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The half-truths biographers tell

Friday June 27 2014

The Autobiography of Geoffrey W. Griffin: Kenya's Champion Beggar as narrated to Yusuf King'ala. PHOTO/NATION

The Autobiography of Geoffrey W. Griffin: Kenya's Champion Beggar as narrated to Yusuf King'ala. PHOTO/NATION 

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Events in Lamu County last week forced me to revisit The Autobiography of Geoffrey W. Griffin: Kenya’s Champion Beggar as narrated to Yusuf King’ala.

I first read it in 2008, in the wake of post-election violence. Griffin’s revelation of the colonial roots of our intermittent practice of burning homesteads to drive “undesirable” communities out of select lands intrigued me.

In Griffin’s own words, “throughout the Central Province, people’s huts, churches and schools were burnt and whole villages razed to the ground by the Mzungu… People were traumatised by being uprooted from their villages and squeezed into new and strange environments with no privacy”.

But maybe Griffin is confused about this, even wrong to say that British warders used Luo and Kalenjin “bouncers” to clobber Kikuyu detainees in Manyani Detention Camp. Perhaps we Africans were already burning down each other’s huts long before the British came to govern us and teach us new ways of punishing one another. 

After all, this is the same Griffin whose fading memory tells us that the ex-Starehian Mwandawiro Mganga was a graduate of his pre-university National Youth Service (NYS) training; that “Mwandaviro (sic) paid the price of being slung out of university before completing his under-graduate studies” when, as a student leader, he inspected a uniformed guard mounted by fellow students.



Mwandawiro couldn’t have attended Griffin’s pre-university NYS training, which was conceived in 1981 but started in 1983 (commencement was delayed by the August 1982 coup). 

Mwandawiro was already a Masters student in the Department of Linguistics and African Languages in February 1984 when he was rusticated from the University of Nairobi and jailed.

Griffin’s failing memory at the time he was narrating his life story to Yusuf King’ala is not as disturbing as King’ala’s failure to double-check dates and events. Biographers bear the burden of researching their subjects thoroughly and scratching beyond the surface.

When one writes the biography of a person they hold in awe, they invariably fail to ask the right questions.

Writing about a person who intrigues, rather than the one who mesmerises, drives the biographer to ask probing and uncomfortable questions; to seek answers from a variety of sources. Even in the space of (ghost-written) autobiography, one can introduce other voices, additional points of view to complete the subject’s recollections.

Larry King’s 2009 story, My Remarkable Journey, gives fresh insights on ways of injecting multiple perspectives into an autobiography. Written with Cal Fussman, King’s story includes the evaluations of his brother Marty Zeiger, sister-in-law Ellen David, and Herbie Cohen, a friend. Their views come at the end of chapters to provide additional information, alternative interpretations on incidents that King has just narrated and comments on aspects of King’s character.

Griffin’s narrative offers similar departures from autobiography’s tradition of one man’s point of view even though it suffers from anaemic dialogue and the tedium of flat sequence from one year to the next. It is divided into five distinct parts.

Griffin’s Preface and his life story — without photographs — occupies a little over 90 pages. King’ala gives an Introduction and an Epilogue. King’ala’s son, Majid, closes the book with the Eulogy of his father since the book was published posthumously in 2005 with King’ala’s death coming five months after Griffin’s own demise in June 2005.

It is clear from the linguistic accent of the Preface and the seven main chapters that King’ala recorded verbatim whatever Griffin told him.

A condescending colonial attitude is audible in many of the pages where Griffin narrates his childhood in Kitale, his days at Nairobi School; his time as a hunter-cum-survey-cadet and his work as an Intelligence Officer with the 3rd battalion of the King’s African Rifles during the Mau Mau uprising.

“In those days, Africans were very loyal and had great respect for white people…they answered Ndio Afande respectfully,” says Griffin. Projected through the prism of unequal power that sentence would be rendered as: “In those days, Africans were voiceless; they did precisely what was expected of them out of fear because dissent was crashed brutally and instantly”.

Griffin’s tale is largely a manual on how to run a school. He takes great pride in a student-leadership model that he describes as unique to Starehe.


But he also speaks fondly of his time at Nairobi School, proudly explaining the genesis of its nickname, “Patch”. Contrary to urban legend, it was christened “Patch” long before the 1970 RnB Grammy award winning song, Patches, by the blind crooner Clarence Carter (written by Ronald Dunbar and General Johnson, the song was first recorded by Chairmen of the Board).

Not everything from the Griffin manual on career development is accurate or relevant today. Griffin denounced daydreaming as a huge waste of time. But we know now that artistic minds need solitude, avoid routine, work unusual hours and are given to daydreaming because these are the moments when they make sudden connections. Today, psychologists value daydreaming as “creative incubation”, a time to brew new ideas. 

Griffin’s narrative is rather closeted. There is barely any mention of his brother and his parents fall off the pages soon after Griffin joins the Survey department. He is downright secretive. “…as I prayed, I felt a very strong feeling of excitement. I have never told anybody about the prayer, it is private! It has been the basis of my life vision and future endeavours”.  A clue to why he did all he did and he won’t share it in his autobiography?

Romance and allied intimacies are muted. There is a cursory mention of a girlfriend he might have married were it not for taking on a second job in 1964 as Director of NYS.

One can see why beyond the Introduction — which is pure praise poetry — King’ala felt a need to complicate this narrative with an Epilogue that would interrogate Griffin’s life and help readers to interpret his character. The 54-page Epilogue is entitled “The Character Behind the Mask”. 

Though Griffin never got to read this Epilogue — he was hospitalised by the time it was ready — King’ala says, Griffin “had given me a free hand to say in writing whatever I thought about him”.

King’ala demonstrates the ways in which Griffin’s history in the military — his work in Manyani and Wamumu — shaped his approach to discipline and the rehabilitation of delinquents and street children at Starehe. Apparently, Griffin was very efficient with a cane. That earned him the unflattering nickname Gatemi — Kikuyu for “to cut”.

Griffin forgot to mention that in his heyday, “he could cane a whole class of 35 boys and have the strength to shout ‘Next’ after canning the 35th!” King’ala concludes, “much as he tried to have a direct bearing on us as a father figure …we feared him”.

The school’s boxing tradition, in King’ala’s eyes, became a form of “indirect bullying,” never mind that Griffin had sworn that bullying did not exist at Starehe. In a clever turn of phrase, Griffin created a “D” room rather than use the word “cell”. He never wanted Starehe to feel like a jail.


The Epilogue describes some of Griffin’s failures — the absurd weekend luncheons at his mother’s house in Westlands; the aborted Director’s Tea Party; his stormy exit from the Kenya Boys’ Scouts Association and the unresolved tensions between Patrick Shaw, the police reservist, and the two co-founders of Starehe, Geoffrey Geturo and Joseph Gikubu.

There is one thing King’ala questions with a persistence that becomes irritating, precisely because it is as unproductive as the shuffling of feet at a time when a stomping dance step is required! It is the question of Griffin’s sexuality. King’ala keeps coming back to it but he is too timid to pose the direct question: “Was Griffin gay?”

Instead, King’ala circles it as a query about Griffin remaining unmarried. He dwells on Griffin’s refusal to discuss his personal life; on whispers that Griffin was ostracised by his family and on his glaring lack of friends.

King’ala repeatedly brings up the name of John Beecher, the friend with whom Griffin introduced scouting at Nairobi School. Once Beecher — who was a year older — finished sixth form at Nairobi School, Griffin found no interest in academia. He quit before he sat his “A” levels in 1950.

Griffin’s diaries and personal letters were not availed to his biographer so King’ala can only speculate about Beecher; about Griffin’s relationship with his mother and his practice of raining stones, in the dead of night, on the rooftops of colleagues whose wives were making their monthly visit to their husbands at Wamumu.

King’ala ponders Griffin’s frustrated declaration, “I am not lucky with women” and his total aversion to dancing — perhaps he didn’t know how. But, we are told, he was an expert in “getting the best out of boys”.

It is not clear why King’ala was so fixated on this question of Griffin’s bachelor-hood, or indeed, of his sexuality. Was he concerned that there was a risk Griffin condoned homosexuality or that he spread the practice at Starehe?

Men like Griffin have shaped our nation’s successes, indeed, our very notions of the measure of success. In the “A” level years, Griffin would read the “O” level results at morning assembly as terrified Form Fives stood petrified. If they had failed “O” levels, they would have to leave the school immediately. King’ala reports that Griffin read out the fail grades “in a derogatory manner…and then he paraded those who excelled on the platform like high-grade stallions to be admired”.

These parades ended with the introduction of 8-4-4 but still, poor performers (and dodgy citizens like the famous Naivasha vintner, Fai Amario) practically had to strike gold in the outside world before they could find the courage to return to the school. Eventually, King’ala pointed out to Griffin that Stareherains of the 1960s and 1970s never returned to the school. Griffin quietly pondered the reasons for this.

A man who nurtured loyalty through “calculated paths of indoctrination and manipulation”, Griffin had “a phobia for committees”. He had to be the boss always, “strutting over the school and NYS like a colossus”. He acquired over 50 acres for Starehe, using unorthodox means that we would call land-grabbing were it not done for a good cause.

Right from childhood, guns had fascinated Griffin and he was clearly shaped by the violence of Mau Mau. King’ala leaves you in no doubt about that. King’ala also nudges you to consider the nature of philanthropy. The next time you meet an inveterate, full-time philanthropist you must go beyond listing what s/he does for others and ask yourself what that doing for others does for him/her. What does public giving allow you to be, to do or to assuage in private?


Postscript: I have avoided appending the title Doctor to Griffin’s name.

One does not wear the title Doctor in public life, or list it under the Education section of one’s CV unless it has been earned from actual study at a recognised university.

The varied contributions of Griffin, Robert Ouko and others of their ilk cannot be gainsaid but the custom of this award is to use the letters Ph.D. after one’s name followed by h.c. in brackets to indicate the decorative nature of the reward. How many Kenyans knew that Tom Mboya had an honorary doctorate? He never used the title Doctor. But we are a long way away from the 1960s of Mboya and we modern Kenyans are relentless in coining “peculiar habits” and new traditions.