Musalia Mudavadi has an amazing poker face. Pleasant and amicable throughout, yet never showing his hand (figuratively speaking) unless it is absolutely necessary. Talking to him, I cannot get a read on what his words aren’t saying - the nuanced emotions that give you a closer look at a person. But every once in a while, that solid veneer of controlled emotion breaks. For instance, when I ask him about what drew him to his wife Tessie.
“Oh my!” he says, chuckling. “Good values, by the way. You meet people, you start talking…”
“You mean her?” I ask.
“Yeah!” he says, smiling.
“And then you find that as you converse, you observe how you are connecting in terms of the thought process. Do they have the humour, do they have the sense of purpose, the focus - you know, all these things help in shaping the kind of relationship you are looking for? So I would say that as I looked at her and we talked, with time, the values that I saw in her are the ones that attracted me to her. And frankly speaking, I have no regrets.”
They have been married exactly 30 years, marking their Pearl Anniversary on November 17. People tend to tiptoe around those in positions of power, but his wife keeps him grounded. He says that she is the one who tells him what everyone is afraid of telling him.
“She has been a good mother to my children and where I have been absent because of my political career, she has filled the gap,” he says. They have three children – Moses, Michael and Maryanne.
When I was ushered into his office for the interview, after the no-handshake greetings that the world is now getting used to, he asked where I preferred to do the interview. I settled for what looked like a mini lounge, a set of four brown leather seats arranged in pairs facing each other with a table small table in between.
Other than moments with his family, which he says are his ultimate happy times, he gives an off-the-wall description of one of his happiest memories - hilarious because it seems unlike him, yet relatable.
“You know when you are in school and you are writing your last paper in an exam? It’s like you have been liberated!” he says as we break into laughter. “You know what I mean? When you are at the university level and you’ve done your final exam? By the time you are putting that final full stop to say that you are done, it is very exciting. It is such a relief!”
In his autobiography, Soaring Above the Storms of Passion, Mudavadi gives an account of his high school days in Nairobi School, describing how, for instance, they preferred Limuru Girls and Kenya High School over Alliance Girls, because “they were too academic and book focused while we wanted fun. Instead of talking to you about social issues, they would give you a lecture in chemistry and biology and go on and on with that kind of stuff.” Quite the typical high school student.
Whenever there was a meeting with a girls’ school, they would all flock around Ben Wakhungu to borrow his exclusive Brut Cologne. “The can in our hands, we would generously spray ourselves and step out smelling like perfume factories, ready to meet the girls…. I still hope to buy him some cologne someday, in belated appreciation,” he writes.
Like an onion, there is another layer to the man: there exists a world in which Musalia Mudavadi might have been a big name in sports instead of in politics. When he was at Nairobi School, his nickname was ‘Phantom’. That was because he could run fast – as a sprinter, he held the 100 and 200-meter records while in the school, he also played hockey and football, and in rugby, his ultimate sport – no one could run as fast as he did on the pitch. He played for Mean Machine while at the University of Nairobi and was the patron of the Kenya Rugby Football Union at one time.
What hurt the most and calm politics
The other time I can get a good read on him is when he is talking about lives lost because of politics. He becomes pensive and lowers his voice when talking about Kenya’s long, dark night.
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“I don’t know whether I take it to a personal level sometimes,” he tells me. “Instead of regret, let me put it this way - the things that have hurt me most is to see innocent lives lost because of politics. I think that is where sometimes I have woken up and said, ‘Is this really worth it?”
Pausing briefly, he continues. “When I say ‘worth it’ I mean, is this loss really worth it? I keep going back and remembering the bodies of young men riddled with bullets and I feel very bad. So going forward, if there is anything we must do, we must make sure that Kenyans’ lives come first.”
On his wall is a picture of him with Nobel laureate Kofi Annan. A stark reminder of when the country was on fire. He was part of the mediation process that the late Annan, a former Secretary-General of the United Nations, was presiding over, a process that ended with him appointed as one of two deputy prime ministers, effectively bringing to a stop the 2007 post-election violence. There are other pictures on the wall of his tastefully furnished office. They are a snapshot of his political journey. Pictures with each of Kenya’s presidents except Jomo Kenyatta and one with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, among others.
Harbouring his dreams of being president one day, he sits in good company. In a career where bold and brash is increasingly becoming the order of the day in politics, he has been the picture of calmness and level-headedness, almost to a fault. He has been faulted for it in some quarters, but while not convinced that having being combative is necessary to do the job, he knows that he is often misunderstood.
“I tend to believe that because of my personality, perhaps my demeanour, people don’t get it sometimes. They expect all politicians to be abrasive, but they perhaps have not recognised the idea that you can be firm and consistent in the pursuit of what is right without necessarily playing to the gallery,” he says.
Almost an economist
In yet another possible life, he might have been an unknown economist toiling away behind the scenes in the private sector. That was what he was before he was thrown into the deep end of politics at 28 when his father, Moses Mudavadi, died and his community pressured him to replace his father. He ran unopposed for the seat and won. The winds of change have blown through the Mudavadi household because his children will have a choice.
“I have been very open. I have not tried to direct my children’s choices or interests. I think what I am critical about is for them to have good values, be able to make their decisions so that whatever choices they make in terms of what they want to do, as a parent I would give them my support and my encouragement together with mama and that would be good enough for me. They must have the independence to make that decision,” he says.
What do they think of his political career?
“They make comments every once in a while if they believe they owe me an opinion. They tell me what they think and try to encourage me in their own way. But I also try to tell them, ‘Please don’t let it put you down, because this is my career. It has ups and downs but don’t let it consume you,” he says.
His life in public service has not been easy. He recalls an incident from when Kenya was on the brink of collapse.
“Kenya was broke. We had gone to a meeting with the World Bank in Washington. At that time the World Bank Vice President called Edward Jacobs. We went into his office and that was when Kenya was really in trouble, in 1993/94 after the 1992 elections. Jacobs exploded. He said, ‘I have no business negotiating with looters of their country!' Some of us were shocked, but I later learned that one of the biggest problems with Kenya was that corruption had reached very dangerous levels and that was the message he was delivering.”
What would my father have thought of me?
Sometimes he wonders what his father would have thought. “If you go for nostalgia, you sometimes ponder and say, suppose these parents of ours who are not here, suppose there is an opportunity for them to have a glimpse into your life? What would they say? Would they be shocked? Would they be happy? But that is human. Those are things you think about every once in a while,” he says.
Mudavadi was celebrated as the long-awaited son on his mother’s side, back when not having a son was considered disastrous in their culture. Today, he looks forward to one day leading the country. “The truth is I have declared my interest in the presidency of this country and that is something that I say that God-willing, hopefully, will be achieved. What I would really like to see is a prosperous country,” he says.
“A country where the economy works for everybody. A progressive society where young men and women are getting jobs. Their talent is not being frustrated. Their dreams are not being crushed. A system that works. An efficient nation which has a lot of its principals based on the rule of law and respect for each other. That is what I would like.”