In the beginning, Prof Makau Mutua — the intellectual known for his hard-hitting newspaper columns — only wanted to build a private home for himself and his family. But that was in the beginning. Somewhere along the way, he decided to change course, converting the home into a hotel and a guest house. Now everyone is welcome to Kitui Villa, also called Ubuntu Village, in Kitui County.
The boutique hotel in the outskirts of Kitui town, is not just another establishment where a weary guest can spend a night, or enjoy a drink by the shallow pool at the edge of the open-plan bar. It is more like a museum, with portraits of revolutionaries, human rights defenders and freedom lovers of a bygone era staring down on the visitors.
Indeed, the 11 rooms at the hotel are named after freedom heroes; Nelson Mandela, Me Katilili wa Menza, Dedan Kimathi, Patrice Lumumba, Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jnr, Julius Nyerere, Syokimau, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga … You get the drift.
Their portraits adorn the walls, all painted by Kang’ara Wanjaabi, who also painted the portraits at the Jaramogi Mausoleum in Bondo.
The heroes represented at the villa have one thing in common — they left a mark in transforming society, not just in their respective countries but across the world through political activism, which led to some being assassinated or imprisoned for long spells in the pursuit of higher ideals.
In the spacious reception area, which would have served as a sitting room had Prof Mutua not changed his mind, the portraits of Mandela and other freedom icons stare down on the visitor. And just outside the conference room, Che Guevera and Fidel Castro conspire silently.
Not too long ago, these two were the silent listeners as the Kitui County Cabinet, chaired by Governor Charity Ngilu, held its session in the adjacent conference room, away from the chaos, hustle and bustle of Kitui Town, where the county government has its seat, which is still under construction. During the meeting, a newly-appointed county minister, Mr Ben Katungi, was sworn into office.
Prof Makau Mutua does not only pay homage to the larger-than-life revolutionaries, artists, writers and political leaders of African descent who shaped discourse on freedom, race relations and the place of Africa in the grand scheme of things. He also has a local touch, albeit a personal one.
As one makes his way into the hotel, built on family land, one is greeted by the soft music of a wind chime on Musyoka’s Way, named after his brother, who used to supervise the construction work before he passed on. This is the walkway that former Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, Ms Ngilu and other dignitaries took when they went to officially open the hotel last month. And Kenyans will remember the image of Mr Odinga, standing behind the bar counter, serving a tot of Singleton to Ms Ngilu as Prof Mutua looked on, bemused.
None of these was done by accident. The establishment was designed by Davinder Lamba, who is known to Kenyans as the founder of the human rights lobby group, Operation Firimbi. For years, Davinder was a familiar face in street protests to demand the expansion of democratic space, release of political prisoners and respect for political freedoms during the Moi administration. Davinder is a professional architect.
This is a space defined by men and women who were radical in their thinking. Even the current manager, Mr Vincent Musebe, started off working at the Kenya Human Rights Commission, alongside Prof Mutua, who was one of the founders of the institution, before moving to Kitui to run the show at Ubuntu Village.
Incidentally, the name Ubuntu invokes the idea of “humanity”. The word has its roots in the Bantu language family, especially the Nguni Bantu of South Africa. At its core is the belief that “I am because we are”.
Prof Mutua said the hotel is inspired by the concept of Ubuntu, or humanness or humanity.
“People who want to think great thoughts and help change our world are welcome here. It is very quiet and far away from the noise and pollution of the city,” he told theSaturday Nation.
Many hospitality establishments keep the political orientation of their proprietors under wraps for business reasons. Not Kitui Villa. Indeed, it has just the space that is ideal for political gatherings, curiously named the Chef’s Room, probably because this is a place where debates can become a little hot. The Chef’s Room is a little glass house standing apart from the main building. Those inside can see those outside, but not the other way round, making it ideal for political gatherings and conspiracy mongering.
Since it was opened in July, it has hosted intellectuals of all persuasions, researchers, policymakers, civil society types and the random sojourners. One of its curious amenities is a common washroom for both genders, a testament to its liberalism, if not that of its proprietor. According to Prof Mutua, the idea of that washroom was inspired by his belief that all are equal regardless of their gender. Of course, there are also washrooms for ladies and gents.
Next to the lounge is a library that will be opening its doors in September, meaning that academics and those who seek to enjoy a good read as much as the quiet scenery would be at home here, either for leisure or research. The library is named after the law professor’s late father, Mutua.
According to Prof Makau, Kitui Villa combines the African style with universal themes and architecture.
“Kitui Villa is adorned with African artworks and portraits of historically compelling global figures and it offers a sophisticated range of rich cuisines for different palates,” he told guests at the launch of the hotel.
Prof Makau said he put up the amenities that speak of intellectual serenity and tranquillity to provide a unique place for retreats, workshops and seminars for business travellers, government officials, writers, NGOs and thinkers.
Readers might want to know: How did the dream begin?
In 2013, Prof Makau and his wife Athena — an African-American law professor in the United States, started dreaming of a home in Kenya.
UNFRIENDLY POLITICAL CLIMATE
Even though the couple felt the political climate in the country was unfriendly to them after Prof Makau refused to recognise Uhuru Kenyatta as President, they were encouraged by the implementation of devolution after that year’s general election. Despite the uncertainty, they started building.
Davinder, who had served on the board of KHRC with Prof Mutua, drew up the first plans for the house.
Prof Mutua’s brother, Musyoka, took charge of the construction work. Unfortunately, two years into the project, the younger brother died in a car crash in Thika.
After Makau’s death, Prof Mutua decided to change the idea into something bigger.
“We decided that the place had to be something more than a home that we might visit once or twice a year. Rather, it had to be both a place we could share with others and an investment in and to the surrounding community,” he says.
With that decision, what would have eventually been a five-bedroom house whose owner lived in the US, eventually became a place for people who are seduced by ideas. With that change, the home was saved from becoming a white elephant or dead investment.
That also meant that the building plans had to be changed midway. Three additional bedrooms were added upstairs, along with three others on the south side of the building — making a total of 11 rooms.