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My encounters with eccentric newspaper editors of yesteryears

Sunday June 16 2019

JOURNALISM

Amboka Andere. He was a walking encyclopaedia. Bring up any subject and he would engage. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

KAMAU NGOTHO
By KAMAU NGOTHO
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The editor of Kenya’s first newspaper, the African Standard, launched in 1902, was a Briton by the name W.H. Tiller.

At first he was everything in the newspaper — reporter, sub-editor, proofreader, advertising and sales manager, all rolled in one. He would sign his editorials: “Yours responsible Editor.”

He was at his best early in the week when effects of the weekend binge were still fresh in the head.

But, he was so good at his work that the newspaper owner, A.M. Jeevanjee, would double his pay him any time he threatened to quit.

Anyway, I never met the pioneer Kenyan editor, so I have no more to say about him. I will talk about those I personally interacted with.

JOB-HUNTING

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One early morning just before my 20th birthday, I walked to the offices of the Nation newspapers then at the Old Nation House on Tom Mboya Street and asked to see the Group Managing Editor George Mbugguss.

“Do you have an appointment?” asked the receptionist. I didn’t have one. “So, who do I tell him you are and what do you want to discuss with him?”

I gave my name and said I was looking for a job as a reporter. “In that case, I will direct you to the news desk from where you’ll be guided,” said the lady.

At the news desk I found the acting news editor, a grey-haired man called Philip Wangalwa. He had been in the diplomatic service as a press attaché and landed short sinecure at Nation House on the way to retirement.

“Young man, what can I do for you?” he asked in diplomatic finesse.

On hearing me out, he took me to the office of the Daily Nation Managing Editor Joe Kadhi.

He was a man of taste: expensive crisp suit, trousers suspenders and a cigarette ash tray inscripted “JK”.

He didn’t bother to look up when we entered his office, but continued leafing through the morning newspapers as if we weren’t there.

When he finally raised his head, he rudely asked: “What do you people want in my office this early?” “The young man reckons he can write and wants us to try him,” Mr Wangalwa said.

“Has he ever been published and who told him we have jobs for reporters?” replied Mr Kadhi.

The news editor made to say the Nation had carried an article I published in the high school magazine in a competition sponsored by the media house but he was cut short.

“Tell him here we do a national newspaper not school magazines! Now, get him out of my office and only bring him back once he has been published in a known newspaper!”

BYLINE

Back at the news desk, Mr Wangalwa told me in a reassuring tone: “Young man, you have heard what the boss has said. The only way I can help you is to give you a temporary letter of appointment as our stringer in your home town, Nyahururu. If you write well and we publish you, we will pick it up from there.”

Back in Nyahururu, lady luck smiled on me. Three events took place which I reported and the Nation carried the stories on front and back pages within a space of two months.

In the first instance, a sitting MP was charged with a traffic offence in a Nyahururu court.

In the second, there was theft at the Nyandarua farm of then-Director of Security Intelligence, and in the third, there was a high-profile robbery case that attracted famous lawyers from Nairobi, and Nation carried the story as second front page lead with my byline.

I knew I had made an impact because News Editor Joseph Karimi asked me to come to Nairobi for a two-week company-paid stay at the Nation newsroom where I’d be sent out on assignment with experienced reporters.

BELLOWING EDITORS

It is while there that I came to know editors of those days practiced their trade through shouting and bullying.

The notorious cases were Mr Mbugguss, Mr Kadhi, and Mr Philip Ochieng’ - who would shout a reporter’s name from a mile away and menacingly demand: “Where is my story?”

I learnt the worst variant of the sadistic editors was one Mr Peter Kareithi, a news editor who would scream as he ripped from the typewriter a story the reporter was writing, tearing it into pieces and demanding that it be rewritten, “this time in English language!”

Not long after, I came to work in Nairobi full-time as a writer-trainee with a Christian magazine called Step, which has since folded.

It had been founded by two American missionaries and handed over to a local board of management chaired by lawyer Fred Ojiambo.

I think the man was born to be chairman of this or that. Only recently he retired as chair of the board of Stanbic Bank.

Before that he’d been chair of the Law Society of Kenya and chair of the board of deacons at Nairobi Baptist Church.

WEDDING SAVIOUR

We were two editorial trainees at the magazine. The other was Levi Obonyo, who is today professor of journalism and the dean at Daystar University School of Media Studies. In my case, I opted to be a professor of nothing.

Our editor at Step magazine was Mr Lawrence Darmani, a Ghanaian. He was a great writer and first-rate copy editor.

He once told me there is nothing like “good writing” but only “good re-writing”.

To this day, I still find myself re-writing my own stories even when the editor is on my back over deadlines.

Mr Darmani had the strange behaviour of singing loudly and speaking to himself in tongues when working on a big story. He told me he got his inspiration that way.

But a funny one I remember about him is that though a hawk-eyed copy editor, his fiancée’s name, Comfort Alimo, was incorrectly spelt as “Comort” in their wedding invitation card.

He had not noticed it until I pointed it to him just as he was going to post the cards to Ghana for distribution.

The 500 cards had to be destroyed and new ones printed. I remember him thanking me. “Kamau, you probably have saved my marriage. My fianceé would have had trouble understanding what else I could get right if I can’t get her name correct!”

I trust the couple is still happily married back home in west Africa.

HILARY NG'WENO

It is while at Step magazine that I got to meet the legendary editor Hilary Boniface Ng’weno (HBN) of the Weekly Review fame, Kenya’s premier news magazine.

The magazine had carried a cover story on the evolution of the institution of the presidency in Kenya.

I wrote a rejoinder giving my own version of how I saw the presidency in the country, and delivered it to Mr Ng’weno’s office.

I must admit it was more of boyish mischief to draw his attention. Interestingly, the article was posted back to me with remarks by Mr Ngw’eno written in red: “Mr Ngotho, why don’t you publish this article in the magazine you work for?”

I was delighted. The great Hilary Ng’weno now knew I existed. Next, I wrote an application letter and dropped it at his office asking for a job as a writer with Rainbow, a children’s magazine he published.

This time round his secretary telephoned to say Mr Ng’weno wanted to meet me.

The first thing that struck me when I entered his office is that it resembled an office in downtown Beirut in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing.

CHALLENGE

Old newspapers, periodicals and books were scattered all over — on the desk and on the floor— that you had to push the door hard to gain entry.

Some fortune must have been going into fumigating the room to keep off cockroaches.

Mr Ng’weno was disarmingly down-to-earth and a man of few words. He told me he thought I should try something more challenging than the children’s magazine, though not qualified yet to work for the Weekly Review.

But, he tipped me the Kenya Times newspaper was recruiting, and told me to go and see Mr Joseph Odindo, a man who would later make a great impact on my career as a journalist, and whose story I shall tell another day.

Meeting HBN, as the Weekly Review publisher was known in journalist circles, was an achievement on its own. In those days he was a legend in the profession who all of us wanted to emulate.

Outside work, he was a fitness enthusiast who to these days at 80 briskly walks long distances.

In those days, he’d take the stairs to his office on fifth floor at Pioneer House and walk to Kampus Towers on the other end of Moi Avenue, and take the staircase to the fourth floor for editorial meetings.

Socially, the story went that if he invited you for a drink, he ordered for a single bottle of beer but two glasses to share the drink and bolt away.

***

I did get a job as a features writer with Kenya Times, and where I met an interesting array of the old generation editors.

There was Mr Amboka Andere who was literally a walking encyclopaedia. Bring up any subject — politics, economics, music, religion, whatever — and he would engage.

He also had disarming one-liners: like one day when he confronted a reporter who had a habit of disappearing from office at the end of the month only to reappear with a fake story, that he’d gone to bury a relative.

“At this rate you must give us a list of all your relatives indicating those who’re dead and who are still living!” he told the reporter.

To a female reporter fond of office gossip, he said: “Amazing you know everything about everybody except yourself!”

There was also my boss, Features Editor Gray Phombeah, a master of colour-writing who could put life into a stone and saw a sexy angle to every story. Indeed, they were great heroes of print journalism those days.

****

Postscript

The other day my son asked me why I still buy newspapers and why we carry a printed Bible to church when we can read both from the phone handset.

I replied that for some reason I don’t know, people have sentimental attachment to the written word which has defied time and refused to die.

The first eulogy on newspapers came with arrival of telephony and the Morse code over a century ago, but the printed word refused to go.

Same would happen when radio, television and internet later came in that order, but the newspaper stayed put.