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Reflections

Not yet Uhuru: Growing up Gay in Kenya, before the Digital Age

6 min read.

The High Court’s decision brought up many emotions for me as a gay man over the age of 50. To be told, officially, by your own country, that you do not matter and in fact you do not exist and your issues are not real, is very difficult to hear.

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Not yet Uhuru: Growing up Gay in Kenya, before the Digital Age
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I will never forget that weekend, over 32 years ago. It was a sunny day; I was walking on Koinange Street, and was about to get onto Kenyatta Avenue, when a vivid and amazing realization hit me, “I am gay!” I was 22 years old at the time, and had been struggling for many years prior – I had become familiar with the darkness of depression and shame at the thought of being homosexual. I had prayed desperately to God to take away the feelings I had.

I knew from a very young age I was different but never actually understood what that difference was. By Class Three or Four, my brothers – I have five in total – had given me nicknames “Ciku” or “Suku” that always had me fighting with them, since they seemed to disparagingly suggest I was engaging in roles that were supposed to be for girls. I was too young to understand any of this at the time. But as I grew up and went into high school I completely got lost when my male peers started having discussion about girls. I could not understand their excitement and strategies on how they would get their first kisses or hugs. My lack of comprehension of what my peers were going through began a deep fear in me that there was something terribly wrong with me. I pretended with my friends that I understood their conversations but I failed to catch this wave of pubescent excitement.

It was not until I got into college, and luckily took a class in human sexuality, that I finally understood that I was part of the sexuality spectrum that included same-gender attraction. This realization was liberating, albeit for a very short period, because once I actually understood what this meant for me, my understanding of my family, my culture, religion, friends and everything I held dear to my life, I became petrified. I was barely 21 and was about to start a very challenging journey of shame and refusal at what was very clearly the reality of who I was. I loved my family deeply but with the realization that I was gay, I was afraid that I would be a disappointment to my loving and supportive parents. This of course led to feeling ashamed and undeserving. The prayers to God and anybody who could hear me seemed to land on deaf ears until that fateful sunny day on K-Street. It’s kind of funny how this moment happened on a street that was known to be Nairobi’s red light district. Irony, you might say.

For reasons I still do not understand till this day, I felt a divine intervention and connection in that moment, possibly with ancestors looking out for me, that finally made me stop questioning myself and finally accept how I was born and who I was. For the next many years, I realized that my realization on that sunny day was just the beginning of a very long journey of self-discovery, a different kind of struggle that comes with claiming my space in life.

With a new acceptance of myself, I began looking for people who might be going through similar experiences. This was Nairobi before the digital age and so there was no Internet, no social media, Facebook, Twitter, or anything like that. Amazingly, there were individuals going through the same thing, and often one got introduced via networks that people had made over time. The fear slowly began to ease, and I began to be excited since I now did not see myself as a problem but as someone who belonged.

Over time some of us spent long hours at various places, including Cameo Cinema on Kenyatta Avenue, talking and getting to know one another. There was a lot of cruising around on Kenyatta Avenue, where lifelong friendships and even relationships were born. I was to later learn that these encounters were happening in other parts of the city and particular bars, clubs had begun to be spaces that individuals could meet and socialize. This is why it is important to have spaces to experience oneself with people like yourself. And all this existed in pre-digital Nairobi. Today’s society might not want to believe it, but we – queer people – have always been here. These pioneering spaces, I believe strongly, were the precursors for organized LGBQTI groups that were to start in the late 1990s and really blossom in the mid-2000s.

I left Kenya soon after for further studies, and moved to New York City. There, an HIV epidemic was in high gear, affecting primarily gay and bisexual men. While in New York, during the late 1980s and into the 1990s, and working within the HIV sector, I saw dozens of my gay friends die, not only from the lack of medication then, but from also the intense stigma and discrimination they received from the society at large. With my background in health, I got immersed in the responses against HIV in the city. This included facilitating HIV-positive support groups for gay and bisexual men of African descent ( African-American, Caribbean and African immigrants), and visiting hospitals to visit abandoned gay men whose families only showed up once they had passed on. I could not, and still do not understand how a family can abandon their child simply because of their sexual orientation.

It was at this time, and I believe as a result of a lot of pent up anger at the injustices I was experiencing all around me, that I came out to my family. My thinking was if they decided to abandon me (as I had seen many of my friends experience with their families) then I wanted to be in the space where I could speak directly to that, in case it ever happened. But I was surprised – and incredibly relieved – that my brothers were supportive of me even though they did not quite understand what I was experiencing at the time.

I began my journey back to Kenya in 2006 and finally settled back home in 2008. I had come back to support the beginnings of the governmental response to the HIV epidemic affecting marginalized communities including the ‘Most at Risk’ Populations (later to be renamed ‘Key Populations’ – sex workers, men who have sex with men and people who use drugs). My experience in the US provided me with some perspective to the growing voice of marginalized communities to the HIV pandemic – I felt I had something to contribute. I was also blessed to join in the growing voices of LGBTQI activists beginning to articulate and claim their rightful spaces as full citizens of this country. Eleven years later much has been achieved by LGBTQI and other marginalized communities in both the health and legal sectors.
This is why I woke up with great expectations on that Friday, May 24th 2019. I was optimistic because within this past decade, the LGBTQI community has had some incremental but significant legal wins, many of them made possible with the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution and its progressive Bill of Rights. In 2012, for example, a transgender woman was stripped naked by the police, in the full glare of the media. The court ruled her rights had been violated and ordered the government pay for damages caused. In a 2013 case that challenged the NGO Board, which had refused to register LGBTQI organizations, the High Court held that Article 27 of the Constitution protected ‘every person’ regardless of their sexual orientation. The Court further held that permitting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation would be against constitutional provisions of equality and non-discrimination.

And in another 2013 case, Baby A was born with both male and female genitalia. Hospital records indicated the baby’s sex by a question mark (?) and as a result, the child could not be issued a birth certificate or, concomitantly, an identity card. The court agreed with the petitioners that this offends the child’s rights to legal recognition, erodes its dignity and violates the right of the child not to be subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment as guaranteed in both the Constitution and the Children’s Act. It was a landmark case that provided for the first time relief for intersex persons in Kenya and ultimately led to the creation of the Intersex Task Force by the Attorney General’s office.

It was with this background of the successes the LGBTQI movements have had in their engagement with the judiciary, which gave me hope that early Friday morning. But halfway through the reading of the judgment, it became clear to all around that things were not going well. When the judges stated that majority views – ‘public opinion’ – must at times prevail in rulings such as this, we knew the case was lost. The judgment made it clear that in Kenya, the existing Victorian-era colonial penal codes are here to stay.

This decision brought up many emotions for me as a gay man over the age of 50. The High Court’s conservative negative ruling basically invalidating the existence of LGBT people in Kenya was not only a body blow to many LGBTQ individuals in Kenya, but truly had me going back to 32 years ago, where shame and self-hate ruled my life. To be told, officially, by your own country, that you do not matter and in fact you do not exist and your issues are not real, is very difficult to hear. The ruling seemed to not address the pertinent issues brought up by the petition but used as a platform to preach to queer Kenyans about Kenya’s cultural and religious values, things that were simply not being challenged in the court.

The reaction of the LGBQTI community has been one of devastation. We are part of this country. We work and contribute to the nation’s development. We will continue to challenge laws and a society that is intent on excluding us from our rightful place as citizens of this country. We have however shown great dignity and resolve and intend to continue our long journey for recognition, the same as has happened in other struggles in the past, including for our own country’s independence. Our uhuru will come.

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Nguru Karugu is a public health social justice activist and practitioner. He is a great cook and loves entertaining. He lives in Nairobi

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
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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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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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