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Reflections

The Binj Is No Longer Here

6 min read.

What a brief wondrous life! What a moving force! What an acceleration! He moved so frantically through life, ideas and spaces that it is difficult to imagine he has transitioned.

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Photo: Facebook/Binyavanga Wainaina
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Binyavanga Wainaina is dead.

This sentence and its finality breaks me; the mere thought of it: The Binj lying still, never to raise his small hands and crook his fingers, animated by an idea. The placidness of this 4-word sentence ruins me. Its clarity and unadorned nature deals with me. Its bland texture offends me. Where is the Anglican velvet and inventiveness?

The Binj has checked out.

This is jauntier. It has a bump to it, a swagger if you like. Might even make the beautiful man smile. In these hours of immediate tributes and outpouring of grief, I imagine Binj is somewhere, holding court, a cigarette smouldering in the crook of his fingers, critiquing the language memorializing his death.

This deathly blow lands on everyone who knew and was affected by the man. My mind has been a whirlwind of flashbacks, a hurricane of memories. The first time I saw him. The last time I saw him. The inauspicious moments in-between. Not chronologically numbered, but my mind tries to number it. I try to grasp something, some kind of order, perhaps to distract myself from what has happened, that Binyavanga won’t call me when he is in Lagos again, for quick advice or consultation on medications for him or his friends, for drinks and intellectual conversations that leak into the wee hours of the next morning.

An elephant has collapsed.

This has about the right amount of idiom, proverb, imagery, and, quite robustly, carries the weight of what just happened. This loss stings and singes every cranny of Africa. I am pouring out my thoughts in a room in Lagos but I know that this despair I feel is the exact same with what someone else feels in another room in Accra, Dakar, Nairobi, Nakuru, Limbe, Douala, Ibadan, Cape Town, Jo’Burg, Harare. The internet is already agog with tributes, phones smarting with social media updates.

Rest in Peace, Binyavanga Wainaina is already a hashtag on steroids.

A rockstar bows out.

The first time I met Binyavanga was in 2007. He had accompanied Chimamanda Adichie to Ife for a reading of her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. Pit Theatre was filled to its capacity within minutes. Tinuke Adeyi and her future husband, Tosan Mogbeyiteren and I had jettisoned afternoon lectures and clinic duty to catch a glimpse of these writers. While the spotlight beamed on the ebullient Adichie, only the intellectually curious would have taken interest in the heavyset man with shoulder-length locs and a penetrative stare wearing a white jalabiya, if my memory serves me correct.

That day he came across as intense. A few months earlier he had respectfully turned down the World Economic Forum’s nomination as a Young Global Leader with an eloquent letter to Queen Rania of Jordan. He read from his Caine Prize winning story, Discovering Home. It was inspiring to hear that he jumpstarted Kwani? the literary magazine with his prize money. Two years later, Emmanuel and I would start Saraba magazine. We were in Pit Theatre at that same time (we had not met), under the influence of his voice, his ideas, his convictions.

The sun has set.

Binyavanga was a force of nature. He lived in full throttle, on his own terms. He did things in full, no place for half measures. And was he generous? He was selfless, even to a fault. He had a large heart and cared for everyone in the room. His generosity was not restricted to humans. He cared for ideas and cherished the opinion of others. He championed other writers. While holding court in the most informal settings, the Binj was recommending writers for MFA programs, magazine programs, helping with grants and fellowships. He would always ask me what I was working on and if I daresay being a doctor, he will regard me with his side-eye and remind me about Frantz Fanon.

The Binj has checked out.

Hotel Nairobi. Hotel Africa. Hotel Life. Never again will a man of such generosity stir this loam. Never again will a man of wit and wisdom and warmth thread this way. His warmth is what I will miss most. His childish grin. His girlish mannerisms. The way he cocks his ear when he is about to say something punchy, funny, mischievous.

The Binj is gone

But some have said this day was coming, it was only a matter of time. Indeed, it is only a matter of time for everyone but for The Binj, it was only a matter of acceleration. Bring forward the day—the day, death cures us of our lives. But till then, we must do what humans do. We must anchor our pain to memories.

A great man once walked this way.

Binj loved Nigeria, loved Lagos, loved her writers, loved her beaches and the good times the tide brings. I will not forget the night at Kuramo beach before its erasure. Circa 2009. In the company of Binj, Jumoke Verissimo, Niq Mhlongo, Igoni Barrett, Eghosa Imaseun, drinking beers without abandon. Broken men marking time as itinerant jukeboxes, willing to play you any song, for some loose change. Substantially inebriated, we choose Bob Marley’s Redemption Song and sing along between cigarette puffs into the small hours.

Emancipate yourself from mental slavery.

I remember that night at his house in the Nairobi suburbs. Circa 2015. Emmanuel and I had been in town for Storymoja Festival. Binj had found out and sent word to us to come to his house. Wanjeri, Clifton and Emmanuel and I in a taxi knifing through cold Nairobi nights, while we discussed colonialism and why Kenya does not have a National dress.

At the Binj’s, it was like a Pan-African party at the patio. There was a festival director from Jamestown in Ghana. A political ally from Burundi. A bespectacled academic from the Kenyan coast. A Nairobi poet in a plaid jacket. Jalada’s Moses Kilolo and his American PEN lady friend. Parselelo Kantai, Binj’s longtime collaborator, spewing his expansive ideas. We were expecting Billy Kahora who had promised to come.

Freeing Our Imagination: Remembering Binya and Life in Kwani

Read series: Binyavanga Wainaina

There was a lot to eat and plenty more to drink and a medley of discussions that ambled from dance to music to colonialism to neo-colonialism to books to governance on the continent. It could have been a party but it felt like a normal day in the life of Binj, sitting till the wee hours of the morning, smoking and espousing ideas about things he loved. I would leave from his house to the airport, eyes bloodshot and body smelling like a dutiful ashtray.

A few weeks later, he had that master stroke.

Ikú b’olá j

This death knell has been inexorably visceral for me. It feels like a tightening somewhere in my solar plexus. Then it slinks, with its raw coldness, to my lower gut. Then it bites me, this grief. And I want to find a better way to express what I feel, a way that goes beyond trite words, beyond routine, beyond duty, beyond the socially sanctioned performative nature of bereavement.

Now we write our hearts and grief and pain. We say that Binyavanga was a great man and a selfless soul. We contextualise his generosity with personal encounters.

I have been reaching out to my friends in Kenya, to see how I can join my grief with theirs, in some kind of quizzical solidarity. My mind is in Nairobi and my body is in Lagos. My mind and body have become paralysed by this grief. I surrender to a numbness that aches.

The Binj is dead.

What a brief wondrous life! What a moving force! What an acceleration! He moved so frantically through life, ideas and spaces that it is difficult to imagine he has transitioned. And his legacy? It lies in the beautiful words he left us and the beautiful gestures and ways he touched us. It lies in the now comatose Kwani? which must be propped up by whatever means necessary. It lies in the manuscripts that will be gathered, revised and issued in due time. It lies in the memories we made.

The last time I saw the Binj was in October 2017. He was at a panel discussion at New York University with Chris Abani and Taiye Selasi. His speech was slurred but he managed to remain his jovial and quirky self. What was different: he had become more spiritual and reflective about his own mortality. He spoke a lot that night about his Sangoma and extra-terrestrial dimensions to his stroke, that master stroke. After the discussion, I walked up to him and he was pleasantly surprised to see me in New York. He invited me for dinner but I declined. I was thoroughly jet-lagged and needed my rest.

I wish I had hung out with him that night. But these minor moments come and go, innocuous in their initiation but significant in retrospect.

The Binj is no longer here.

But we are grateful that we met him, we laughed with him, read him, danced with him. These fond memories and all things he held passionate—literature, culture, food, music, dance, Africa—will continue to keep him in our consciousness.

The restless one has found his peace. Let those who live trudge on with their burdens.

Travel well, ancestor.

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Dami Ajayi is the co-founder of Saraba Magazine, a medical doctor and, most recently, the author of A Woman’s Body is a Country (Ouida Books, 2017).

Reflections

Stealth Game: The Proverbial Has Hit the Fan

The report of the Oakland Institute is simply saying what I have been saying since 2016. That “Community” Conservancies Devastate Land and Lives in Northern Kenya.

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Stealth Game: The Proverbial Has Hit the Fan
Photo: David Clode on Unsplash
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Many of my friends, particularly those from outside the conservation sector have been puzzled by the silence that has followed the release of the Stealth Game report by the Oakland institute.

This, my friends, is because you people mistakenly imagine that conservationists in Kenya are normal, functional human beings. They are NOT, and the rational ones are fewer than five per cent, the scientific threshold for statistical significance. For those of us who know them well, we can read and interpret this silence to a high level of accuracy.

First of all, rest assured that everyone who needs to see the report has seen it, including government officials at both county and national level. I personally forwarded it to an official at the highest levels of government, and the response I received was “thank you”—at least an admission of having seen the report. Interestingly, two senior county government officers also forwarded the report to me, leaving me wondering what exactly they see as their role in the whole scandal, as opposed to mine as an individual. The silence is only in the public sphere. I have direct contacts in a lot of private spaces where the Oakland report is causing a lot of wailing, gnashing of teeth and breaking of wind.

The key point we all need to understand here is that people are in trouble—bringing to mind that uniquely American expression about faecal matter hitting the fan and splattering everyone in its vicinity. Here’s why: A couple of years ago, a few colleagues and I visited the US House of Representatives in Washington DC to present a memorandum on human rights abuses in central Africa committed by the WWF under the guise of conservation, an issue we also brought to the attention of various European legislatures. It has taken time, but the cosh has come down on the WWF, culminating in a Senate hearing earlier this year, which has severely tightened the screws on them. Therefore, the consternation that has greeted the report is disingenuous, because none of this information is new—it is simply saying the same things that a few colleagues and I have been saying since 2016.

The conservation sector in Kenya routinely dismisses any questions from black Africans and the consternation is because the report is coming from an American institution, and cannot be dismissed on racial grounds. An amusing anecdote I’ve heard from one of the conservation groups is, “This is just the usual noise from Mordecai Ogada. . .” But when another member says, “No, it’s from the Oakland institute in the US,” all hell breaks loose with people crying “Oh my God! What are we going to do?”  In another forum, a senior participant (who obviously hadn’t read the report) dismissed it as lacking credibility, “Since the only source of such information is Mordecai Ogada (again!!??). When another participant pointed out the report was the result of over two years’ research she changed tack, attacking the author Anuradha Mittal based on her racial and family background. The strange thing is that this woman is also of the same racial background as Mittal! Many people will find this bizarre, but I don’t. Our conservation sector is so steeped in racial and ethnic prejudice that it is shameful. Apart from dealing with people who don’t want to hear me because I am black, I’ve had to deal with indigenous Kenyans who routinely tell me to keep off wildlife issues in northern Kenya because I am a Luo from western Kenya!

The key issue of rights violations is studiously avoided by conservationists to a ridiculous degree. I’ve seen conversations where The Nature Conservancy’s communications director is asking a whole group of conservation professionals how they can “counter Mordecai Ogada’s narrative”. A couple of years ago, the Northern Rangelands Trust hired Dr Elizabeth Leitoro as “Director of Programmes” and one of the key expectations was that she would somehow “control” Mordecai Ogada (yes, again) since over 20 years earlier I had been her intern when she was the warden at the Nairobi National Park. Dr Leitoro asked to meet me, and my son was patient enough to sit with us as we talked. She later launched a racial attack against me and my family on social media in defence of the NRT (she deleted the tweet and blocked me, but I still have a screenshot; the NRT got rid of her). This shows the neurosis bedevilling conservation in Kenya.

These conservationists will scream, shout and make personal attacks and noise about everything EXCEPT the problem at hand. Secondly, they are obsessed with appearances, so you will never hear a word said by any of the foreigners who run the show. It is always the ill-advised, ill-prepared but well paid locals who come out in robust (if somewhat foolish) defence of their captors. Right now the national government, the county governments, and conservation organizations are all tongue-tied because they don’t know how to dismiss criticism from the US, where their lifeblood funding comes from. USAID is the biggest conservation funder in Kenya, and the biggest grantee is the NRT, which confers on them God-like status here. All the other conservation voices like the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association (KWCA) or the Conservation Alliance of Kenya (CAK) that receive small-change grants cannot say a word against their “leader”, the NRT. That is why five days later, the CAK claims to be “still reading the report”. They are waiting to see which way the wind is blowing before they make any noise or break any wind in defence of their fellow Kenyans.

Mark my words, these people have colossal reach; that’s why even the government has said nothing. There was a major press conference in Nairobi on 17th November 2021 about the Oakland report, and all the major media houses in Kenya were present, but the story has been “killed”. They have a huge PR machine, and if anything in the report were untrue, they would have torn it to shreds. Their bogeyman, Mordecai Ogada (frankly I’m a bit flattered!), is not in the picture, so they cannot point fingers at me anymore, and must now address the ISSUES. I am informed that some heads have already rolled. They are big, but not big enough to kill the story in the US public policy space. The WWF learned that the hard way. There shall be wailing, there will be hypertension, some hyperacidity, diarrhoea and other stress-related illnesses, but it looks (and smells) like change is coming.

This silence isn’t of the golden kind, it’s the silence of sick, trembling cowards caught in a big lie. I have nothing to add to the Stealth Game report, but wherever and whenever I will be asked to say something about it, I will not let anyone get away with trying to look shocked. I will always state just how I told them about this injustice five years ago, but it never mattered then. Because I am black, if truth be told.

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Reflections

I Know Why God Created Makeup

I am an economic migrant without the luxury of choice. I am not ready for Kenya yet so I must wake up, put my makeup on and take up my station by the dialysis machines.

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I Know Why God Created Makeup
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It is half past five in the morning and your eyes are heavy with sleep. It is fascinating that they should be this lethargic, yet they would not close for a wink or two in the past eleven or so hours of the night. Lately your body seems to be operating on a paradoxical circadian rhythm– sleep when you shouldn’t and stay awake when you ought to be sleeping. You are a nurse and constantly tired. Translated, it means that you are one patient away from a mortal accident. You slap the alarm clock into silence, eyes half open set another alarm for half past six on your mobile phone, which has permanent residency under your three pillows.

You have been using three pillows for a while now. There does not seem to be one single shop in the world that sells decent pillows. The pillows in this city are as thin as a tongue. The lowlife of pillows. They smell of dying hope and unhappy thoughts. They are the sopranos in the pillow choir. Irritating but necessary. We therefore use three of them to allow them to accord each other some moral support. You miss fluffy pillows. Pillows like the ones you lay on at that posh hotel in Naivasha during your disastrous honeymoon a few years ago. Nostalgically, you go back to Naivasha in your sleepy mind.

There is a hazy recollection of that honeymoon. It was not meant to be because the wedding was not to be either. But they both happened. You know they did because you can hear yourself screaming in agony as another harsh word lands on your soul. But despite the honeymoon’s calamitous ending, you miss the pillows. They took to your torrential tears like a babe to its mother’s breast. They soaked the tears up perfectly and left no traces. He never once stirred. He was so drunk he could have been half dead. You had wished for the latter before you met Jesus. We do not think such thoughts nowadays and if we ever do, we will blame it on these scandalously uncomfortable pillows.

The summer morning’s sun tears precisely through your curtains like a surgeon’s blade. You love summer but you don’t like the glare of the morning sun. It is too bright. Accusatorily bright. Like it came to remind you what a slob you are for snoozing your alarm. It stands there, hovering over you like your mum when you wouldn’t complete your homework but wanted to read a Harry Potter novel instead. Mum would not go away, nor will the sun. Begrudgingly you wake up. Legs dangling onto the side of the bed, you will the rest of the body to join them on the peach-coloured bedroom rug on the floor. You miss the days when peach was just some fruit.

Eyes still closed, you head to the bathroom. You are startled into alertness by the girl staring at you in the mirror. She is as hopelessly worn out as a politician’s promise after campaigns. She looks like a thousand trucks ran over her and a group of snow-white owls perched on her hair. The wild hair tendrils falling on your face are a pasta disaster. My God, the lint from those pillows! You whisper. It is however more than just lint. Your eyes are red and puffed up. Like you hid two baby donuts under the eyelids and now the world can see your secret eating habits.

You are expected to be at work by half past seven, nursing patients. The COVID-19 pandemic rages on and you are not sure how much longer you can keep it together. Take that lovely patient yesterday, for example. She stood out from the first time you met her. She allowed you to needle her dialysis fistula as a new nurse. She was welcoming. Showed you pictures of May, her cat. Always had a joke for everyone. She entertained the unit with great panache. She had perfectly manicured nails which put your grooming routine to shame.

For fifteen years, kidney failure never took her life. But she died yesterday. She contracted COVID-19 and passed away. This is not an isolated case. The story keeps repeating itself. Like a repetitive bad dream, the carrousel of mortality keeps coursing through the hospital.  Too many dialysis patients have been lost to the coronavirus.

Nobody acknowledges it but your colleagues are gutted by her death. Their demeanour is typically British though, they are long suffering. They wear resilience on their faces and spot plastic smiles to hide the pain. British nurses are averse to complaining. They take it all in their stride. Either that or quit. What would you not give to be able to quit nursing right now!

On the other hand, you are an economic migrant in the United Kingdom. Your life in the UK is governed by the terms and conditions of your visa. The terms say you are to be a nurse for the remaining period on your visa. You cannot leave. You risk being deported to Kenya if you exit nursing at the moment. You are not ready for Kenya yet. You envy Amy and Moraine. Two highly skilled kidney nurses from Scotland. They recently quit nursing altogether. Amy went back to university to study accounting while Moraine has started a coffee shop. The luxury of choice.

You take a quick shower, scrub your hair so hard as if you were shaking your brain from a lingering nightmare that it half hurts. Six and a half minutes later, you are staring at yourself in the dressing mirror. You have been in this flat for a year now and have never once used the dressing mirror like you want to use it today. To glam up the top half of your face.

Following a YouTube tutorial, you start applying acres of ridiculously expensive products on your exhausted face. Your patients are expecting a buoyed-up nurse; that is what they must get. This is why God created makeup. You pay close attention to your eyes. The windows to the soul. These windows needs some maintenance. The eyebrows are up first.

Your eyebrows are a strange phenomenon. The hairs are few and far between. You can never shape them perfectly to save your life. You scribble and doodle with some eye pencil YouTube influencers swore by and finally manage to draw two diagrams of West African evil spirits chasing after one another. Your signature mismatched eyebrow look.  Feeling accomplished, you open your eyes wide and, stroke after stroke, you apply mascara on your eyelashes. The damage is then covered in some dark eye shadow. Only the top half of the face matters. The face masks and visors worn at work have rendered the lower half of the face irrelevant. Who wants lipstick smears on their face mask? Not you, you conclude.

At twenty minutes past seven, you are at work already. You are helping prepare the dialysis machines. Jean, your nurse colleague streams in. She has had her eyes done too. She is wearing some glittering eyeshadow. Her eyebrows look like what yours would be like when they grow up. You can see a hint of foundation on her forehead. You let out a sigh of relief. God created makeup for tired nurses, you surmise.

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Reflections

The Charles Mugane Njonjo I Knew

Much will be said and written about Charles Njonjo. The Charles Njonjo I knew was a steadfast friend and a man of his word without hesitation.

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The Charles Mugane Njonjo I Knew
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A lot has been written and a lot more will be written about the late Charles Mugane Njonjo who has passed away. I would like to tell my own personal story. I never knew him as a bureaucrat or politician. Indeed, our paths crossed immediately I left high school in 1983. Together with colleagues, we had written a play and planned to perform it for the public. We searched our minds for a public figure who would agree to come as guest of honour on opening night. We sought someone who would attract public attention to what we were doing, but more importantly for us 17-year-olds, someone who would agree to show up. Charles Njonjo’s name was all over the news at the time. His political career had just been truncated amid the prolonged political drama of the “traitor affair”. He was a figure of great public fascination for a variety of colourful reasons. We also had the names of other public figures on our list and I was tasked with reaching out to them.

Frankly, I wrote to Charles Njonjo not expecting to hear from him. He replied immediately, though, and accepted the invitation to be guest of honour at the opening night of our play, The Human Encounter, at Saint Mary’s School in Nairobi. Once he accepted the invitation, we excitedly proceeded with preparations for the opening night. A few days later, however, we were informed that, unfortunately, the authorities had deemed Mr Njonjo’s presence at our event unacceptable and the decision was not negotiable. I informed my colleagues and we decided that since we had worked hard on the production we would obey the orders from above and proceed with our play without Mr Njonjo. There was no need for a fuss. I then had the embarrassing duty of disinviting Mr Njonjo when he had already accepted to be our guest of honour.

I spent a whole night drafting the letter and in the end, my late father told me not to agonise excessively, “Njonjo likes to be told the truth directly.” So I wrote the disinvitation letter as clearly and as respectfully as I could. I asked a friend of his to pass it on to him and did not expect to ever hear from him again. The message I received promptly back surprised me. Njonjo expressed his deepest appreciation for the invitation and explained that he fully understood why it had been withdrawn. He asked that we remain in touch. I was deeply relieved. Over the years, he would reach out to me through family and friends and we would interact jovially, remembering the letter I had written retracting his invitation as guest of honour. “No one has ever done that to me,” he would joke over tea.

In the early 1990s, as political pluralism was returning to Kenya, violence broke out in Nyanza, Western and Rift Valley provinces. At one point, hundreds of thousands of Kenyans were displaced as our elites arm-wrestled for power. I travelled to Laikipia and then to Burnt Forest and was aghast at the state of the internally displaced that had been forced from their homes by the violence. Together with Dr David Ndii and Mutahi Ngunyi we launched the “Kenyans in Need” appeal. The then chief editor of the Daily Nation, Wangethi Mwangi, gave us free advertising space to mobilise resources for the displaced – especially those in Ol Kalou who had been evicted from Ng’arua in Laikipia. The late Archbishop Nicodemus Kirima of the Archdiocese of Nyeri agreed to use the relief infrastructure of Catholic Church to distribute any donations that came our way. Laikipia fell under Kirima’s remit.

The response to the appeal was surprising in its scale. People donated second-hand clothes, books, shoes and cash to the appeal. We received around KSh1 million worth of donations over the following months. We delivered the first batch directly to the philosophical Archbishop Kirima at his official residence in Nyeri, unique because of its specially built library full of the books he clearly loved. Our biggest and most consistent donor throughout the entire enterprise was Charles Njonjo. He was not keen to have his name mentioned but we would sit at his home drinking tea and reflecting on the political situation in the country.

When I joined government in 2003, Njonjo remained one of my steadfast providers of moral support. When news broke that I had been moved from the Office of the President to the Ministry of Justice, the first call I received was from Charles Njonjo. “You’re going to resign immediately, aren’t you?” he asked in his typically direct way. In the end, I didn’t. I sometimes wistfully recall his advice at the time. We kept in close touch.

When my situation in the Kibaki government went belly up in 2005 – as he had predicted to me many times – and I found myself in exile, Charles Njonjo became an even more steadfast friend. He stayed in touch and whenever he called, he would always enquire about my personal circumstances. He was a most interesting person in that way, loyal to his friends to a fault. Once you were his friend, he stood by you no matter how atrocious the circumstances. He would call to tell me he was coming to London and we would spend the day together simply walking the city, chatting and drinking tea. Back home I found out he was in constant touch with my family, offering moral and any other kind of support that might be needed.

When I returned from exile, one of the very first people to invite me for tea and a catch-up was Charles Njonjo and we took up from where we had left off in 2005. His observations on politics and about certain politicians were often wryly hilarious. His capacity to read people accurately was something I learnt. We would sit in his Westlands office and I would seek his opinion on this or that political interlocutor and in typical fashion he was always direct – “solid fellow”; “believe only half so-and-so says”; “take that one seriously”, etc. He was particularly dismissive of ethnic chauvinists and insisted that they held Kenya back in fundamental ways.

Charles Njonjo and I kept our friendship quiet. In part, this was because some of his diehard enemies were also my very good friends – the late legal giant Achhroo Ram Kapila SC among others. So, we didn’t discuss his enemies; he advised me on mine. Much will be written about Charles Njonjo and even though there was much we totally disagreed on politically, the Njonjo I knew since I was a teenager was a man of his word. He was a dear friend in ways I have never been able to share. There is not a personal problem that I raised with Charles Njonjo that he didn’t immediately seek to solve in his no-nonsense style. Njonjo could be a very funny man, full of jokes and insightful observations without a taint of bitterness. To me he was funniest when he joked in Gikuyu, which some people thought he couldn’t speak.

As I have said, much will be said and a lot will be written about Charles Njonjo. The Charles Njonjo I knew was a steadfast friend and a man of his word. I have lost a dear friend and wish his family succour as they mourn him at this time.

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