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The other side of Mutunga

By | 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).

She reveals Mutunga always had a strong sense of humour, even during his younger days and she never heard him pick a quarrel.

"I don’t remember an incident when the young Mutunga was chastised for doing something wrong. He was obedient and extremely hardworking, both at school and home," says Nduki.

Her face lights up when we explain to her the powerful nature of the office her nephew will occupy if he overcomes the hurdle created by Parliament’s warring MPs.

Two simple, but well kept houses dot the main compound one of them converted by Mutunga to a library for use by the community. The house, which Mutunga had previously earmarked as his "refuge" when in Kitui, has a pair of well-worn sofas and reading tables and well kept shelves adorned with priceless books.

Currently, Mutunga has no known residence in the village and when he visits, he almost always travels back to the city the same day.

Collected works

The books open a window into the thinking that made Mutunga such a firebrand political activist in the Second Liberation struggle.

They cover issues in the fields of law, politics, media, religion, literature, history, development and civil society.

Among them are collected works of Karl Marx, Prof Ali Mazrui and former Makueni MP Prof Kivutha Kibwana, once an ally of Mutunga in the civil society that formed the core of Kenya’s fight to entrench multi-party politics.

Mutunga avoids any appearance of political sycophancy, and it is not clear how close the two still are, given that Prof Kibwana, who was a minister between 2003-2007, now advises President Kibaki on constitutional affairs.

Also on the shelves are copies of autobiographies by Kenneth Matiba (Aiming High: The Story of My Life), Energy Minister Kiraitu Murungi (In The Mud Of Politics) and former US President Bill Clinton (My Life).

Other books include Ngugi Wa Thiongo’s Devil on the Cross and Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.

Conspicously hanging on the walls are blown out pictures of Mutunga and Kibwana being harassed by police during the protests organised by the National Convention Executive Council (NCEC), where they focused their activism in the struggle for a new Constitution.

His relatives say the controversy elicited by the stud he proudly dons is of no consequence, adding Mutunga is a man at peace with all religions.

"I know Mutunga very well and like he has explained the stud has close links with his ancestors," says Nduki.

Mwangangi who teaches at Ikuyuni Secondary says those expecting Mutunga to shed off his stud were in for a rude shock. "He is a principled man who is not easily swayed from what he believes," says Mwangangi.

The Kagumo Teachers College-trained Geography and Religious Studies teacher terms Mutunga as a friend to all, and a man loved by his people. "He is also a gifted arbiter of family and communal disputes and loves when people are living in harmony," says Mwangangi who we traced at the school.

Mutunga has asserted that he wears the stud not because sexual orientation, but spirituality. Despite the sentiments by politicians and clerics on the stud, Mutunga has said there is no way he can remove it, even if he becomes the Chief Justice.

"If am told I must remove it to get the job of Chief Justice I will say keep your job," Mutunga is quoted as saying by the media some time back.

On his religious identity, his relatives say he is a professed Muslim, but also respect the religious beliefs of his ancestors; Mutunga is on record as saying that it is his ancestors who instructed him in 2003 to wear the stud. "He always attends burials and even weddings in the village and even takes up the burden of assisting the bereaved meet their expenses. He is an extraordinary and generous person," says Pius Kimuli, a neighbour.

He describes Mutunga as a man who loves the truth.

"Many people flock to our homestead when they learn that Mutunga is around. He listens to their problems and assists where possible," says Mutua. He says Mutunga’s commitment to ensuring justice for all is unquestioned, adding that he often assisted people facing complex legal hurdles for free.

His brother-in-law, councillor Elvias Muluvi describes Mutunga as a keen listener who speaks less and who is exceptionally bright.

On his marital front, relatives say that Mutunga has married twice, first to a woman they identified as Rukia, and with whom they had two children Mbuti Willy and Shamillah Willy.

Rukia, they said, lives in Nairobi while Mbuti who converted to Islam is a trader in Kitui.

Mutunga’s aunt Nduki, who mainly resides in their village home insists that Rukia and Mutunga are still husband and wife. "They have not separated as far as I know," says Nduki.

However, a divorce case at the High Court pitting Mutunga and his second wife, Prof Beverle Michele Lax is still pending in court.

Nduki reveals that they are aware of the "divorce" adding that the "white" woman was in the past a previous visitor to the village but stopped coming.

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