By Judy Wanjiku Wanderi with Ogova Ondego
Published July 2003
The audience had waited for this moment with anticipation. Wahome Mutahi, popularly known as Whispers, had been set to stage Ngoma Cia Aka (The Whirlwind) in this ‘non-conventional’ Nyeri theatre in March 2002. This play had been considered controversial and no sooner had the cast got on stage than police burst in, declaring its staging illegal and threatening everyone in the room with arrest. That was the life of the Son of the Soil alias Whispers alias Son of Nyaituga from The Slopes (of Mount Kenya). His life was as dramatic as it was controversial. A man of mirth, satire and warmth.
Mutahi’s demise in July 2003 has shaken Kenya, the country he loved, cared for so much and entertained through satire. As a journalist, playwright, novelist, actor, and humorist, many considered Mutahi the embodiment of intelligence, creativity and hard work. He achieved his dream of running his own theatre productions when he founded Igiza Productions in 1995, his aim being to take theatre to the people in their own language. A believer in art as a tool for education, information and entertainment, Mutahi scripted plays and dramatised them in Gikuyu, the language of the Kikuyu in informal theatres–beer-drinking places and restaurants. He also co-founded (with Dr Nyamu) the Citrus Whispers Theatre in Ngara, Nairobi.
Among the plays he scripted were Mugaathe Mubogothi (His Excellency the Hallucinator), Igoti ria muigi (The People’s Court), Mugaathe Ndotono, Mararirira kioro, and Mararirira kioro.
Whereas Mugaathe Mubogothi is a replay of the years Kenya was under corrupt and authoritarian Kenya African National Union (KANU) leadership, Mugaathe Ndotono is a revelation of the autocracy that went with bad governance and political disillusionment among political leaders. Igoti ria muigi is about justice meted out by the hoi polloi.
Undeterred by the restrictions imposed on his plays, Mutahi continued to script critical drama like Mararirira kioro , a sequel to the prophetic Makararira kioro that had a predictive touch on Kenya’s political transition after the 2002 general elections. Mutahi did not live to watch, direct or act in the sequel.
Through humour, Mutahi attracted a large audience, his clever wit hitting hard against corruption and injustice. His mastery of political satire entertained Kenyans as well as enlightened them on their environment. This called for courage at a time when the political mood curtailed such expression.
Wahome Mutahi’s love for literature and creativity enabled him to turn tribulations into literary gems. The famous and popular Sunday Nation column, Whispers, which he began in 1982, can attest to this. The column featured for two decades till the fateful March 7, 2003 surgery to remove a fat growth at the back of his neck put him into an eternal coma and, subsequently, death four months later. Using imaginary characters–often himself and his family–the column gained popularity among readers who looked forward to reading it every Sunday. He reflected on the daily life of the ordinary citizen and wrote of the things that Kenyans were afraid to say in the open and only spoke of in whispers.
Mutahi wrote in colloquial language (Sheng, English and Kiswahili), converting jargon into simple statements; the language of the man at the bus stop; the woman at the reception; the mama mboga in the market; the language that everyone could understand and identify with. He gave new meaning to expressions whose origin only he could tell. Over time, they became firmly embedded in Kenya’s daily expressions. The personal touch Whispers gave to his column made the Kenyan reader feel they knew him in an almost personal way.
Mutahi also wrote a humour column, Lugambo, for The Monitor newspaper of Uganda.
He wrote for the vernacular theological and human rights magazine, Inooro, which re-emerged as Mwihoko, following the banning of the former by the government. It is published by the Murang’a Roman Catholic Diocese.
Whispers was the second longest running column in East Africa, after the late Edward Rodwell’s Coast Causerie, which ran for more than 50 years in the East African Standard. Apart from his career in the arts, Mutahi had served as a District Officer in Meru and Machakos districts of Eastern Province.
Mutahi’s first novel, Three Days on the Cross, won the 1992 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature. The book is a recount of Mutahi’s incarceration at the infamous Nyayo House torture chambers in 1986 and how he was tortured into confessing to being a member of an outlawed Mwakenya underground movement that allegedly sought to overthrow Daniel arap Moi’s government.
Mutahi’s second novel, Jail Bugs, tackles his imprisonment at the Kamiti Maximum Prison, King’ong’o Prison, and Industrial Area, among others, after the forced confession in Nyayo House. It exposes the pathetic conditions of jails in Kenya.
Other writings of Mutahi include: How to be a Kenyan, a book full of wit that brings out the servility of Kenyans and their life in Disneyland; it is like a mirror that reflects the identity of Kenyans. While Doomsday is an account of the August 7, 1998 bombing of the United States Embassy in Nairobi, Dream Merchants is a peek into the on-goings in religious bodies. Another book is Father Camisassius, a comical account of Mutahi’s life with a Roman Catholic priest, a character that he featured in the Whispers column and the young Wahome as an altar boy.
After leaving formal employment as a journalist, and having worked with Daily Nation newspaper as editor for arts and culture, Mutahi co-founded Views Media with cartoonist Paul Kelemba (Maddo) and now politician Mutahi Kagwe (Member of Parliament for Mukurwe-ini) in 1991.
As a literary giant and an astute human rights activist who had suffered a lot for the country’s democratisation and social justice, Mutahi worked closely with human right groups like Release Political Prisoners, Kenya Human Rights Commission, and Catholic Justice and Peace Commission.
Wahome Mutahi attended St Paul Minor Seminary in Nyeri from Standard Seven to Form Four before declining to be trained as a priest at St Aquinas Seminary in Nairobi as per the wish of his father. Lest he annoyed him, young Mutahi went to the seminary in Lang’ata in 1972 but was out before the end of the term. He later went to Kirimara Secondary School for Advanced Level studies in 1973 before proceeding to the University of Nairobi where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Literature. But before then, he did a stint as an untrained teacher at Tetu Girls, Kiriti, and Gikondi primary schools.
Mutahi’s ‘send-off’ was a unique one as the Nairobi theatre fraternity ensured that it was not a cause for bitter flowing tears but a celebration of life; perhaps the grandest a Kenyan artist has ever received. For Nairobians, artists never die. Literally.
On the eve of Mutahi’s burial, artists had gathered at the Sunset Grill, a popular spot for the Nairobi thespian community, where they displayed art while dancing the night away . During the burial at Mununga-ini village in Tetu, Nyeri, dirge was turned into joyous dance, tears to laughter. The aura was more festive than somber; just as Whispers would have wanted it.
Present was Culture Minister Najib Balala, among several dignitaries, who announced that a monument would be constructed at the Kenya National Theatre in his honour. A park in Nyeri town will also be named ‘Whispers’ in honour of the departed actor’s role in Kenya’s ‘second liberation’.
President Mwai Kibaki, in a message read by Balala, described Mutahi as “a great artist who fought for democracy. His selflessness inspired desire among Kenyans who looked forward to his humour column, whispers. It is a column that Kenyans will sadly miss.”
Also present was Mutahi’s former lecturer, Prof Micere Mugo, who had flown in from the United States specifically for the funeral; she recited a poem dedicated to the late Mutahi.
The curtain may have come down on the October 24, 1954-born Mutahi who began his theatre career with the University of Nairobi’s Free Traveling Theatre in the 1970s. His memory, however lingers on.
Other than for his writings, Whispers, first born son of Octavia Muthoni (Appep) and the late Elijah Mutahi of Mununga-ini village, Nyeri, left behind wife Ricarda Njoki (Thatcher) and three children: 24-year-old Patrick Mutahi (Whispers Junior or The Domestic Thug); 22-year-old Caroline Muthoni (Pajero); and 21-year-old Evelyne Wanjugu (The Investment).