A voice of conscience in the Kenyan media

Leading journalist Chaacha Mwita discusses the challenge of achieving citizen power in Kenya. 
Martyn Drakard | 19 July 2009
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"Daddy, you have dinner with us these days!" piped six-year old Monika, eldest daughter of Chaacha Mwita, a leading Kenyan journalist and name familiar to regular newspaper readers. While Gabriel, one of the five-year-old twin brothers, remonstrated with his dad: "If you ever go back to the US again for so long a period, you’re not my father!"

"Kids are observant," Chaacha chuckled, quite obviously having made a discovery.

Chaacha was telling me how different life is now that he has left the corporate rat-race and set up his own media-strengthening, publishing and research organization, Global Africa. Typically he had dropped the kids at school on his way to meet me that morning, something unheard of when he was senior editor at the Nation Group, the largest media house in the region, and, later, Group Managing Editor at the Standard, running close behind the Nation. Those days he would get back home physically and morally tired and brave a smile, and, almost always, find the kids already tucked in bed, asleep.

Then he took a gamble and decided, for the sake of family -- his first passion -- to go it alone and, with his wife Eunice, he set up their own media consulting firm. The day before we met he had been invited to scenic Great Rift Valley Lodge, overlooking Lake Naivasha in Kenya’s Rift Valley to speak to 132 Kenyan members of Parliament on media and parliamentary relations, and had got home in good time to be with the family and supervise the children’s homework.

He checks their writing and Maths. Eunice, who plans to write books for children, reads to them. Story-telling, which played a big role in traditional African society, still does in the Mwita household. As a media professional and knowing the influence of television on children, the set is kept under safe control, and the children have been taught how to manage it. Monika and the twins switch off when a bad scene appears, or change channels. "Bad manners!" mutters Gabriel, referring to certain types of on-screen behaviour.

Chaacha Mwita was born 36 years ago in a very remote corner of Kenya, just beyond the world-renowned Masai Mara game reserve. But no tourist will travel those extra miles to Kuria-land, his home, where large tobacco plantations have ruined the soil and brought starvation and high food prices to the local people.

He was a university student during turbulent times in Kenya, just after the collapse of Soviet communism and the international pressure for multi-party rule in Africa. Long-serving rulers, formerly propped up by the Western powers, were being given the push, including Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi. Chaacha was in the thick of student politics, and, later, pro-democracy mass action. A founder member of the Nairobi University students’ union, SONU 92, which the Moi administration banned, and of the National Convention Executive Committee, which spearheaded constitutional change, a job that is not yet completed; as well as various civil society organizations that have tried to promote civic education.

Chaacha has always been a fighter, a crusader, and has seen the inside of Kenya’s police cells more than once. His mother’s death "defined" him, he says, when, as eldest son, many responsibilities fell on him, including the education of three siblings, his father’s fortune having dwindled by then. He was at the time in his final year at university. His father, Samson Mwita Marwa, who had been a preacher, teacher, civic leader and member of parliament, aroused his interest in civic affairs. One of eight children from his mother –- his father was a polygamist -- Chaacha had not traveled farther than the closest trading centre before going to university in Nairobi.

But his interest in the world outside was sparked by his parents –- for whom education was the key to happiness -- by his elder sister’s description of a trip she made to see the not-so-far-away Lake Victoria, and his primary teacher, Mr Miseda, whose mastery of the English language and love for Literature stuck with Chaacha, who recalled how Miseda would insist they repeat the word ‘stealthily" in a sentence several times until they got it right.

His career as a journalist, publisher and activist has led him to cross paths with many of today’s celebrities: Nelson Mandela, one of his personal icons, whom he admires for suffering nobly for his people; Barack Obama (twice, and Chaacha was amazed he remembered him at the second meeting); John Glenn; Kofi Annan, with whom he shared a platform just after the former UN Secretary General had brokered a peace deal in Kenya; Mo Ibrahim, initiator of the US$5 million democracy award for honourably retired African heads of state who have made a positive contribution to democracy; Tom Peters and Larry Ellison. "Completely normal human beings," was his comment.

Two particularly sad moments in his life were when they lost their little son seven days after birth, and his venture into the political arena, during the controversial and historical December 2007 elections. It was here that he lost his political innocence when the party he was supporting, Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement, cheated him out of his nomination. Yet he continued to support the party until after the results were out and violence escalated.

He has collected all his ideas and experiences on media, politics and his knowledge of Africa -- his second passion, after his family -- into a book he has just launched: Citizen Power. It is a powerful indictment of, among other things, the political and economic control of the media in Africa, and how the Kenyan media aligned itself with the powers that ‘stole" the election.

It also comes down heavily on the developed countries and their ready acceptance of "free and fair" elections in Africa, as if in Africa seriously flawed elections can pass for "democracy". Because his third passion is justice, he is prepared to fight for it. He loves his country and wants to bring it out of the mess it’s in.

There are three other people he particularly admires besides Mandela: Pope John Paul II, whom he regrets never having met on his three trips to Kenya, and whom he admired before joining the Catholic Church; Mahatma Gandhi, for his belief in progress through non-violence and non-retaliation; and St Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, for his "revolutionary" idea that holiness is meant for everybody through their ordinary work regardless of social level.

Chaacha’s book will ruffle a few feathers, but it is only through people like him, ready to stick out their necks, who will provide a voice of conscience in a society where many political leaders, at all levels, have become compromised or overwhelmed by wrangling and bureaucracy, and much of the general public has given in to sterile criticism and apathy. Chaacha Mwita reminds us that not only is Africa not a basket-case but a continent of huge potential and hope; and that it is possible to combine family, faith and values and be a top professional too.

Martyn Drakard writes from Kampala, in Uganda.

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