On Monday May 30, it will be exactly eight years and 30 days since this country was treated to the greatest journalistic hoax of all time.
A hunched 72-year-old man arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport where he was accorded a hero’s welcome as the lost, legendary nationalist leader General Stanley Mathenge.
It was the most elaborate, and embarrassing, journalistic hoax Kenya has ever known. Gen Mathenge is said to have left the Aberdares forest in 1957, leading a band of 28 fighters through northern Kenya into Ethiopia to seek military help. But he was never heard of again.
Veteran and respected journalist Joseph Karimi, who said he started searching for Gen Mathenge in 1967, reported in December 2001 that he had finally traced the Mau Mau war hero to Ethiopia. And on November 4, 2002, he took Miriam Muthoni, Mathenge’s wife, to Ethiopia to meet her husband.
“After five decades of separation, Mrs Miriam Mathenge finally met her husband,” he reported. “When they first met, they stared at each, without blinking an eye. It was like young lovers ready to start an affair, but each nervous and shy.”
Mr Karimi continued: “The moment of truth had finally come. The environment did not matter. Miriam stared long and hard at Mathenge, eventually declaring: ‘This is the man. The nose and the set of teeth are his.’”
But the man Mr Karimi tracked down in Ethiopia as the long-lost general was an Ethiopian farmer, one Lemma Ayanu, who spoke neither Kikuyu nor Kiswahili. That fact, and many other cues, did not stop Mr Karimi from making the discovery.
He also told us that he took a letter to Gen Mathenge “written by his member of Parliament Mwai Kibaki” inviting him to return home to be guest of honour at Kenya’s 40th Independence Day celebrations.
But when the man got off the plane on May 30, 2003, looking gaunt, wizened and confused, he began addressing the crowd in Amharic. And he was one foot shorter than Gen Mathenge.
Quickly, the truth was out. He was no Gen Mathenge. And on June 6 he was bundled out of the four-star hotel where he was staying at the taxpayer’s expense and unceremoniously sent back to Ethiopia.
It was the longest saga of a journalistic hoax. When the history of hoax journalism in Kenya comes to be written, no doubt, it will properly begin with the Mathenge story. Other fake stories pale in comparison.
Other fake stories include the JM Kariuki story. JM was reported missing on March 7, 1975, in Parliament. As an explanation, a newspaper said JM had secretly left for Zambia and was staying at the Lusaka International Hotel.
As the newspaper wrote those words, JM’s body lay in some bushes in Ngong, near Nairobi, apparently left to be devoured by hyenas. The mutilated body was discovered by a Maasai herdsboy.
Another sensational hoax was the account published last month that one of the so-called Ocampo Six, indicted by the International Criminal Court, had his hand luggage containing $100 million stolen at the airport as he returned from The Hague. The story suggested that he might have carried the money to The Hague to post bail if required.
There have been many other fake stories, such as the government statement in February 1990 that the likely cause of Foreign minister Robert Ouko’s death was suicide, and the claim that British tourist Julie Ward, murdered in one of our national parks, had committed suicide.
Other hoaxes are less well known or celebrated, or have never been exposed. But Kenyan newspapers are not the only newspapers that have been duped.
Newspapers the world over, both big and small, often in their rush to be first with the news, have carried their fair share of hoax stories.
Hoaxes are either planted or they are honest mistakes. Journalists are not infallible, they do make mistakes. They make mistakes when they have not been skeptical enough and do not examine the motives of their news sources.
And occasionally, some of them invent stories and report them as if they actually happened.