Moi: Enigma who had a heart for children


Former President Daniel arap Moi at a press conference in his home at Kabaranet Gardens in Nairobi, December 2nd, 2009. He said he was opposed to power-sharing which is provided for in the current draft constitution draft which provides for power sharing. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Can I tell you something about Daniel Toroitich arap Moi? According to Karega Munene, a Kenyan anthropologist, Moi was a Tugen when he ascended to the presidency in 1978.

However, by the time he was handing over the instruments of power 24 years later, he had transformed into a Kalenjin. Once in power, Moi realised that he could not form a political elite from the small Tugen community, so he reached out to the elite of other highland nilotes like the Nandi, Kipsigis, Keiyo, Marakwet and Pokot, who form part of what is today known as the Kalenjin community.

According to the scholar, the word Kalenjin has its roots in the expression “kalenjo” which means “I say to you” or “I have told you”.

Suffice it to say that it is this elite, which in its heyday was variously referred to as “the Rift Valley Mafia” or “the Kalenjin Mafia” that shaped President Moi’s legacy just as “the Kiambu Mafia” and its variant “the Mt Kenya Mafia” shaped Jomo Kenyatta’s and Mwai Kibaki’s legacies respectively.

For me, as a young boy growing up in Nakuru in the 1970s and 1980s, the one thing I remember about Moi was that he gave us free school milk every two or three days a week. This was significant for me because it gave me freedom from hunger, so to speak.

As the first child of a green grocer, I often missed lunch at home because my mother was in the market buying supplies. Many a day, I would run home only to find that my mother had just arrived from the market and had not prepared lunch. So I had to make do with a cup of tea before running back to school. That day in 1983 when I discovered I could do with the milk for lunch is the day I stopped running home for lunch.

And since I worked the evening shift at my mother’s kiosk, I always set aside money to buy Maendeleo cakes with which to take the milk or Tarino in the days that we did not get milk.

I also remember that my dream was to be a pupil at Lena Moi Primary School, which is near State House Nakuru, and which, to a large extent, was reserved for the children of government employees, the rich and middle class. There is nothing I wanted more than to wear that uniform — especially the tie. But the school remained a dream beyond reach.

Later, as a student at Nakuru Day Secondary School, I would look in awe and admiration at my counterparts from Kabarak High School.

Kabarak produced outstanding stage plays and actors while Nakuru Day was well-known for traditional dances during the drama festivals. I was more inclined to theatre and though my body was in Nakuru Day, my heart was in Kabarak, which is associated with Moi.

Growing up, I knew that Moi was both feared and loathed because everyone believed that he had Special Branch officers everywhere. Even relatives did not trust each other because no one knew who was Special Branch and who was not. In those days, we literally believed that walls had ears, so we were careful what we said or listened to. There were stories about strangers starting conversations about Moi, say in a matatu, and someone innocently contributed, criticising Moi for one thing or the other. By the time the matatu got to the bus stop, the innocent interlocutor would be under arrest for subversion.

It was against this background that I learnt Moi had come to the aid of a school girl known as Mercy Njeri, who had a heart condition. The President was on his way to Kabarak when he saw a group of children standing next to a girl lying on the ground.

He stopped to find out what the problem was. When told that Mercy was ill, he asked his men to take her to hospital and pay her bills. Later, when Mercy died, Moi directed that the school be renamed in her memory. For me, this was a conundrum. I could not understand how a “bad man” could do such a kind thing, just as I did not understand why he kept large amounts of Orbit sweets in his car. Wherever he found school children – we routinely lined the roads every time he passed our way – he would stop to dish out the chewing gum to school children.

Of course, we were also recruited into the Mass Choir to sing Tawala Kenya, Tawala during public holidays, while waving the Kenyan flag. Incidentally, as a university student, I once declined to sing for the President during a graduation ceremony and the choirmaster kicked me out. After their performance, Moi bought “lunch” and a new uniform for choir members. I missed out.

Later, as a young journalist in Nairobi in the late 90s, I was in the rearguard of the human rights movement led by people like Timothy Njoya, Kivutha Kibwana, Lynn Kituyi, Willy Mutunga, Fatuma Anyanzwa, Muthoni Wanyeki, Kamau Kuria and many others, all of who were pushing for reforms, constitutional change and democracy.

It was an exciting time, and there were many luminaries who gave compelling arguments about why “Moi Must Go”.

Those were the days when The People newspaper used to publish every Friday, shaking the country with its political exclusives. If I am not wrong, there was a week the paper had a story, probably written by Kamau Ngotho, about Moi dressing down his then Agriculture minister, Simeon Nyachae, who was believed to have “political ambitions”, then considered a political crime. I still remember that nut graf.

“During the closed-door meeting between Moi and Nyachae at State House, Nairobi, Moi coughed and said…”

To this day, I still wonder who Kamau Ngotho’s source was.

But such was the intrigue behind Moi, who was an enigma even to the journalists who covered him. He would, for instance, address a public gathering and at the very end he would say: “Na hayo mengine mtasoma kwa magazeti (the rest you will read in newspapers)”.