Goodbye Hilary Ng’weno, my mentor and professional father

Hilary Ng’weno was a stickler for excellence. [Courtesy]

To the young generation of Kenyan journalists, the name Hilary Boniface Ng’weno may probably not ring any bell. And they may be justified for holding no memories of a man who is undoubtedly one of Kenya’s most respected media practitioner, developer and investor. A Harvard nuclear physics graduate who chose media as his professional option, Ng’weno was my second employer, just a year after I graduated with a diploma from the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication.

Until his death on Wednesday, many people who interacted or simply knew Ng’weno in his active professional days did not know he was still very much alive. By the time of his demise, he had long retired from journalism and from public life and taken on a very determined private life. For the better part of that life, he was holed up in a small office on the fifth floor of Prudential House, City Hall Way, in the centre of Nairobi churning out documentaries under the title "makers of the Nation’’. He had operated here for more than 20 years and, although his health deteriorated over time, he still kept a punishing work schedule arriving in the office at 6am and leaving well into the night.

For over 10 years, I dropped in to check on him every so often. Every time I visited, Ng’weno never ceased to amaze me with his candid and witty assessment of the Kenyan situation. He was as critical and sharp-minded as he used to be in his heydays as the rabble-rousing proprietor and Editor-In-Chief of the Weekly Review, the publication that made him and his name famous across Kenya, East Africa and the entire world. 

When he folded the Weekly Review (WR) on May 17, 1999, I felt professionally deprived not only of the truly editorial excellence that WR bequeathed to me and the small army of its writers, analysts, sub-editors and proofreaders but more importantly the dedicated readers who made a date with a copy of each edition when it rolled off the press on Friday. The folding of WR also marked the end of an era of truly informed and articulated political reporting and analysis. Today, political reporting and analysis has turned into an armchair commentaries and opinions affair.

By that simple act of closing WR, Ng’weno presided over the demise of Kenya’s greatest socio-political and economic news magazine of all time. Its exit left a void that has remained impossible to fill. The WR was one and perhaps the only successful weekly news magazine of its kind to grace Kenya’s media landscape at least as we knew it. At the time of its exit, WR had been on the media scene for 24 long years. Established in 1975, the magazine acquired a larger than life presence in homes, universities and newspaper libraries across the world. Copies of the weekly review are still kept and treasured by readers, some of who boast of having kept every issue from the inaugural copy.

Hilary Ng’weno. [Courtesy]

In his role as Editor-In-Chief of WR, the bespectacled workaholic of no mean repute, Ng’weno was a slave driver of sorts who demanded and more often than not got only the best out of his team of reporters. He was a stickler for excellence and kept his editorial staff on their toes by the sheer weight of his sharp mind and imposing professional personality. His understanding of the environment in which he operated and his meticulous attention to facts and detail was bewildering. He was not the "let us publish and be damned’’ type of editor. Under the one-party environment that he operated in, Ng’weno classified politicians of the time as either doves or hawks.

Like his reporters and editors, HBN often burned the midnight oil to ensure the WR rolled off the press on time. Ng’weno would stay in his Pioneer House, Moi Avenue, office even up to midnight editing copy and calling the newsroom to countercheck facts and details of each story with individual reporters. That meant we had to be in the newsroom in Agip House at that time. And he was still able to make it to his office at 6am the next day. Ng’weno developed a unique editorial style that made the whole magazine, from the editor’s note, which he never delegated to any reporter, to the last page to appear to be written and edited by one person – Ng’weno. Through his invisible hand, WR was to become such a powerful tool for gauging public opinion on almost every major political happening or government policy decision of the day. His stranglehold on editorial policy of the magazine saw Ng’weno single-handedly set and determine the pace and direction of the country’s political and socio-economic direction for more than two decades. Even on matters of foreign policy, it was WR’s word, often spelled in his brief editor’s note that carried the day.

Yet Ng’weno kept a remote physical presence from WR newsroom such that when he made personal appearance, his presence was openly unnerving to some reporters, me included. His entry to the newsroom was often preceded by an alert from the amiable receptionist Rose Shitakha. She would whisper his imminent entry through the office intercom and the entire newsroom would go dead silent.

During my time at WR, Ng’weno did not get directly involved in the hiring and firing of editorial staff. That responsibility was left to the then senior editor, Peter Jones Kareithi and Managing Editor Sarah Elderkin. I was hired on May 1, 1985.

For the whole period that I worked for WR, I only set foot in his office once. I had landed a fully paid scholarship to study for a master’s degree in the UK through the British Council in Nairobi. The course was tenable at the University of Wales, College of Cardiff.

When I briefed him of my intention, Ng’weno’s first and only question was where I was going to study. He told me that if it was the University of Nairobi, he would not have approved of it because, as he put it, it would not be worth my struggle.

Former President Daniel Moi and Hilary Ng’weno (left). [Courtesy]

Among the most notable professional siblings of Ng’weno that I worked with include the current Managing Director at Royal Media Services Wachira Waruru. Among other notable media heavyweights that passed through WR include former Nation Media Group Editorial Director Joseph Odindo, Former Standard Media Group Editorial Director Kwendo Opanga and former NMG Associate Editor Macharia Gaitho.

The late Philip Ochieng, who went on to become perhaps one of Kenyan’s longest media practitioners, was also associated with Ng’weno. Ochieng was among the first crop of journalists that started the WR in 1975 together with Horace Awori and Sarah Elderkin who went on to partner with Hilary as Managing Editor.

The last person to serve as WR’s Managing Editor at the time it folded was Jaindi Kisero who remains a familiar name in business reporting circles. Then there is Mutegi Njau, who retired as a political talk show co-host at Citizen TV.

There were other notable reporters such as Michael Ngwalla, Dominic Odipo, Francis Makokha and Pius Muiru Ngugi, now lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s School of Journalism. Not to forget Betty Muriuki, Judy Ogecha and Lucy Oriang’ as well as the late Matthew Gathigira who did the sub-editing of WR.

I too had my springboard to greater journalistic roles at WR. In 1996, I was poached by KTN to strengthen its editorial department as Head of News. Within a year when the TV News station had tremendously picked, I was unceremoniously fired in December 1997. I went on to serve a short stint as Managing Editor at the People Daily in 1989 but left in early 2000 when I landed in trouble with the state. I was arrested and charged with the crime of publishing a story that was likely to be used by an enemy of Kenya. The case dragged on for a good eight years before the state entered a nolle prosqui and dropped it.

A decade later I landed a brief appointment as the Deputy Director for Public Information and Media for the Committee of Experts (CoE) that wrote and finalised the Constitution promulgated in August 2010. I wound up my professional calling as Editor-In-Chief at the government-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation in 2014. You now understand why I consider Ng’weno my professional father who I will always hold in high esteem. Fare Thee well Ng’weno.