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My night classes with Uhuru made him a wordsmith

By Amos Kareithi | September 27th 2020 at 11:27:26 GMT +0300

Kefa Ndung’u during the interview in Nairobi last week. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

Every time President Uhuru Kenyatta amiably greets a crowd with ‘ndugu zanguni’, an inaudible sigh of dismay escapes the lips of an out-of-work teacher in Thika.

The battle to expunge this phrase and a string of other popular but ungrammatical Kiswahili words was fought and lost two decades ago after the dissolution of a ‘war council’ constituted to polish the budding but reluctant presidential candidate.

When Kefa Ng’ang’a Ndung’u sees his former student on the podium, he sits upright with pen poised over paper, dreading to hear echoes of his past. But how did a primary school teacher find himself giving language tips to a prince who could have the best tutors in the world at his beck and call?

To answer this, one needs to go back to September 2002 when the country was at the cusp of a generational transition. Former President Daniel Moi was exiting the presidency after 24 years and had to groom a successor with limited public exposure. At the time, Uhuru was a nominated MP after losing his first parliamentary contest to Engineer Moses Mwihia. The battle for the presidency would be stiffer. Uhuru would be facing off against Mwai Kibaki, a veteran who had been in competitive politics from 1963, had served in Jomo Kenyatta’s Cabinet, and was eyeing the top seat for a record third time.

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It was David with a sling but no rock, versus Goliath.

“I was teaching at Happy Times Schools in Gatundu when I was approached by one of the parents with an irresistible offer. He wanted me to join the Kanu presidential campaign team,” said Kefa.

The parent was Information PS Wamatu Njoroge who had attended the school’s prize-giving day on several occasions and was aware of Kefa’s mastery over Kiswahili. Wamatu was part of the presidential team and in charge of communication and messaging, which involved polishing Uhuru’s speeches to ensure they were delivered effectively to the masses. That was how Kefa gave up his chalk and blackboard in exchange for a perch at Windsor House in Nairobi that was to become his base for the next few months.

Speeches

His mission was to prepare Uhuru’s speeches in Kiswahili to the satisfaction of Wamatu, who would go through them with a pen and occasionally strike off words he did not like. “Twice a week, I would be driven to The Chancery Building at night. I would meet  Uhuru after a day of campaigning and assist him in pronunciation. At first, the candidate was talking too fast and I had to tutor him to go through his address in measured tones,” recalled Kefa.

Uhuru also had a tendency of massacring some words, said the teacher. He noted the President’s fondness of ‘ndugu zanguni’- a non-existent term popularised by his father. One undated script gives a clue about what needed to be corrected.

Tafadhali mheshimiwa jisahihishe makosa yafuatayo: Matumizi ya ‘amba’. Twasema hivi: Kazi ambayo, si ambazo. Siasa ambazo wanasiasa wanazungumza kwa karibu miaka kumi hazijanufaisha raia hata kidogo.

The marking scheme, which Kefa said he prepared at Uhuru’s request, had more instruction. Serikali yangu haitahusisha chuki, ukabila na ufisadi. Kila jambo litasuluhishwa kwa njia mwafaka ili kila mwananchi ajihisi ako Kenya anaipenda kwa dhati.

After every rally, Wamatu’s team would evaluate Uhuru’s performance. One report analyses a public meeting held at Afraha Stadium in Nakuru on September 7, 2002.

“This was clearly the most important rally the subject has addressed. The numbers were overwhelming (about 50,000). The general consensus is that the subject rose to the occasion. In fact, his performance was sterling as his Cabinet colleague Julius Sunkuli admitted on Kiss FM’s Crossfire show on Sunday evening ... the subject’s speech was the best he has delivered so far. It was mature, forceful and inspiring.”

The report further observed that Uhuru had spiced up his speech with jokes and light touches, making allusions and disparaging the Kibaki-led Rainbow Alliance as the croaking of frogs. Uhuru also had a few barbs for Kibaki, painting him as a leader who could not be trusted. The decision not to launch a full-throated attack appeared to be suggested by a note drafted by Wamatu’s team when Uhuru had been nominated as the Kanu presidential candidate. “Time has come when Kibaki should be attacked directly. But this should be done with decorum and decency,” read the note.

Kefa shared other briefings that offered insight into how Uhuru’s team had predicted a fall-out in Kibaki’s camp.

When he accepted the Kanu ticket, Uhuru said, “Going by the memorandum of understanding between Kibaki’s Narc and Raila Odinga’s LDP, which binds Kibaki to appoint Raila as executive prime minister within 100 days of his new government, voting for Kibaki will mean voting for Raila. Yet Kenyans want to elect a president who will not bring an unelected prime minister through the backdoor.”

Ruth Sietinei, who was at Windsor House under Wamatu, said they would work late into the night before heading to Uhuru’s other offices either at The Chancery or KICC. Kefa would enter the boardroom for a 45-minute session with Uhuru.

“Wamatu brought Kefa to the office to work on mkubwa’s speeches. He was very good in Kiswahili. He taught him secretly, of course, late at night twice a week. We would stay at the reception until Kefa finished and then we would all go home,” said Ms Sietinei.

She said it was a pity that after Uhuru’s defeat, the team was broken up and Wamatu later died of cancer. And although a few of them offered their services prior to the 2013 General Election, this time they were outsiders.

Uhuru’s PA, at the time, Rigathi Gachagua said he vaguely remembered a communication team at Windsor under Wamatu. He, however, said he had no recollection of Kefa or Uhuru being tutored at night, instead arguing that his boss’s speeches were ‘incredible’.

“His grasp of English, Kiswahili and Kikuyu was amazing. He could drive crowds into a frenzy with his delivery. He knew when to stop and what to emphasise. His diction and tone was good. He never had a problem talking to audiences,” said Gachagua.

Meanwhile, Kefa dreams of the day he will reunite with Uhuru and exchange notes. He can then hand over some of the materials he worked on 18 years ago, including a translation of the Kanu manifesto.


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