Months before the death of journalist and playwright Wahome Mutahi in 2003, I wrote a column for the Daily Nation titled: “The Most Memorable Day of my Life”.
One of the first people to feature in the column was Wahome.
His most memorable day was when he was arrested by State agents from his desk at the old Nation House in Nairobi, accused of belonging to a “criminal” outfit called Mwakenya.
He was arrested in the middle of writing the October 19, 1986 piece of his popular Sunday Nation column, Whispers.
I doubt today’s journalists would allow such an outrageous act — where a colleague is arrested from his work station without a warrant.
On the day Wahome gave me the story of his “most memorable day”, I found him seated alone at a corner in the Kenyan National Theatre pub (on his death, the pub was named Whispers in his honour).
Once settled, he told me: “For now, I will give you the story of my most memorable day. But you should seriously consider doing a story of my life. You know, like doctors hardly treat themselves, we writers hardly write about ourselves. I would like you to do my biography.”
After a pause, he added: “By the way, some of us may soon be past tense. Hurry up to do my story before they return me back to the soil.”
A natural story-teller, Wahome went ahead to throw snippets about his chequered life.
“You know I wear many hats”, he told me. “Having been an altar boy in my youthful days, today I can put on clerical robes and perform duties of a catechist.
And from my paramilitary training as a District Officer (DO), I can easily change into jungle fatigues, grab an AK-47, and lead a security operation in Suguta Valley.”
He told me in his college days where he studied Public Administration at the University of Nairobi (he never in his life sat in any journalism class) his room-mate was a chap who is today an MP in the Rift Valley.
At the time I chatted with Wahome, the MP was a powerful Permanent Secretary in President Daniel Moi’s administration.
Wahome told me amid stitches of laughter: “Can you imagine that powerful man you know today couldn’t look at a girl in the eye and ask for a date? I deliberately would take a girl to our shared room and silently ‘disappear’ only to find my room-mate had ‘vanished’ in the corridors.”
As a DO in Machakos, one of the Administration Police officers attached to him, Wahome told me, was one Tony Ndilinge, who later became Kilome MP and a Moi-era assistant minister.
One day Wahome got his officers on an operation to round up brewers of illicit drinks. After a msako (operation), a weary Ndilinge fell to the temptation of sampling a bit of the poison drink.
Not used to the stuff, he soon passed out. Meanwhile, the owner of the “distillery” quietly removed Ndilinge’s official cap with the coat of arms, which he took to the DO’s office first thing in the morning.
Come the morning parade Ndilinge discovered he had no cap, a serious offence in the disciplined forces.
“The young man came to my office running, knelt down and said. ‘Afande, I have lost my cap. But just give me an hour I will come back with it’,” Wahome recalled.
“How will you get it back?” Wahome asked the young officer.
“Mkubwa (boss), please allow me permission to go out with my loaded gun and I’ll be back with my cap,” Ndilinge replied.
Amused but bewildered by what the young officer had said, Wahome told his officer: “You’re already inside a hole and digging further.
First, you got drunk while on duty which is a serious offence.
Then you lost your cap which is an even bigger offence.
Now you want to illegally take away a government gun to go shooting about innocent people, an offence for which you will be sentenced to hang right away? How do we deal with you?”
Wahome told me the young AP went into uncontrollable sobs to a point he had to tell him: “Officer, here is your lost cap. But be sure next time you make such a mistake, the law will certainly take its course.”
Then Wahome told me the story of his most memorable day. “It was a staged and a State-managed affair”, he told me.
Two weeks before police officers came for him from the offices of the Sunday Nation, his younger brother, Njuguna Mutahi, then a newly deployed government officer, had shown him a document headlined: “Mwakenya”, which talked ill of President Moi’s government and why it should be overthrown through violent means.
The document had been handed to Wahome’s brother by a self-styled “revolutionary” who, as it would later turn out, was a government agent.
Having worked in the government, Wahome told me, he immediately smelt a rat and told his excitable younger brother to be cautious. He advised him to destroy the document and not to show it to anybody else. But, it seems, it was already too late.
A few days later, Wahome’s younger brother was arrested as was everybody else who had touched the “Mwakenya” document.
Wahome’s arrest was on Wednesday, October 15, 1986, just when he had written a few lines of his popular weekly column.
He had got to the office at about 10am, only to be alerted by the receptionist that two “strange-looking” men had been to the office in the last two days asking for him.
“Did they leave their names,” he asked.
“No, but from the look of it, they weren’t friendly people,” replied the receptionist.
Inside the office, Wahome alerted his managing editor Justin Macharia about the receptionist’s message.
“I hope you haven’t eloped with somebody’s wife”, his editor replied in jest, but cautioned, “just keep me posted on the matter. In the meantime, get cracking at your desk.”
Hardly an hour later, two mean-looking men stormed the offices of the Nation: “Wahome, we have come for you,” they said and identified themselves as police officers.
“What about?” Wahome demanded.
“Your car has been involved in a minor accident. Just follow us,” they said.
Outside, he was bundled into a waiting police car and locked up at the Kilimani Police Station.
Later he was carted away to Industrial Area Police Station, then driven to his house for a search, and later dumped at the Nyayo House torture chambers.
After a 30-day ordeal, he was coerced into confessing to a crime called “failure to report a crime” and sentenced to 15 months in jail.
My second-last meeting with Wahome months before his death was at the Wida Highway Motel on the Nairobi-Nakuru Highway.
I had briefly stopped on my way to my shags in Nyahururu. He was there directing rehearsals for a play he had written.
We briefly chatted. I remember him telling me as we parted: “You know we’re yet to get started on the project of writing the story of my life.
I don’t want to wait and tell it to the termites when they return me back to the soil.”
Soon after, I learnt Wahome was playing a big role in Mwai Kibaki’s National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) 2002 election campaign.
Actually, he was in a team of the three – including a Nigerian professor and a Kenyan media consultant – who put up the final touches to Kibaki’s memorable 2002 inauguration speech.
In my third and last meeting with him, I had sought him out to request that he give me the inside story of the Kibaki 2002 campaign.
He agreed to do so but asked for a three-week window to allow him get done with a project he was working on.
As we parted, he yet again revisited the issue of me writing the story of his life.
“We have postponed the project for far too long”, he said. “Next time we meet, we should give time-lines to the project. Some of these things we keep postponing only to find you no longer have time left to do them.”
Not long after, I heard Wahome had been admitted to hospital in a coma after a surgery that had gone awry.
Three times I went to see him in hospital and each time I found his situation had only gotten worse. He finally surrendered to the Grim Reaper in July 2003.
The day before we returned him to “the soil in the slopes”, we held a night-long vigil at the Kenya National Theatre pub.
I arrived late to find every space filled. However, I squeezed and ensured I sat at the table where, only a few months earlier, Wahome had told me to hurry up and write the story of his life. Regrettably, I didn’t hurry fast enough. RIP, Bwana Whispers.