By BENSON RIUNGU
Memoirs of a scribe; Beginner’s bad luck: Kivaa Town sits on the banks of River Tana, where a bridge crosses the narrow end of Gitaru Dam and connects Machakos and Embu counties.
In the early 1980s, it was a flyblown little town whose sight did nothing to raise a traveller’s spirits, least of all of one whose feet were sore from walking, and who did not have two coins to rub together in his pocket.
To get there, I had been forced to walk some 12 kilometres down a little used road from Masinga Dam to the main road from Matuu to Kivaa and Embu beyond. Counting the 12km I had walked in the morning between Masinga Town and the dam, that was a total of 24 kilometres without a drop of water to drink in the kind of heat that Sunday school teachers use to describe hell, and, hopefully, persuade children to embrace a God-fearing life.
Darkness was gathering when I reached Gitaru Dam, and I was wondering how to talk total strangers into giving me food and somewhere to sleep when a motorcycle came roaring over the bridge. The rider, dressed in a T-shirt to expose tattooed sinewy biceps, looked familiar.
He stopped not far from where I stood and I recognised Songomo, an old schoolmate who used to spend his free time pumping iron and practising karate moves. Ours was a happy reunion, and it turned out that Songomo was a businessman of some importance in Kivaa Town.
Significantly for me, Songomo ran a bar and owned lodgings, and his generosity was unstinting. In the morning, I shamefacedly explained my financial predicament, and he kindly offered to pay by matatu fare to Embu Town, and even dropped me off at Kiritiri, where I could get transport.
To trim the fat off a long story, I eventually made my way back to Nairobi. By combining the little information I could glean on Masinga Dam from official sources with a large dose of the writer’s travails, I turned a failed assignment into a success of sorts. I turned journalism on its head by making the reporter the subject of the story.
It was not long before I set out on what turned out to be an even more disastrous assignment. Kanu had bought the Nairobi Times in 1983 and renamed it Kenya Times, and in 1984, the corridors of the sixth floor in ICEA building, where the editorial department was housed, provided a perfect environment for interminable struggles between inflated egos and incompetence.
People who had never produced a newspaper purported to lay down the law on the conduct of journalism. It was no surprise, therefore, when a greenhorn whose experience was limited to rambling feature stories was assigned to cover, perhaps, the most important developing story of the day; the killing of then vice-president Mwai Kibaki’s father in Othaya, Nyeri.
Reporting for a Kanu-owned paper in those days carried considerable clout, especially with provincial administration officials in rural towns. In Othaya, the local district officer gave me a government vehicle and instructed a chief to accompany me wherever I needed to go, and ensure that everyone accorded me the highest cooperation.
I interviewed Kibaki’s relatives, local officials and anyone who could remember anything about the dead man, extensively traversing the tea bush-covered hills of Othaya. The story, I told myself, patting pockets fat with used notebooks, would win me a journalism prize and establish me right at the top of the profession.
After a couple of days, I decided I had gathered enough and caught the first matatu to Nairobi at dawn, confident that I had scooped the more experienced reporters from the competition. I would show them what a bit of talent and creativity assisted by State power could achieve.
At Nyamakima, I decided to look at the newspapers as I had a shoeshine; not that I expected any developments in the Kibaki murder probe. But the headlines in both The Standard and The Nation hit me in the eye with the force of punch: ‘Police arrest suspects in Kibaki murder’. Kenya Times had a trivial story I cannot recall.
At the office, I spent some days either being berated by superiors, or being treated as a non-person by colleagues. Old friends would avert their eyes and hurry past if we met in the corridors; nobody wants to know a failure.