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Public figures who made the best of court jesting

Posted by African Press International on June 8, 2008

A Kenya standard story

By Patrick Wachira Daniel arap Moi
Daniel Toroitich arap Moi

Beneath the fasade of a harsh exterior and a no-nonsense approach to issues, former President Daniel arap Moi had a soft spot for rib-tickling humour.

That, partly, explains why he surrounded himself with individuals who not only excited him beyond description but also made light of some of the extremely weighty issues the President had to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

Some of them catapulted themselves onto the national arena and became household names, instantly resonating well with the prevailing national psyche.

Moi had an uncanny way of identifying individuals who possessed the rare talent and making such leaders friends and close allies.

It was also remarkable that such people, who could leave the Head of State in stitches, spread across the length and breadth of the countrys borders and even across communities. Although some acquired notoriety of sorts for outrageous utterances, which invited odium and scandal, most were careful enough to ensure the jokes they cracked were not ribald and did not offend the sensibilities.

And Moi, too, had his own version of witticism, which he used to the maximum in handling rising tension and create humour to his audience whenever the mood was not right or in his favour.

But rightly or wrongly, even after the former president left the scene, the names remained and mere mention will bring more than just a smile to the face of many a Kenyan.

They were the court poets and court jesters who ensured that the man on the throne enjoyed a good dose of laughter, sometimes even at their own expense!

At one time during a graduation ceremony at a public university, Moi once told the girls to beware the machinations of the boys, who may use flattering language that could be seen through if one was thinking.

“These young men will tell you: I love you so much that I can swim across the ocean just for you and then when you are leaving they say see you tomorrow if it does not rain!”

Such anecdotes brought the house down. On other occasions, he would be addressing a public rally and, apparently, irked by demands by the then opposition leaders. At such a point, he would pause and swing round in a dramatic fashion before quipping: “Hawa wanafikiri wanaweza zungusha Moi kama marinda? (Do they think they can twist me, Moi, around like a womans skirt?)

Interestingly for Moi, he never saw his own as humour and remained serious even as the crowds laughed themselves hoarse.

Kenyans still recall one occasion during a HIV/Aids awareness event when the former President told Kenyans that abstention was still the safest method of keeping the pandemic at bay.

But in his characteristic fashion, he added a rider that even if one stayed for long without engaging in the heterosexual behaviour responsible for most transmissions, one would still be okay. “Hata ukikaa bila hiyo, huwezi kufa!” (You cannot die from abstaining!) he said.

Of course, there was the line that became something of a household name, in which he would enumerate things his Government was doing or would do and add: “na hiyo yote ni maendeleo!” (And all this amounts to development!).

The phrase became so famous that, in subsequent event or speeches, all he could say the first bit and the crowd could join him in chorus to complete it.

Mulu Mutisya

The undisputed King of Ukambani politics until his death, Mr Mulu Mutisya was actually a Class Two case but went on to rise to the echelons of national politics as Nominated MP and board member for Kenya Power and Lighting Company.

Owing to his illiteracy and that he could not contribute in House session, among other reasons, a motion was tabled in Parliament to include Kiswahili as an alternative language.

The former Machakos Kanu branch chairman when Kanu was the chama cha mama na baba became famous for his oft-mentioned phrase, “wakamba wote wanangalangala kama nyanya ya masokoni! (The Kamba people have a sheen like tomatoes at the marketplace!)”.

Of course, the import of all this drama was that the community was contented with the Government and were happy never mind the perennial drought headache for the region that has not been tackled to date.

Mulu Mutisya

Mutisya became a darling of President Kenyatta when he delivered politician Mr Peter Kioko of the then Kamba Peoples Union, which assignment took him two weeks flat.

His rising popularity hit a glass ceiling as he could not contest, owing to his low level of education. But that was not to get in the way as Kenyatta ordered the then Nairobi Provincial Commissioner, Solomon Mburu to pass Mutisya off a Form Six, so he would be exempted from proficiency language tests.

Five years on, another hurdle presented itself. It was time for the general elections and again, there was this little issue of academic credentials.

So, again, Kenyatta summoned him and asked him to write his level of education. Such was Kenyatta, you did not play ping pong with him unless you knew what you were doing.

And, again, Mutisya wrote Standard Two on the piece of paper. Kenyatta took the piece of paper and put it in a drawer in his desk. The next day, Mutisya was an MP. Again. Another lease of life.

Once that was done, the sky was the limit for the self-styled kingpin of Ukambani who was thrice nominated to Parliament although his exact role was not clear.

But his public antics were legendary. So much so that he was once reported to have played the part of a master of ceremonies at a public function and went ahead to call himself a “master of Solomon”, much to the amusement of the crowd! Talk about beginning from the known.

Mutisya was later to head the Presidential Commission on Soil Conservation and Afforestation.

At one time, in the true spirit of the love-hate relationship that occurs naturally between journalists and politicians, Mr Mutisya was irked by some press report, so much that he condemned all members of the Fourth Estate as people who were conceived by the riverside!

The slur was not taken kindly by journalists who hit back with such venom that one of them said that with such details, he must have been party to the happenings!

Stinging editorials and commentaries followed, in which Mutisya was vilified. It is not clear if he ever apologised over this most unfortunate of unguarded remark.

Still, he managed to groom Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka and the late Tony Ndilinge who made it to Parliament and, for 40 years, marshalled the Akamba voice to speak as one in the political scheme of things, never mind some little dissent here and there.

Kuria Kanyingi

If any politician correctly earned the title of Mr Moneybags, Kanyingi did it with such alacrity he must still be holding it to date.

Fished from the Motor Vehicle Inspection Unit to engineer a smear and ouster campaign against former Vice-President Dr Josephat Njuguna Karanja, Kanyingi burst into the limelight as the politician who would bring to fund raising functions lots of money in cash.

0n June 5, 2006, he did manage to contribute in cash Sh2 million to a fund raising event at St Monica Catholic Church, Karanjee Village in his then constituency Limuru.

Just six months earlier, he had donated Sh4 million to yet another church project, yet in cash.

Kuria Kanyingi

At the height of this bounty, Kanyingi was known to sing such praises for the ruling party, Kanu, then. He is quoted to have said, at one time, that: “Hata ukinikata, damu yangu ni Kanu!” (Even if you slit my skin, it is just Kanu blood you will see!).

At one time, responding to the challenge of his academic background, Kanyingi retorted that he had floored in the polls seven graduates and that his predecessor had nothing to show after ten years of representation, his degree notwithstanding. He promptly dismissed calls to elect educated people as “mere propaganda”.

Kanyingi was to change tune in 2006 when he ditched Kanu and began singing praises for Narc-Kenya, saying it was unbeatable as it comprised people of all tribes and had supporters countrywide.

Paradoxically, he was to rubbish the role of money in his high profile public standing when he declared that he had spent huge sums in 1992 and 1997 but did not make it.

The world watched, open-mouthed, as he averred that only when he submitted himself to God did he make it to Parliament.

“You can not buy leadership with money”, he concludes.

It has never been clear if this was double-speak from a politician or a realisation borne of years of “serving the people”.

Dickson Kihika Kimani

If there was one politician able to have Moi in stitches within seconds, then Kihika was one. And this extended to crowds he addressed across the Rift Valley, which he bestrode like a colossus during his time.

He must have been one of the very few people who could poke fun at Moi and still leave the latter roaring with hearty laughter.

For instance, during a function at the Jomo Kenyatta High School in Nakuru, Kihika thoroughly amused the crowd when he told them that he had known Moi in his early days when he had little wealth.

Dickson Kihika Kimani

Pointing to the former head of States motorcade, Kihika said: “Nilimjua zamani wakati yeye iko na kaChevrolet kablue hapana kama sasa iko haya magari yote! (I came to know him (Moi) at a time he owned a blue Chevrolet vehicle let alone now when he has all these)”.

On his role in the Change the Constitution Movement in the early 1970s, which sought to amend a section of the constitution in a bid to bar Moi then Kenyattas Vice-President from ascending to the throne in the event of the death of the president, Kihika could say in the presence of Moi: “Ndio, tulipanga hayo mambo lakini Moi ni mtu mzuri na alitusamehe” (True, we hatched those schemes but Moi is a good man and has forgiven us!).

Kihika would often brag that he was of superior breed and not like individuals who were constantly to be seen with Chapati on their pants (patches) owing to their extreme poverty.

In the early 1970s, he could say at a public rally that he and his ilk could literally get away with anything. “We can even get rid of anyone through the back door!” he would say, as quoted in The Kenyatta Succession, edited by veteran journalist Phillip Ochieng and Joseph Karimi.

Not even journalists escaped his sharp tongue as evidenced in Nyahururu when he once went to book for coverage at the local Kenya News Agency offices.

His poor sight missed a Standard reporter, Amos Kareithi and he asked other reporters in Kikuyu: Kaihu gaka getagwo Kareithi kena ku? (Where is this mongoose called Kareithi?)

On another occasion, he bragged that he would bequeath the Molo seat to his son, Ndungu Kimani then a law student. And he promptly summoned the young man to be shown to the people present at his home in Njoro.

Now, the young Ndungu hesitated and walked with halting gait, which invited his fathers acerbic tongue. “Na ndagwita ugokaga ta mundu muthomu, ti guthii ta baniani! (If I summon you, walk like an educated person, not like a dukawallah!)”, were Kihikas words.

Perhaps because he rubbed shoulders with the wealthiest people during Kenyattas regime, Kihika developed a sort of arrogance that made him blind to the boundaries of decorum.

It was this arrogance that saw him threaten to have his two wives contest for Subukia constituency when he decamped to Molo and trounced John Njenga Mungai without as much as a campaign poster being printed! Of course, the two women did not go past the nomination stage and he never really made his point.

It was this streak that made him vow to make history by representing three constituencies by adding Naivasha to Laikipia West and Molo but no serious party took him in during his last bid and from there, he sort of faded into oblivion, at least politically.

Hezekiel Barngetuny, 87

The father of 16 joined school at the age of 12 but dropped out six years later to join the military, which he left to get married for what he satirically put as “I realised I was getting old”.

Mr Barngetuny, who served with the colonial Kings African Rifles (KAR) endeared himself to Moi and was said to have a rare ability to excite the former president.

But their history together had began long ago, when the two were boys and students at the Kapsabet African School, now Kapsabet Boys. Later, Moi was to be a Sunday School teacher while at Kapsabet.

He made a name at the annual Kimalel Goats Auction, where he would play the role of Master of Ceremonies. Now this function was held every year in December, two days before Noel.

And Barngetuny would be the one to auction the animals, at times taunting the galaxy of ministers and other top-ranking Government officials as he moved from one to another when they bid-to-buy the goats.

In his characteristic strongly-accented Kiswahili, the man would be heard live on national radio as he raised the antes between two competing individuals, cajoling one if they shied away from bidding in the middle of a sale.

A normal sale would go something like this:“Elbu tano kwa Saitoti, tano kwake, tano, tano, saba gwa Gamotho, Gamotho na saba, saba, saba nasema lasima agule hii mbuzi, tena kumi gwa Moi, Kumi gwa Moi, mbusi na Moi Moi na mbusi, elbu kumi, kumi, nani mwingine, kumi, gwa Moi mara ya gwansa, ya gwansa, ya bili, ya bili, bili, na mara ya tatu, Moi lete hiyo besa!”

Over 7,000 goats would be auctioned in this manner and dignitaries would take them away ahead of Christmas, knowing they would enjoy the delicacy of a country goat.

Hezekiel Barngetuny, 87

Once, I was having a drink with colleague, Mr Martin Masai, at the Midlands Hotel in Nakuru in 1993 when Mr Barngetuny happened by. He joined us and promptly regaled us with tales of his exploits in politics, which he compared to a fight in the jungle.

Atui agingia aba saa hii, lasima uchue utatorogea wabi ata gama nabigana na yeye!” (You see, if an enemy appears here now, you must think fast on a possible escape route even if it calls for confrontation to fight him), a strategy I was to relate years later to his career in the military.

The man who spots a scraggly beard smiles mischievously, especially when he is about to say something controversial, like his recent support for Kibaki and the Government.

But his has a sense of aesthetics, too, as his home overlooks the Nandi escarpment and has a panoramic view of the Lake Victoria.

Now, that is something of a contradiction, which does little to help define Mzee Hezekiel Barngetuny.

Kariuki Chotara

When Mr Kihika Kimani and others started the Change the Constitution Movement aimed at barring Mr Moi from within earshot of power in the event of the then presidents death, one man, Kariuki Chotara, identified with Mr Moi and apparently empathised with him.

Mr Chotara, later rose to become the undisputed Kanu kingpin in Nakuru, championing the party cause and being heard across the entire country.

And when Kimani fled to Tanzania in 1979, Chotara replaced him as Kanu boss and went ahead to create real and imaginary enemies whom he fought with alacrity and gusto.

He constantly locked horns with another Kanu pillar, the late Mr Nganga Kihonge, then Nakuru County Council Chairman (in late 1980s).

Kariuki Chotara

In one incident, Chotara arrived in his Naivasha backyard to find Kihonge had organised a visit to State House, along with other Kanu officials and were being feted by Moi.

Not one to be outdone, Chotara immediately drove there, where he launched into a verbal attack on his foes, telling the former president: “Hapana sikiriza mambo ya hawa. Hawa marirara makinywa muma na hapa wanaongea!” (Do not listen to these people. They spent the night taking an oath and here they are to fool you!).

Moi did not take the oath claims lightly, at a time when he was trying hard to consolidate his hold on power but the outburst caused some amusement while it lasted.

In another incident, Chotara was addressing a public rally and dropped the microphone but when he bent to pick it, his gun fell, too, along with several bullets from its shoulder holster.

As the crowd surged forward to catch a glimpse of the pistol, Chotara was to retort as he picked his firearm “Munanjua mimi ni chap chuta na hata DO natoka Ebakathi hawethi gushooti kama mimi!” (I am a sharp shooter and even a DO straight from training in Embakasi would not come a close second!).

The most famous gaffe was the incident at the University of Nairobi, where student riots were the order of the day, at times over such issues as meals and their demands were always about “dialogue”, which was lacking.

Now Chotara, completely oblivious about what “dialogue” really meant, was to tell the Government that “kama ni hiyo dialogue wanataka, si wapewe tu, kwani wananyimwa kwa nini? (If they want dialogue, let them have it. Why are they being denied).

And when the riots persisted, Chotara came to learn that they were being influenced by a man he heard was called Karl Marx.

Sasa huyo Karo Maxi kama ni yeye anasubua watoto na kufudicha hawa mabo baya, si achikwe and kufugiwa dani? (If Karl Marx is the one teaching the students bad things, why shouldnt he be arrested and locked up?)

James Njiru (MP, Ndia 1969-1979 and 1983-1992)

The Kanu supreme who founded the Kanu moto! battle cry that became a rallying call for the ruling party when it was the sole party in the land.

Njiru distinguished himself as one of the most vocal Kanu defenders, so much that a ministry was created just for him and fashioned Ministry of National Guidance and Political Affairs in Mois era.

He got so excited about this development that he began to play a supervisory role over the other ministries, perhaps owing to the amorphous nature of the new docket, which other ministers resented.

When he finally became something of an embarrassment and the ministry was promptly scrapped.

James Njiru

After multi-partism came into being, he found himself homeless and joined a startling array of parties but never made it back to Parliament.

His rise to infamy was also prompted by an incident in which he was involved in a physical fight with another MP, Nahashon Njuno, (now deceased) also from his Kirinyaga backyard.

One of them drew a knife and Njiru was injured and hospitalised. The incident elicited sharp reactions from Kenyans and became the subject of countless commentaries and editorials as Kenyans condemned them, asking why they carried knives and not notebooks to Parliament.

Njirus attempts to unseat incumbent MP, Njeru Githae came a cropper and it is apparent he has lost most of the sting from the days of “Kanu moto!”

Shariff Nassir

The straight-talking Mombasa Kanu supremo, just like his many contemporaries, had little education but defied this to rise to a national figure status, where he enjoyed and broached little competition.

The late Nassir, who shot to infamy with his “Wapende wasipende” (whether they like it or not) remark was known to entertain no nonsense, especially at the height of his power as a Kanu hawk enjoying the patronage of President Moi.

Nassir, a veteran Kanu politician, is said to have been jailed following a claim that his enemies cheated former President Kenyatta that he (Nassir) had accused his Government of being behind the murder of Mr Tom Mboya.

Shariff Nassir

His transformation from an inmate at Manyani Prison, to a trade unionist, councillor and finally MP and minister was meteoric and did little to persuade his nemesis that he was civil.

Indeed, so acerbic was his tongue that he once told the late MP Paul Ruto Chepkok, himself bold and almost warlike, that he would not mind teaching him a lesson or two, right on the floor of the House.

Wewe Bwana ukicheza na mimi nitakuchafua papa hapa!” (If you play around with me I will beat you up squarely right here!). The former Minister of State in the Office of the President told Chepkok much to the amusement of members.

Now it took some guts to address Chepkok like this because he was not quite averse to a fight or two as his public life attested to.

And when his political enemies made fun of him or spread propaganda about him, he would dismiss them by saying “Vishindo vya mashua havishtui bahari! (The noise of the steamboat cannot startle the ocean).

Wilson Leitich (nominated MP, Kanu chairman, Nakuru)

Leitich took over from Chotara as Nakuru Kanu chairman and curiously, took over the formers peculiar claim to infamy.

Leitich took things a bit far when the clamour for multiparty was at its peak and its proponents were waving the two-finger salute. He ordered Kanu youth wingers to chop off the two fingers of anyone waving the salute!

Wilson Leitich (nominated MP, Kanu chairman, Nakuru)

He never made it clear what he wanted to do with all the fingers, given the popularity of such proponents and the corresponding dislike of Kanu.

Suffice it to say that he made to international news and not for the best of reasons, putting Kenya on the world map as one of the states in the world where political intolerance was at its most ignominious.

The sheer, brazen notoriety that this remark earned him must follow him to this day at his residence at Muchorwi in Molo.

His penchant for controversy has persisted in recent years, with one of his wives taking him to court on claims of abandonment. This did little to redeem his image, more than a decade later.

During public barazas in the early 1990s, Leitich would often blame the population explosion on the males, and would tell women to discourage frequent liaisons with their husbands.

Saa ingine ambia mzee akae kando, awache wewe ulale tu, hii watoto nakuwa mingi sana!” (At times tell your husbands to abstain sex. We are breeding too much!), he would say and amuse the crowd.

Karisa Maitha

His rise to fame was slow and steady and when he died a Cabinet minister, there was a collective sigh among Kenyans, with the sense of loss going beyond his native Coast province.

Known among his people as “Mugogo” (King), “Hurricane” Maitha as he was fondly referred to, endeared himself to many Kenyans in his political sojourn.

But perhaps the most clearly etched incident in the minds of many is the chaos that rocked a political rally involving Prime Minister Raila Odinga. The latter, in the rough and tumble of the moment fled and one of his shoes came off in the melee.

Now Maitha, saw a chance to keep a memento of the days activities and secured the shoe, which he polished to a sheen and displayed it in his house!

Karisa Maitha

Controversy has followed him in death as Transport Minister Chirau Ali Mwakwere recent claimed his death was predicted and that it was not a natural death.

Family spokesman Gideon Mungaro told Mwakwere off, saying his utterances were disturbing and the late Maitha should be left to rest in peace.

His past as a colonial DO was not to be forgotten and he would don the complete outfit of his former calling, just for kicks.

Kamwithi Mwinyi

The burly former minister for Co-operatives Development was most famous for his multi-coloured suits, with loud designs and patterns.

Indeed, flamboyant comes close to describing him were it not for the fact that his house was a simple one and does not stand out in Embu where he passed on a few years ago.

Munyi was known to put on two watches and it was not clear what he intended to achieve.

He was also eccentric, even whimsical and puzzled many of his contemporaries as well as the rank and file of Kenyans.

Once when a television crew went to his house for an interview with him on a hot January morning, he declined to even meet them, and asked them, through a house maid to state in writing what their mission was.

KTN Journalist Munene Kamau recalls that even after they complied, the man still sent a househelp to tell the journalists that he would be available the following year in March!

“He lived mysteriously and died in much the same way”, says Kamau. There was no sign or trace of family and up to this day, there is none. The man was a recluse, apparently.

His capacity for comedy was widely noticed as he once pretended to be busy with a paper, to escape press attention but forgot to hold it the right way up. His image as he “read” the paper upside down was to spark off immense laughter among those present.

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African Press International – api

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