The first time I heard the word “inscrutable”, I was on a phone call with Prof George Magoha. He used it in an attempt to describe himself, specifically why he never smiled or danced in public.
When I asked him what it meant, he explained it as the ability to hide emotions so well that nobody can figure out what you are thinking.
He said he was inscrutable. Hard to read. Hard to interpret. Hard to impress. He liked it that way.
I was a features writer at Standard Group and was speaking with him several weeks after being appointed Education Cabinet Secretary.
Before that phone conversation, I had desperately sought to do a profile on him – to write about what made him who he was, his childhood, family life, why he was always in a suit even in a scorching sun, and more importantly, why he never smiled.
I texted, emailed, called, and sent word through people who were close to him. His response remained a firm No. He did not want anyone to write his story, especially about his private life.
“I have one child, one wife and I am a doctor. Can that fill a page?” he asked.
I tried to convince him that he did not have to talk about his personal life if he was not comfortable. Maybe we could talk about academia, a subject he had openly said he was passionate about. He refused.
An opportunity to do a face-to-face interview finally came when I was doing a story on the shortcomings of a Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC). I needed his comment. I asked if we could meet. He said he could slot me a maximum of one hour.
We met in his office slightly before midday. I was prepared for the meeting to be unpleasant. He had been off-putting in our previous phone conversations, so I expected nothing less than a mini-battle. I am impatient, with a quick tongue. I knew the interview had the potential of going downhill fast.
I found Prof Magoha staring blankly into space while fiddling with a piece of yarn. Music was oozing from one of his computers.
When I asked him about CBC, he said parents who were complaining about the many assignments they had to do with their children were “absentee” parents who were feeling “cornered” by the curriculum that required them to pay attention to what their children were doing in school.
“They will get used to it…” he said.
After I was done, in my journalistic fashion, I decided to try my luck again to pursue the personal profile. I asked him why he never smiled.
He paused for a moment and asked how important the answer was to my story. I said it was very important. He told me it was a strategy. He said people who laughed and smiled “aimlessly” are never taken seriously. Those, like him, who always showed up in almost expressionless faces, were “left alone to work”.
I pushed my luck and asked him if he ever laughs. In a serious voice, without cracking a smile, he said: “Yes, I laugh a lot.”
I stared at him. He did not laugh.
I asked why he always wore a suit, and how many suits he had. In a flat voice, he said: “I am not doing a personal story with you… I have to meet my patients now.”
Passion and fears
As days progressed, Magoha and I developed a sort of work rhythm. I kept asking for an interview, he kept saying no. Interestingly, he always picked my calls. And every time we talked, he gave me bits and pieces of the things he carried with him.
His passion, his fears, what excited him, his successes, and in one of the conversations, he joked about his death. He said anytime he read someone giving details about themselves, he cringed. That some things should be left to unravel in death. He alluded that the only time he would want personal things to be said about him would be when he was long gone.
“I don’t want to be walking around telling the press what I had for breakfast,” he said.
Magoha was paranoid. Extremely. He always suspected someone was trying to get him.
In my pursuit for comments or story leads from him, I got used to him constantly asking me: “Who has sent you?” His peers spoke of his vice-chancellorship at the University of Nairobi and how he always had bodyguards around him.
To this, he had responded by saying: “You have to know that there are people in the world who will not like you, just because you are who you are.”
But behind the serious face and hardliner was a man with a great sense of humour. Most of it was self-deprecating. His work at the university and practice as a surgeon gave him an exhaustible supply of funny anecdotes that he loved to draw from. He told of how whenever he met some of the patients he had treated, he acted like he had forgotten them.
“I meet men struggling with conditions that they think they should be ashamed of. They imagine that if you have treated them for erectile dysfunction or bladder issues, they are always on your mind,” he told me while he was discussing his vast research in prostate cancer, HIV, erectile dysfunction and diseases of the male bladder.
He said even though he had done things he considered remarkable in his career, one of the things he was never able to do was to convince his patients that it is okay to talk about what ailed them without having to lower their voices into a whisper.
I jokingly said: “Maybe your patients are scared because you don’t smile.” He laughed loudly.
Power fascinated him. One of the few times Magoha initiated a call with me was when he was trending online because of the public dress down he had given a teacher at an event. He said he had been told the “internet was very angry and people were saying he was not a good CS”. There was a tinge of defeat in his voice. I later wondered why that particular incident gnawed at him, considering he was always spoken of as arrogant and detached.
Magoha was generous. When I wrote about candidates who lacked fees to join Form One, he offered to pay for some of them on condition that he remained anonymous. He said he schooled in Starehe where most of the students were on sponsorship and hated how they were constantly reminded that someone had sacrificed for them. This, he said, made the students feel like they were on punishment.