Mark Too was a storyteller and a funny one at that. You could easily think his nickname, Bwana Dawa (Medicineman), in the 1990s was because on a boring day, he could be tonic for your soul, cracking your ribs and maybe even breaking one.
He would take on anyone and say anything and seemingly get away with it because he made everything seem a joke.
One of his favourite stories was how he supposedly got one of the fiercest Kalenjin critics of Mzee Daniel arap Moi’s presidency, Mr Jackson Kibor, to kneel before the second President of Kenya. Kibor, currently fighting a different war – that of divorcing his wife of 51 years for among other ‘crimes’ desertion and denial of conjugal rights – was the first Kalenjin to dare Moi to name his preferred successor because he said retirement was an inevitable act of nature.
Well, he was not exactly the first to do so. Former Cherangany MP Kipruto Kirwa had said the same, albeit differently. He told Moi it would be disastrous to the community if he was to make ‘Total Man’ Nicholas Biwott his choice of community spokesman and political prefect.
But the reason Kibor’s hit the headlines was that he was not far off from being just another village elder. He also had the guts buoyed by his stature as an arrogant, self-made wealthy land and property owner.
So going by Mark Too’s story, how did he get Kibor to kneel before Moi, something those in his social circles had said he had vowed he would never do? Let Mark Too take up the narration of the story from here.
“Mzee (Moi) was unhappy Kibor was insulting him before Kenyans. I proposed a one-on-one talk with him but Mzee was sure Kibor would not accept his invitation. I told Mzee to send me to him and I would deliver Kibor. Once he gave me the nod, I went to see Kibor.
“I pleaded with him that it was only fair, in keeping with our culture and tradition among Kalenjin elders, for him to honour the invitation, even if to just go and speak his mind. He finally accepted and I took him to Mzee.
“But I had a trick waiting for him up my sleeve. Kibor had always seen me as a fool but I knew I would beat him in his own game. At State House, I asked that we be given separate rooms to wait for Mzee, away from the prying eyes in the main reception area and waiting room. I also asked that Mzee should come to meet us here rather than us going into his office.
“In addition, I asked an aide to signal me the moment Mzee stepped out of his office. I then sat in a strategic position where I would see him come towards where we were with the corner of the eye while keeping Kibor busy with praises about his business acumen, political bravado and personal achievements in the seduction front.
“When the signal came, with Mzee striding before us, I went down on my knees while asking Kibor to do the same. May be he thought there was a coup or something serious happening and he went down. As this happened, Mzee walked in to find us in kneeling position. He smiled. I had made Kibor kneel before him! Kibor never forgave me for this and just denigrated me as Sungura Mjanja (trickster).”
I must add here that I never got to verify this with Kibor, who probably has his side of the story but the laughter and dripping of saliva that characterised Mark Too’s narration tells me he couldn’t have entirely cooked this story. I must also say this probably was one of the biggest political goals he scored against a man who had little regard for him and his master.
The second time I would encounter the funny side of Mark Too had to do with the accident that broke his leg. Well, it was painful and left him with a permanent limp, but then the circumstances were hilarious.
But before that, let us try and recreate something that happened at State House, Eldoret (gosh it must be full of cobwebs now!)
The then head of African Inland Church (AIC) Ezekiel Birech, father of then Cabinet minister John Cheruiyot (see how close the respected cleric was to Mzee Moi, also a respected AIC elder) had come to see his friend of many years. When it was time to leave, Birech was escorted out by Mzee Moi, who was stunned when his driver left the parking in a battered Peugeot 504 saloon to pick Birech.
Moi asked one simple question: “Why are you not using the new Mercedes Benz I sent you?” The bishop was unaware of this at all and said as much. Mzee turned to his then State House comptroller Abraham Kiptanui, also a respected elder of the church. What transpired next would be Mark Too’s latest cynical tale around town. Kiptanui could not explain where the vehicle had disappeared to, probably because he needed to check the records first.
“Mzee was furious at his aides led by Kiptanui. Later in the evening, Kiptanui would be flown to Nairobi, having suffered a serious stroke. Don’t play with what belongs to a man of God,” was Mark Too’s constant line in the story.
But back to Mark Too’s accident, reportedly with what the grapevine likes to blow up with the phrase, ‘female companion’. The accident was a bad one and Mark Too, the story goes, though in pain, did make a few calls to ensure the lady who was being rushed to Nairobi by road was safe and well taken care of.
Nonetheless, the joke in the Kalenjin powerhouse then was that God had prescribed for Mark Too the dose that remained from Kiptanui’s medical chest.
But this didn’t deter Mark, who was soon to leave a mark on the Kenyan soil as ‘Bwana Dawa’ for his role in dancing with and taming the lion called Raila Odinga. He brought Raila by the claws into Kanu and a marriage solemnised in that famous March 18, 2002 event in Kasarani, where if you recall, the late Prof George Saitoti and late Joseph Kamotho were served a political meal they would not chew, leave alone swallow!
But the next accident was also baffling. Kipruto Kirwa, the man who Mark Too had tried many times to woo alongside Kanu young turks Cyrus Jirongo and William Ruto (remember the original UDM with the symbol of a bicycle?), would soon suffer a serious accident somewhere in Kitale.
Well, Kirwa was not the driver but he too broke a leg and so you should listen to the story from Mark Too! The old man who sadly died in the crash, was a respected Tugen elder, Chemusian, the father of then President Moi’s aide, Mr Joshua Kulei.
“Kirwa would later look at me over lunch in Parliament and lament that it seemed some of his friends may have wished he had also died in the crash,” said Mark Too.
But then something else came out on why Kirwa was nicknamed Makokha. Turns out that, like Kibor, he was invited to State House because he too had turned critical of the system. Over lunch, Mzee Moi walked in, greeted his guests by name but when it came to Kirwa, he dropped the name Makokha. This was a sign that he disliked the stand he had taken because he interpreted it to mean that he was trying to please the Luhya voters in Cherangany, who were largely in the Opposition.
In Mark Too’s words, Mzee was telling him “wewe si wetu tena”, and that was the essence of the lunch for, as they say, there is nothing like free lunch.
Not long after, Kirwa was an assistant minister and a few months later, he would be on newspaper front pages packing some of his belongings into an Omo carton box, for he had been fired in the KBC One O’clock news! He would later jump onto the anti-Kanu bandwagon and ended up as Agriculture minister in Kibaki’s first Cabinet.
I don’t know the exact nature of relations Mark Too had with Ruto but I recall that he was a sort of link between the Jirongo-Ruto-Kirwa axis with State House by deploying his charm as a friend to all.
BIG AND MIGHTY
Interestingly, at the burial of a respected matriarch in 2015 in Eldoret which Ruto attended, now as Deputy President and not the political errand boy in the days when Mark Too drove into State House without notice, I caught up with Mark.
We had a little chat and I asked him if he was still friends with Ruto. He showed me the fruits that had fallen off the tree in whose shade we were standing, then philosophically said: “You think he has time to waste picking the good fruits from the rotten on the ground when has the ladder to harvest the freshest and juicier ones from the top of the tree.” He seemed to suggest Ruto considered him a spent force.
“But you know me, Arap Tugenin (man from Tugen), I am a friend of all. I don’t show people my feelings, neither do I get too close or stay too far... niko na hawa tu. (I am just with them!) You know what this means, for one sage taught us that don’t be too close to power for it burns but don’t stay too far for you will freeze!”
Mark Too also had a weird way of looking at the big and mighty. At the burial of Kenya’s second First Lady Mama Lena Moi in Kabarak, in attendance was President Mwai Kibaki. The service was held on the exotic and well-trimmed Kabarak University grounds then the family and few dignitaries retreated to the burial site next to Mzee’s home.
Kibaki had, in his speech, exhorted Mama Lena to intercede for those left behind. “Twakuaomba useme neno nzuri kutuhusu kule mbinguni,’’ Kibaki repeated several times.
At the graveside, Mark Too came and pulled me aside. He whispered to me that Kibaki had saluted him and that this showed something was seriously wrong. What I gathered and didn’t want to tell him was that after Kibaki had an accident in 1992, he also broke his leg and this gave him a limp. A metal had also been sewn up inside his shoulder and he couldn’t raise his hand well as in African traditional greeting.
But he didn’t stop there. He asked me if I had taken note of the old man’s plea to Mama Lena. He said this also showed some psychological issue. Yet, to me I understood Kibaki’s message because of my Catholic upbringing. But what was funny is that Kibaki would later yank Mark out of the jaws of forlornness for some diplomatic job to do with the Sudan conflict.
Which brings me to how I almost ‘lost’ my reporter’s job with the Nation because of Mark Too. See, Mark had all of a sudden got to run government errands by playing the role of unofficial ambassador to the Great Lakes region, ostensibly because of the connections he established with leaders like senior Kabila while he was the chairman of the ubiquitous Lonrho Group.
He happened to have received President Kabila senior at Eldoret Airport and the news editor saw the oddity in this, for whence had government protocol disappeared to?
I was asked to pen a piece asking if there were two centres of power in Kenya’s foreign relations with one led by Mark Too and another by then Foreign Minister Kalonzo Musyoka. At subsequent news conferences, Kalonzo would take on me, asking why I was demeaning him.
One day, because of my slimness then, he confused me with late reporter Justin Konchora and wanted him out of his news conference. It then became an unofficial agreement that Tanui shouldn’t be assigned to cover Kalonzo, all because of the Mark Too story but I liked it that way for it gave me some peace away from this soft-spoken bible-quoting tyrant at Kanu headquarters who later, I gathered, had been calling my bosses asking when they would kick me out.
For the best moments of Mark Too we shall move over to a burial in Muhoroni and for the lowest – his dramatic exit in Parliament as nominated MP to pave way for Uhuru Kenyatta. Kenya’s first ambassador to Russia Ker Adala Otuko was being laid to rest in a ceremonial and symbolic burial given his status as the chairman of the Luo Council of Elders. I know many of you only remember the days of Ker Riaga Omollo.
Things came to a standstill at the burial when Raila, now ndani ya serikali ya siri kali (inside the government of top secrets as the Opposition used to call it!) arrived with Mark Too, whose ‘dawa’ (medicine) had propelled Tinga into government.
Tuko Serekali youths literally lifted a rickety vehicle that stalled on the stony path to Otuko’s home on the hill off the road! Funny thing is that inside the stalled vehicle were some old men and women! That is how popular Mark Too was in Nyanza. You could tell from the smile, and the cheers that greeted him when he rose to speak, that this was his moment! I have not seen at my age a rally where someone else upstages Raila by way of reception at a rally in Nyanza, where I had a chance to work as regional editor.
Mark Too was not much of a contributor in Parliament but once outside, MPs would make a beeline for him. In fact, the reference to ‘dawa’ appeared to turn into a source of nectar (cash!) for the MPs.
But his world fell apart one day when word spread that he had been cajoled to surrender his space on the nominated MPs’ list for the son of Jomo. And although Mark Too was an ebullient storyteller, this is one story he would not tell.
There is also another angle Raila brought out in a chapter titled ‘The Medicineman’. He says it was not Too who acted as the go-between with Moi on the road to ‘koparesson’ (co-operation and merger of his NDP with Kanu), but the late Reuben Chesire.
According to Raila, after a meeting with the grandmaster of politics, Moi himself, Chesire was asked to leave so that he (Moi) could share something private with the son of Jaramogi. When the door closed behind Chesire, Raila says Moi told him he would prefer that he dealt with Too from then on.
The story goes on and on but at the end of it, ‘Bwana Dawa’ was a nickname on many a lip and it meant power, influence and good connections!
Too was known for his charm, hearty laughter and humorous, skilled tongue. Many narrate the times he made Moi roar with laughter to the point of tears.
One of the last occasions I had with Mark Too was when I bumped onto him outside Klique Restaurant in Eldoret. Well, I didn’t bump onto him but he called me from his car as I passed by. He was in an old Peugeot 505 and he quickly motioned me to get in. As a joke, I asked him if the Peugeot was his way of going round town incognito like that hoax of a character in Nikolai Gogol’s play,
‘The Government Inspector’. He may have missed the joke for he opened the glove compartment and showed me wads of notes, which he said were to release bodies of two constituents that had been held by a hospital over unsettled bills.
Squeezing me by the hand, he asked me if I understood and feel for the poor. He then told me in political retirement, he had decided to live among them and help with all he could. By their thousands, these poor people will join the high and mighty that Mark Too somehow touched, to lay him to rest.
One final thing to note is the meaning of his middle name, Kiptarbei. In Kalenjin, it means in direct translation “he who finishes the water”.
You can do this either by fainting at birth and the last calabash of water is drained while splashing it on you to come to life. Secondly, you can be the one who skilfully makes people clear their water jars to either calm their laughter or soothe their aching ribs, or just sitting long enough to clear the jar while listening to a witty and humorous man. So you can tell which side of the man this name came from! Fare Thee Well BwanaDawa. Rest in Peace Kiptarbei.