moi was one of the few African Presidents whose hands I had shaken. The moral of it, I suppose, is that, up close, these powerful and mighty leaders strike one as humans like us.
They may be grappling with historical, national and international problems but, deep within, they probably have the same needs as we have. They need to know, to experience, to learn, to feel and to share, maybe to love and be loved. It is, indeed, of these needs that opportunists, self-seekers and self-promoters take advantage to flatter, deceive, divert and even pervert otherwise decent people who find themselves in positions of power.
I give no expert opinion about Mzee Moi and the “Nyayo Era”, for the simple reason that I have no expertise to speak of. Moreover, 24 years was quite a long and challenging time for one man to be at the centre of a complex web of competing power interests, some radically ideological, some chauvinistically ethnic, some ravenously greedy and yet others diabolically megalomaniac, seeking self-glorification.
Trying to summarise this in a phrase or two of expert opinion would be presumptuous at best and, at worst, malicious. In any case, the wananchi, including those who benefited, those who suffered and those who stagnated during his rule, have led the way by letting Mzee Moi live out his retirement years in relative peace and dignity.
So, while the bouquets and barbs fly in almost equal measure, a useful exercise might for each of us to mention the few things that we knew about this many-sided man and leave it to impartial analysts to create a full picture of Moi, his times and his legacy.
My own mite’s worth of encounters with the elder were through my performing arts trade, and a few memories of these underline the impressions I hinted at earlier. Once when we had been adjudicating the Schools Drama Festival in Western Kenya, we escorted the winning teams to State House Nakuru to perform for the President.
One of the winning items was a powerful poem, “Mababa Sukari” (sugar daddies), by a young pupil from the Coast. I remember the quick hushed consultations among the adjudicators and the producers about the suitability of the poem for its august audience.
We let the young lady perform, with some strict instructions to her about how and where to gesticulate on her mkarara (refrain), which ran, “hawa mababa sukari ni watu wabaya sana” (these sugar daddies are really bad people). The girl performed marvellously, but most of our eyes were focused on the President’s face, to gauge his response. He was apparently impressed and even amused by the young performer’s ingenuous but firm denunciation of the malignant vice.
At KU, where the President was a frequent visitor, we had come to learn that one of Moi’s favourite hymns was “It Is Well with My Soul”. Our late choirmaster, George Senoga-Zake, and his assistants often managed to fit it into the repertoires of the shows that the elder attended.
At a cultural extravaganza that we staged at the then-Regent Hotel in the late 1990s, I remember Mzee Moi being visibly excited at a high-voltage tae kwon-do exhibition choreographed by my friend and then-junior colleague Tony Njuguna. Njuguna and his friend John Kiarie were to be the creators of the memorable politico-satirical “Redykyulass” TV series, which I understand the late President also enjoyed watching.
Satire, as you know, exploits contradictions, and maybe contradiction is one of the guides to the departed leader’s enigmatic personality and career. I might have sounded like a praise singer to Moi, so far. But I am not, and I do not want to be. I know that a lot of things went wrong and affected us during his rule. The people in academics did not have it easy in those days and the fate of colleagues and personal acquaintances, like Alamin Mazrui, Maina wa Kinyatti and others, was first-hand knowledge to me. A sense of fear and apprehension prevailed among a large section of the Kenyan academe, as I have mentioned elsewhere.
The question in my mind is: was it this avuncular man, who enjoyed a theatre or musical show, who loved children and promoted girl-child education, the same man who oversaw the hawkish system that detained, jailed and sent some of my colleagues into exile? Was he really in charge of it or was he, too, a hostage to it to a certain extent? In my abysmal ignorance, I can offer neither defence nor attack, neither praise nor blame.
About my birthday, it is just round the corner, on February 10. As you might note, I share the birthday with German playwright Bertolt Brecht, author of The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Good Person of Schezwan, and also the Russian Nobel Prize winner, Boris Pasternak, of Doctor Zhivago fame. That is not bad company, is it? As you read this, the champagne is on the ice, and the icing is setting on the cake. I am gearing up for a grand celebration of my 76th birthday.
Do you remember my promising you, and myself, that I will be winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2024? That is in four years’ time and I will be only 80, a sprightly, youthful octogenarian. I know, if you keep reading me, you will keep me writing and going, as you have done up to now.
I can best thank you by inviting you to be my Valentine.
It is the season, and I wish you the best of it. My take on love, as you know, is that, at its best, it is sincere and honest dialogue, communication and total respect. That is how and why the promoter of healthy, decent love, Bishop Valentine, is a Saint.
Happy Saint Valentine’s Day.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]