How Dr Dawood inspired me to pen my reflections on life as a journalist

Dr Yusuf Dawood a surgeon during interview on March 1, 2018 at Karura Gardens. [Edward Kiplimo,Standard]

Were it not for two contacts I had with renown surgeon and newspaper columnist Yusuf K. Dawood, most likely you wouldn’t be reading this column today. He is one who inspired and challenged me to write it.

My first contact with him was through his first book: “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” published in 1985. My classmate Kenneth Ochieng, whose brother was a medical doctor, came with the book and gave me to read it over the weekend when as students we never wanted any textbook near us. I liked the book. It was a collection of the “Surgeon’s Diary” column that had by then been published in the newspaper. At the time, the column was only six years old having began in 1980. The book got me addicted to the column to the last Sunday the surgeon penned it 27 years after I read the first one.

But it was in the year 2000 when I really got hooked to the “Surgeon’s Diary” column. My editor assigned me to write about - to quote his words -“this doctor who has invaded our territory and doing very well.”

I looked up into the directory and got the surgeon’s office number at the Nairobi Hospital. He was not in when I called but the person who picked the phone was kind enough to take my name and contact and ask the surgeon to call back which he did.

On the line, the surgeon was so soft and courteous contrary to what I thought of a celebrity of his calibre. He asked me to go see him at his hospital office but quickly changed his mind and said: “Oh, you journalists are busy people, let me come near where you are”. I was surprised and humbled because I thought it is surgeons who are busy people to be found where they are, unlike journalists who are busybodies nosing around for a story to tell.

We agreed to meet for coffee at the Hotel Boulevard, a walking distance from the newspaper offices where I worked at far end of Muindi Mbingu Street.

The interview went on very well. At the end, the surgeon handed me an envelope as he said: “I have a gift for you.” It was copy of his latest book titled: “Off my Chest”. The autographed copy is one of the valued items you can find in my bookshelf today. We were rising to go when the surgeon ambushed me with the question: “Well, you have interviewed me about my experiences as a surgeon, now when can we read about you experiences as a journalist?”

I took a deep breath and said: “Doc, but as journalists, we are always telling stories on what we do, the events we cover, the people we talk to and all that….Our activities are an open book so to say.”

He didn’t take much thought to reply. “Yes, you journalists do a good job telling us about events and other people. But hardly do you give us the story about yourself and your engagement with the story…I mean the personal touch…the fresh and blood thing!”

Well, I had no answer to that. I must have mumbled something which I can’t quite remember.

 Memories from the Beat

That encounter with the surgeon went out of my mind until 17 years later in 2017 after I had quit active newsroom journalism. It was a Sunday afternoon and alone in the house when I pulled the surgeon’s book: “Off my Chest” from the shelf and reread it picking a story at random. My two picks were on the occasion that made him become a writer and newspaper columnist, and one on his conversation with First President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.

He was attending a dinner for the Rotarians of which he lived and died a committed member. The first thing he did on arriving at the venue was to whisper to the master of ceremony that the expected guest speaker wouldn’t come because he had suddenly been taken ill and admitted to hospital under his care.

The master of ceremony understood and said sorry but quickly added: “You’re not off the hook surgeon, you must compensate for it. You have admitted to hospital our guest speaker without prior notice. Now you have to pay for it by being the guest speaker!”

“Oh no”, the surgeon protested. “You can’t make me guest speaker at such short notice!”

The master of ceremony shot back leaving no room for further argument: “That is what it means to be paid in the same coin you pay. You have taken away our guest speaker at short notice. In the same way, we are making you his replacement at short notice!”

The surgeon had no choice but to take a deep breath and rise to the occasion. Without any notes, he told story of a young girl who had come to his admission room at point of death but miraculously recovered. He got a long standing ovation for the moving story and his masterly in narrating it.

At the end of the event, the editor-in-chief of a leading newspaper followed him to his car and asked: “Surgeon, you are such a good story teller. Now, can you put the same story in writing and give it to me”.

“Not a problem. You will have the story in writing by close of the day tomorrow”.

Later at night, the editor rang to say: “Now I have discovered you’re not only a good surgeon and story teller but a great writer as well!”

Without giving the surgeon room for negotiation, the editor said: “We are publishing the story you have written this Sunday. Not just that, we are giving you a weekly column for that type of stories.”  And there was born the newspaper column: “Surgeon’s Diary.”

Old Jomo on phone

The other story I read in the book that afternoon and which remains my favourite is about the surgeon’s conversation with President Kenyatta and which revealed the private side of the old man.

This is the surgeon’s recollection of that interaction: “My first contact with Mzee came when one of his sons, Uhuru, sustained a cut on his face and was brought to the hospital for me to suture it. Soon after the lad’s arrival, Mzee was on the phone waiting to know the extent of the injury and the details of what I had done. Mzee had a very powerful voice on the phone. He spoke slowly, asked questions and then waited for me to reply. At times, his silence continued after I finished answering his questions and I thought he had rung off. But he was there avidly listening for more to come. On that first occasion when he rang me through his secretary and as she was trying to connect me to him, I was wondering how I would address him. When he came on the phone the problem solved itself: “This is Mzee here”, he said with that dominating but kind voice. From then on, I always addressed him as Mzee, a term which implies both affection and respect.”

RIP, Bwana Daktari