|TOP LEFT: George Nthenge during the interview at his home. [PHOTOS: JOE OMBUOR/COURTESY/STANDARD]|
By JOE OMBUOR
At 87, George Gregory Wilson Nthenge stands straight as a ramrod and is easily picked out in the thin crowd of his age mates.
He walks unaided and drives himself around. His tall frame is an unmistakable pack of fortitude, going by the vicissitudes that have marked his long life.
Nthenge is unmatched in many facets. His humour is big, his memory great and his health, robust. Only the wrinkles on his face and his toothless gum betray his checkered longevity.
Here is the man who as a Form Two boy at Mang’u High School in 1948 shielded the future President Mwai Kibaki and other “monos” from bullying and physical beating in vogue at the time by asking his classmates what they stood to gain apart from adolescent fun.
“I wonder if Kibaki still remembers that,” he says with a laugh that exposes a toothless gum.
None other than Tanzania’s founding President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere was at one time his class teacher. He remembers Nyerere as a humble, reasonable and loved teacher.
“He taught me Biology,” reminisces Nthenge fondly.
He reads my curiosity right and explains that he had left Mang’u at the time for a stint in then Tanganyika.
He says: “It so happened that a teacher who was not comfortable with my genius in mathematics hated my critical mind and discontinued me when the headmaster was on leave in Ireland. I took up the matter with the Catholic Education Secretariat who instructed the priest in charge of Machakos to find me an alternative Catholic school outside Kenya. That is how I landed at St Mary’s High School, Tabora, in 1949. Nyerere was a staff teacher at the school.”
Flash back to Mang’u. Among his classmates was Tom Mboya, a future political buddy who he describes as average in class and a good speaker but not an orator. “Mboya did not proceed to Senior Secondary. He left at Form Two to go into the job market and we only met later in politics. I am the one who exhorted founding President Jomo Kenyatta during the Lancaster House Conference in 1962 to appoint Mboya a Cabinet minister given the work he had done for Kanu and the country.
|With flywhisk and other Kamba leaders at State House Mombasa in the 1960s. [PHOTOS: JOE OMBUOR/COURTESY/STANDARD]|
Call him a maverick if you will, but Nthenge’s is a profile of surprises even as he tiptoes into the dusk of his days.
“I am contemplating forming a political party for members aged 70 years and above who have exhibited honesty in their lives and can be effective in the war against corruption,” says the man who was among the founders of the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD).
He says: “When I die, my body will be lowered four feet deep and not the standard six feet. That is not my choice. Fate chose it for me when death snatched my first wife Emelda 36 years ago. I have decided to rest directly above her when my time comes. If all goes according to my plan, my beloved second wife Scholastica will be buried two feet above me. I love them that much.”
This grave chat is coincidentally atop what the family refers to as “chapel”. It is here under this simple mausoleum-like structure that Nthenge’s first wife and eight children are interred.
“Emelda and our seven children tragically expired on the spot on November 9, 1978 in what remains to this day, Kenya’s worst single family accident. Our ninth child succumbed three days later to injuries. She too is buried here. I married Emelda Damaris Mukui in 1953. Our wedding was widely publicised by the East African Standard (now The Standard),” he says.
Nthenge’s voice drops to a lower octave as he talks of events preceding the horrific accident: “It was a Thursday, shortly after Emelda and I returned from a holiday in Europe. As usual, we had set off to commute to Nairobi to business and to drop children at school.”
He recalls: “Apart from my nine children, my niece was also in the vehicle, a Peugeot 504 Station Wagon KRV 724. I was at the wheel. All was well until we reached Small World Country Club on Mombasa Road. It was slightly foggy.”
“A lorry driving in front gave me the green light to overtake just as another lorry ferrying limestone to Athi River’s Blue Triangle Cement factory appeared out of the blues. The resultant collision was huge. I was rushed to Kenyatta National Hospital unconscious with three broken ribs. Only my son, Tony Mathembe, then in Form Four at Parklands Secondary school in Nairobi escaped with a broken hand.”
Tony is an engineer and like his father, an astute businessman. He was present during the burial of his mother and seven siblings, two days after the tragedy.
“My father talked to me from his hospital bed soon after he regained consciousness with instructions that the dead be buried without undue delay because waiting for him would not bring them back. They were laid to rest on Saturday, November 11, 1978. A sister who died three days later was also buried in my father’s absence. Our cousin who also survived the accident died a year later and was buried in her father’s home,” says Mathembe.
Nthenge says he organised a party to celebrate the lives of his loved ones.
“It was at that party where I was prevailed upon to re-marry after I had resolved to spend the rest of my life taking care of my three remaining children. Apart from Tony, a daughter, Galla Clementine Kanini, then in boarding school at Mumbuni Girls had survived alongside my eldest son, Otto Edward Musembi who was studying in the United States of America. I found consolation in the fact that I was luckier than some close friends who had fewer children or none at all,” Nthenge tells me.
“Besides my father who was categorical that I re-marry, my father-in-law came to the party with a heifer to start me off on dowry for a new wife. I was 52 and the woman to fit into my life had to be mature.
“Slightly over a year later in December 1979, I wedded 33-year-old Scholastica Damaris Kavata, a counseling psychologist who bore me four sons, all of them university graduates and responsible citizens today. Our youngest son is 27 and about to complete his PhD studies.
Nthenge has been into the curio business virtually his entire adult life and still runs a curio shop at the City Park in Nairobi.