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The other side of Mutunga

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Updated Mon, May 30th 2011 at 00:00 GMT +3

By Mutinda Mwanzia

Who is the man that is a heartbeat from being confirmed Kenya's next Chief Justice? What background has shaped his life and beliefs, and why does he arouse both admiration and fear in different measure? While Dr Willy Munyoki Mutunga's human rights and political activism are well documented, his childhood roots have largely remained beyond the grid of public scrutiny.

To answer these questions, The Standard opted off the beaten path and visited Mutunga’s home and ancestral roots in the sleepy village of Kilonzo, Kitui County.

It was a humbling experience.

Kitui County is synonymous with one of the giants of the Kamba people’s modern political history, Africa’s first Chief Justice, the late Kitili Mwendwa.

A resident of Kilonzo village at Dr Willy Mutunga’s library in Kilonzo village, Kitui County. INSET: Dr WIlly Mutunga's brother Judah Mwangagngi Mutunga, a teacher at Ikuyuni Secondary School talks to The Standard team in Kitui. Photo: Moses Omusula

Here, close relatives and neighbours have watched Dr Mutunga’s rise to the top and the ensuing opposition from a section of society with bemusement. And they paint a different picture of the man now facing close scrutiny of his spirituality, culture and standing by the Catholic Church and some politicians on issues relating to family.

His village in the new Nzambani District is a seven-kilometre drive along a winding, well-maintained dirt road from Kitui Town. Relatives and neighbours warmly usher The Standard team to the humble home where Mutunga was born and bred, before moving out to pursue higher education and a livelihood.

And he still visits the village, but without the trappings that ‘highly placed’ sons and daughters of the land are known for, which include expensive four-wheel-drive fuel guzzlers and luxury sedans.

Principled and firm

His humble roots bred in him a deep appreciation of the everyday struggles of ordinary Kenyans, while his brushes with the Moi regime and detention honed his civil rights activism.

"You will see Mutunga driving himself in an economical vehicle. He is a private but very down-to-earth man," insists his brother Judah Mwangangi, a high school teacher.

His relatives have only respect and praise for the man they describe as principled and firm, but soft-spoken. Mutunga’s father, Mzee Mutunga Mbiti a tailor, married two wives and passed away in 1985. The CJ nominee’s mother, Mbesa Mutunga, was the second wife and passed on earlier in 1982. The passing of his parents left Mutunga with the task of taking care of the family at a time when the fight for Kenya’s so-called Second Liberation was growing. It was a struggle that he appeared well prepared to contend with.

His brother says Mutunga will fight for what he believes in, not matter the consequences, if he feels he is right and is unswayed by how powerful the opposition may be.

Mutunga is the second born of eight children, and his 86 year-old aunt, Rose Nduki says the lawyer has always fended for his relatives and paid for their education.

"He has ensured no one in the family has slept hungry or failed to get treatment once sick. He is the pillar of our family," says Nduki

She speaks in glowing terms in the Kamba dialect of her nephew whom she fondly refers to as by his first name Willy.

"Nitungia Ngai muvea na andu ala angi monie Mutunga no atonye wia usu. Ninisi ni ngumbau," says Nduki. (I thank God and all those Kenyans who have seen it fit for Mutunga to hold the post. I know he is a brave man).

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