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Monday, December 6, 2021

Philip Ochieng pulled me from the depth of depression

By Al-Amin Kimathi

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My social media break and spiritual sojourn have been interrupted by one man who had a large impact on my life. We simply called him PO.

News of the passing on of Philip Ochieng, the man who lent Joseph Karimi’s masterly field research his unique writing in the English language and made their book, The Kenyatta Succession, a must read in our times, penetrated my retreat at a moment I have been deeply reflecting about the things that have happened around me over my close to six decades in this life.

For in a large part PO and Karimi were very large in my life at a critical epoch.

In my earliest days as the Nation’s Nyeri based correspondent, PO or Philip to many at the old Nation House, always addressed me as young man and twice rescued me from the patronizing Joseph “The Farmer” Karimi, then the News Editor, who never got off believing that Nyeri and Mt Kenya were his news tuff and therefore any copy I filed would have to undergo his closest personal scrutiny, be shredded to bits and only what was either very “important” news or too mundane too hurt his many political connections would be passed on from his desk to the subs and onwards to make the news of the day.

Such was my love-hate relationship with the one man who, as a teenager from his hood, I had so admired, being the only living journalist with a famous byline that I knew – Karimi and my father, then the supervisor of the Nyeri Telephone Exchange, were drinking mates – and made me want to be a journalist.

As fate would have it I had replaced the otherwise amiable farmer as the nation man in his hometown as he went back to Nairobi to take back his old desk as News Editor of the Nation from my mentor Peter Kareithi who had left to join Hillary Ng’weno’s Weekly Review, then based at Agip House.

 Although born in Nyeri town myself, I wasn’t a Nyerian in the eyes of Karimi, my parents hailing from Meru – well, in the eyes of most of the natives anyway – and perhaps for that reason I didn’t deserve taking up his perch fully as I had been promised when I was picked to take over what was then an important provincial news area from him.

After being sent back to Nyeri, which was by all means a demotion from being News Ed, Karimi became a Staff Correspondent but when I replaced him as he went back to Nation House, I was to remain a none staff correspondent, first earning only  from column inches of the published copy I had filed and later placed on a meagre retainer of Sh2000 a month plus my column inches pay when I threatened to quit.

It was PO and then Managing Editor Joe Salim Mohamed Kadhi who came to my aid, as I found out, to insist that I should be hired over Karimi’s stringent opposition as he falsely accused me to then Group Managing Editor George Mbugguss of being aligned to the political faction that was opposed to then Vice President Mwai Kibaki.

Such were Karimi’s assaults on me that I had to enlist the support of Kibaki’s right hand man Munene Kairo who I had known earlier as a police corporal attached to the Ruiru based GSU Recce Company serving in a special sub-unit led by my brother-in-law Eliud Mbuthia, a renowned bomb disposal expert who was later to move to CID headquarters and remained Kairo’s, and by extention Kibaki’s confidante, till the man from Othaya became the country’s third president. Thus it was Kairu himself who told Mbugguss not to believe anything Karimi said against me.

To the contrary, Kairu said, the vice president really loved my reports from his home town where he spent most of his time when away from Nairobi which was almost every Friday to Monday making me be in his entourage most of that time.

That included the drinking scenes in three of Kibaki’s favorite pubs from the evenings to the wee hours of the morning in Othaya and Nyeri towns.

It is these binges where I interacted with the who was who of Mt Kenya politics that made me almost an ace political reporter within a short time of my journalism.

At Kairo’s Pigale Bar and Restaurant near Jeevanjee Gardens, where the late Mbugguss had a seat reserved for him to occupy every evening he left his smoke field office when the paper went to bed, the former cop-turned-business-magnate told Karimi off and urged the chain smoking veteran Nation editorial boss to reward me for “excellent coverage”.

That I was told later by Karimi’s assistant Philip Wangalwa did not go so well with my fellow Nyerian as he vowed to “fix” me. And he did. Twice. Story for another day.

I rushed to celebrate this thrashing at the Sans Chique on Moi Avenue, a scribes favorite hangout nicknamed “The Staff Room” by Nation staffers as one would stop midway from banging his copy on the type writer to dash down to unlock his writing valves by downing two at the pub before heading back to thread the final paragraphs to his copy.

Philip Wangalwa and his name sake PO surrounded by young admiring journalists from the various Nairobi news houses were at the Bar when I came in.

At a time when we had no mobile phones I wasn’t astonished that the news of Karimi’s humiliation by Kairo had reached the staff room almost as they broke. That’s how fast gossip amongst scribes travelled especially when it involved one of their own.

 Old man Wangalwa demanded that I buy a round to the group around the counter, claiming that it was them who had all along been saving my hide from Mbugguss’ decisions to fire me at Karimi’s pleadings.

There were senior reporters Gichuru Njihia, Pius Nyamora, Chris Musyoka, Gedion Mulaki and Chief Photographer Yahya Mohamed. Philip Ochieng ruled Philip Wangalwa mischievous and cocky and ordered me to “go back to Nyeri and work with your head held high young man.

“Parliamentary reporter Chris Musyoka winked at the young Paul Muhoho who was then hogging the front pages with another youngster with who I had joined the Nation, Catherine Gicheru, their bylines almost permanent there, and we all trooped to a club on Monrovia Street where we hit it till sunrise. Story for another day.

I had another run-in with Joseph Karimi as I suffered a depression that eventually forced me out of the Nation, making me leave the newspapers with a vow never to come back to the trade.

This vow was short-lived after two years when PO sent Cornelius Nyamboki, the erstwhile former powerful head of Daniel Moi’s Presidential Press Unit and later Director of Broadcasting, in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, to  look for me after both had been hired as Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor respectively of the Kenya Times that the ruling Kanu party had acquired from Hilary Ng’weno’s stable as the Nairobi Times and were working in readiness for a partnership with then British media mogul Robert Maxwell.

It is this deal with Maxwell that was dangled to many reluctant journalists who PO and Nyamboki were headhunting and fishing from the Nation and the Standard and presently many big names were to troop to Kingsway House on University Way the building that had previously housed the dreaded Special Branch of the Kenya Police.

The journalists relished being in a news corporation that was part of Britain’s Mirror that belonged to Maxwell.

When I met PO he shored up my battered self-esteem, as I was still reeling from my depression that had put me out of journalism for a year and had me travel far away from my former news haunts perhaps running away from the demons that had almost made me commit suicide with the frustrations I had endured at the Nation.

Facing PO in his ever wide open office, his feet on the desk as he poured at me over his famous glasses, I felt like I was facing the news god having held the man in so much awe throughout all the time I had read and heard about him and never being able to have a conversation with him for more than a minute before this day.

Yet this was one where he took the time to assure me that nothing of Karimi’s and Wangalwa’s kind of antics would ever befall me at Kenya Times where Chris Musyoka and Grey Pombeah were to be my bosses as Metropolitan Editor and Upcountry News Editor respectively.

PO actually congratulated me about my previous “good work” in Mt Kenya where I had filed many scoops including about the famous “political tourist,” a phrase Kibaki coined during one of our drinking binges and used it publicly in parables at a Nyeri Kanu branch meeting in reference to politicians allegedly sponsored by President Moi to fell the vice president and put him out of possibly succeeding the man from Sacho.

The political tourist under reference then was the late Elijah Mwangale, Moi’s Minister for agriculture who was accused of pitching camp in Nyeri and mobilizing Kibaki’s local rivals to finish him politically.

The rivals included veteran freedom fighters Waruru Kanja and Ngibuini Kuguru who were to later be appointed to the cabinet as Kibaki was demoted to become Minister of health from where he resigned in December 1990 to join the Democratic Party where he became the chairman and ran against Moi in 1992 in the first multi-party general election since Kenya became first a defacto single party in 1969, and later a de-jure Single party when the infamous Section 2a was inserted into the Constitution to make Kenya a single party state by law.

Ochieng told me in his office that he was looking forward to a day he and I would collaborate in writing another book on Kenyan politics like he had with Joseph Karimi. This almost had me faint.

I was hearing what amounted to a monumental statement directed at me by the guru himself days after I had been fished out of despair by his emissary Cornelius Nyamboki, who PO had also brought back from the duoldrums after a bad fallout with Moi’s regime had sent the former government news head honcho into desperation somewhere in the backstreets of Nakuru to become POs number 2.

Other big names Philip brought along from Nation House included super subs Joseph Odindo and Khakudu Agunda who he made associate editors and his own brother Robert Otani, three fantastic journalists who together with another of my favs Grey, Wanjiru Ciira and young Paul Muhoho, Eric Shimoli and George Munji made the Kenya Times quickly transform into a newspaper to watch despite being owned by the ruling party.

This promise was dashed with the viscitudes mogul Bob Maxwell was facing back home in Britain leading to his death in an apparent suicide in his yaucht and the collapse of the anticipated merger with Kanu’s Kenya Times Media Trust, which, under Jared Kangwana, had founded the Kenya Television Network (KTN) as Kenya Times’ sister media house.

The two stations would have both been housed at the monstrous complex 64 floors that Moi had planned to erect at Uhuru Park, sparking off the ire of environmentalists led by the late Wangari Maathai who vehemently opposed that construction while Kanu used everything at its disposal, including the Phillip Ochieng-led Kenya Times to pour all its bile on the woman who later won the Nobel Peace Prize for her brave campaigns against the Moi regime.

PO – in one of his darkest periods in his otherwise most illustrious journalism career – was at that moment a shameless propagandist who led the assault on the mercurial lady.

Suffice it to say I stayed on in KT for just six more months after having been dispatched to Nyeri to establish the Media House at Mbaki House which was then owned by my ex-wife’s uncle Amos Wamunyu, Kibaki’s classmate at Makerere, who had just sold his White Rhino Hotel to Munene Kairo and Kibaki became a frequent night time binger there where we’d drink and sing the irua songs till almost dawn. Small world, no?

Also suffice it to mention that by the time Karimi retired to his Kiamwathi village home in Nyeri municipality, after retiring from the Nation, we had repaired our relations and had become really good friends discussing many of his projects including books he was writing especially on the Maumau, a subject the both of us had deep common interest in until his death in 2016.

Before leaving KT to join my former Nation colleague Pius Nyamora and his wife Loyce Nyamora at Tumaini House to resuscitate their Society Magazine, I had a wonderful trip with PO taking him round my Mt Kenya news beat and organising his meetings with the who was who in the politics and social life that had made my news beat in my years in Kibaki’s Nyeri most exciting.

Of course we stopped over at the White Rhino, Kairu’s hotel where he frequently hosted not just Kibaki but his allies Njenga Karume, Matere Kereri and Njoroge Michuki, among a host of many others, and to the Outspan where Kibaki would make his final stop even at 3am before being driven very fast back to Nairobi. Here I left PO with a man from his rural Nyanza backyard, Anthony Oyier, the diminutive veteran administrator who was then a powerful provincial commissioner for Eastern Province, based in Embu.

I was to learn that PO had not slept at the Outspan as we had arranged but drove with Oyier to his official residence in Embu town where the provincial headquarters were.

That forced Njenga, PO’s most trusted driver and I to drive to Embu the next day. We found the scribe in animated conversation with a familiar figure who turned out to be my father’s classmate former foreign affairs minister Kabeere M’Mbijjiwe who introduced me to my boss as Fredrick’s son.

Yes, PO had known my dad somewhere in his longwinded most interesting and charmed life where he seems to have known people in almost every nook and cranny of the world. Surprise to me. And we never ever talked about how he knew Fredrick Mathiu Imanene, M’Mbijjiwe’s classmate and friend.

As we parted outside Embu’s Isaack Walton Hotel, PO tapped me on the shoulder and told me, “good work, we’ll talk young man.”

We never got round to talk about that book project since that day in 1989. From there our life journeys took very different dimensions. I in the alternative (opposition) media and he in the mainstream after which I crossed into activism while he remained to make even a bigger name as an editor and retiring as a columnist, one of the most read and longest running.

I know we’ll talk PO. Thank you for drawing me back from the darkness of depression and raising my confidence. I’d have perhaps joined the long list of scribes who succumbed to this then little known monster, some who took their own lives others who drank themselves to death.

From God we all come and to Him is our return.

Go well PO. I know we’ll talk.

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