Talking to a few members of the family of the late President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi over the past few weeks, one could barely discern that Mzee’s life was on the precipice.
Only a couple of weeks ago, Kenya’s second president could sit up and eat normally, the television remote control by his side. He would, for as long as he could, continue to follow his four favourite TV programmes: wrestling matches, select cartoon series, religious presentations, as well as local and international news bulletins.
In his hospital room, he was his usual self, as Kenyans have known him to be, except frail and needing support to do the easiest of tasks of life. But he remained the free spirit he was, never passing up a moment to smile, laugh or even frown when need be.
Those who visited him in hospital, first when he was admitted and discharged late last year, and the second and last time he would be returned to Nairobi Hospital, talked of a man imbued with a lion’s spirit.
Giants and legends
Never one to grimace at his pain, regret his past or lament at his travails, he directed praise and gratitude to God for how far he had brought him.
The journey easily surpassing 10 decades is comprehensively told in other pages in this paper, but the story of the man cannot be sufficiently told, no matter the acres of newspaper space and hours of television and online feed it gets.
The stories of giants and legends who walk the world easily spill over to the next century if one dared to tell them to the minutest detail. That will not be my endeavour today, even though I was privileged to walk in Mzee’s footsteps during his presidency as a young journalist at Nation Media Group.
Silently and in private, his children and grandchildren, friends and fellow prayer warriors, may have once in a while confronted the reality of life that we are all mortal and his time could be nigh. But as with all of us, no matter how old your parent or grandparent is, nothing adequately prepares you for the permanent and everlasting separation death brings in many a heart when it strikes.
A case in point: not long ago, Mzee is reported to have choked on his food in hospital. It may have been a casual happenstance were he the old and robust oak he was a little over a decade ago, when he would spring up the staircase to his plane in foreign capital in his haste to be back to his Motherland. The family sat through the night, with his sons pitching camp at his bedside.
Early Tuesday morning, as the country began waking up to yet another day in an increasingly comical and dramatic Kenya, a constant dose of what Mzee called siasa mbaya, maisha mbaya, Moi slipped into the life hereafter, with his family ringing his hospital bed bell.
A sad ending, but a dignified one for a Kenyan statesman and Kalenjin elder par excellence.
The season at the hospital, long and drawn-out and cutting through previously cherished family reunions and bonding for the Moi family and many Kenyans, such as Christmas and New Year festivities, was lonesome and trying for the family.
Seeing their patriarch survive on oxygen and feeding tubes, and in the last days slipping from one bout of sleep to another, albeit still recognising the cheer, smiles, and greetings of his loved ones, was tormenting and signalled the end was nigh.
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Yes, a giant had lived, recorded many conquests, but the time to bow out was beckoning. And in his usual nature since his youth, his Bible that he had thumbed through the decades kept him company, as did his pastors and family.
There was little of politics and politicians as destiny and fate wrote out the last pages of his rich life.
His death sent shock waves across the country. Many conceded you needn’t have liked everything he did, for he never told anyone he was infallible, but he strove to be as human as possible. It didn’t matter that this is a quality that is easily compromised and breached by the vicissitudes of the life and politics of his early days.
This could be the politics of survival and cunningness that his friend Charles Njonjo had in mind when, after Moi booted him from the power corridors following the ‘traitor’ fall out, he dismissed it thus: “politics is a dirty game’’.
I count myself among those who never thought Mzee would leave us that soon.
Why? He had been around all my life, and Kenya as I knew it, was an extension of his story even when he had resigned to play a subtle peripheral role in its politics. After all, there had been endless speculation on his health since he attained the presidency.
First, he had been dismissed as a political greenhorn, a meek Bible-reading former school teacher, and in effect a ‘passing cloud’. But that cloud loomed over Kenya from the political stratosphere for the next 24 years from the time Mzee Jomo Kenyatta departed.
If you are close to my age or, better yet, older, you will recall a moment in the late 1980s during prayers led by the late televangelist Reinhard Bonke at a crusade Moi attended at Uhuru Park, Nairobi. There would later be claims that since he seemed to have, at one point as the sick were being prayed for, placed his palm across his chin and part of his neck, he must have been suffering from throat cancer.
Fanning the speculation were some brazen Opposition politicians who openly expressed wishes for his death. Many would ironically slip through the trapdoors of death decades before him.
At a pro-reform rally in Nairobi, Sheikh Khalid Balala – the erratic yet fiery Kanu critic from Mombasa who Moi’s government would later declare non-Kenyan and blockade him from entering the country on his return from Germany – would cynically beseech his God to dole out for Moi a generous measure of the pandemic that was then sweeping the country.
Finally, on this issue of health, many would remember the separate occasions the former president secretly left the country, and in his absence from the national broadcaster’s news bulletins, there would be speculation he had been spirited away in the dark of the night to a foreign country for treatment.
In the first instance, he came back through JKIA and declared that he had gone to directly negotiate for aid with the Bretton Woods institutions because he had found out that his ‘ministers were not telling the truth or arguing the Kenyan case well’.
At that time, the pressure on him by the West was for reforms and more reforms. He then laughed off claims that he was sick, got into his limousine and off he went to Kabarnet Gardens from where he ruled Kenya when he was not in State House, Nairobi, or at his Kabarak home.
The second instance, he would quietly return to the country and then the next morning head off to the stalls set up opposite City Hall and inside KICC for the Comesa States exhibition.
I was among the handful of journalists who happened to have been in the small crowd he stopped to address outside City Hall that day.
“Wengine hapa hata wakiona mapua yangu ikitiririka kamasi wanasema Moi ni mahututi!’’ (When some see me with a running nose they say I am in a bad state of health.)
With that statement, he hit headlines and the first item on prime time news was that he was as fit as a fiddle and back on the seat of power.
The other time was when he came back, again silently, reported to his Harambee House office (an infrequent occurrence then). At around 10 am, he stepped out and walked down Harambee Avenue towards Parliament as he waved at the crowd that had built up along the sidewalks from the moment they noticed his parked motorcade and the Presidential Standard raised high in the Office of the President, majestically dancing to the morning breeze.
Despite his claim to good health, however, Kenyans noticed that he walked with a limp – and it wasn’t that he had on super new or tight-fitting shoes, but that he was surely recuperating either from injury or as his handlers put it, “minor surgery”.
Kenyans would never know just how minor the surgery was, but after retirement, he was involved in a bad road accident around Kinungi area on the Nairobi-Nakuru highway. God was with Mzee, and he survived, albeit with a broken leg that would lead to several operations and admissions in hospital.
That surely must have been the worst health scare yet to the Mzee who had previously undergone an eye operation abroad to peel off corneal growth layering his pupil.
But the man never slowed down, doing what he liked best; overseeing his farm operations, supervising his businesses and construction in his legendary institutions, such as Kabarak University, high school and primary. In his Kelelwa Farm sprung a vast modern flower farm, one of his last legacies to Kenya’s agricultural stable.
In retirement, he stuck to one tradition that has defined him from his days as a barefooted schoolboy: church attendance.
If only the walls of Milimani AIC and Kabarak School Chapel could bear testimony. It is only when he could no longer sit for long hours or walk robustly as he did that prayers shifted to his home. Here he shared the Word with a few friends, family members, and clerics.
And to the end, the sparkle of his eyeshot to life the moment his children and grandchildren walked in and greeted him in the full Kalenjin tradition reserved for a father.
It is because of this dominant presence in the lives of his children and the larger family that the end could not even be envisaged.
And so as he gallantly fought for his life at the hospital, his Kabarnet Gardens home was modified by fundis to accommodate his new state.
Reports say the tiles and carpets were stripped out because of his chest problems, blamed on extreme cold and dust. Then, if the reports are true, his room was either equipped or was about to be equipped with the vital medical equipment doctors decreed he needed. The main ones were those to assist with his breathing and blood circulation.
Though he may never even have known that this was going on, he kept insisting, when he still had the strength, that he wanted to be let go to his home. True to his African spirit, he showed he was more at home in his bed than in alien places.
Many elderly people before him have done this in their last days. Perhaps it is a coded sign to their loved ones to let them go in peace, without the needling and other forms of drugging and management to prolong their lives. Mzee Moi, as fate would have it, would never be back in his modest living room where an old manual phone set would ring shrilly as friends, family, and clerics sought him out.
He would never be on the familiar road inside Kabarak where humanity thirsty for education would ecstatically wave at him.
Sacho, good, old Sacho, his place of birth, will not see him roll down the window, pull in a breath of fresh air, smile, greet them … and then go for yet another bundle from his coat pocket.
He leaves behind an enduring legacy, anchored on love for education and promotion of peace, love, and unity, but also a myriad of questions on what he could have done better, notwithstanding the levels of political consciousness and the challenges of nationhood during his time.
Also behind him are great controversies like his actual age, the genesis of his mythical laughter even in the face of adversity, and his dexterity to be kind and firm at the same time.
Maybe that is how legends are born; you will never truly say you know them. That is why Moi probably had a dozen nicknames and eerie descriptions on the colour of his eyes and their searing nature and stare.
Yes, a lion has fallen, but the ring of his roar still reverberates across the country.
Fare thee well, kugo (grandpa).