• Caleb Atemi

The OUKO Phone Call

Updated: Mar 4, 2020

I staggered out of the office. My head was numb. It felt as if I had survived a major boxing match.

There are many things worth living for, a few things worth dying for, and nothing worth killing for.-Tom Robbins

The phone startled me from my intermittent slumber. I was literally dozing on my typewriter after hours of writing and editing. It rang again and again. I blankly stared at the black telephone set on my desk as if consumed by paralysis. I was alone in the office. All my colleagues’ and staff members had long gone home. At last I reached out for it. It was my City Editor, Mutegi Njau on the line.

“You Mluhyia have you heard that Robert Ouko is missing?”

The question hit me like a hammer. “No Mutegi I have not” I responded jumping out of my seat in shock. Robert John Ouko was Kenya’s most eloquent and brilliant Foreign Affairs Minister. How could a man of such stature go missing? Such a cabinet minister always has bodyguards and an elaborate security network around him.

“The Government has issued a statement and the President has appealed to anyone with information on his whereabouts to inform the police.” Said Mutegi. There was a long pause. I could hear his breath over the mouthpiece. “Do you think he could be alive?” he asked. I paused for some seconds then retorted: “If they have announced his disappearance then it is unlikely he would be alive” The journalist in me was already visualising an earth shaking story.

Mutegi asked if I could travel to the minister’s Koru home in Muhoroni to interview Ouko’s family members and workers. I looked at the clock. It was almost 7pm.

In February 1990, the Nation Media Group office in Kisumu County was ill equipped. We had no official vehicle. In those days Kisumu was a slow town. Matatu’s to Muhoroni operated until 6pm. Even if I had the luck to get one, I would have to walk for many kilometres in the dark from Muhoroni to Koru. Car hire services were rare and most offices closed by 5pm. There were no ATMs and mobile phones were non-existent.

Mutegi understood my predicament and asked me to report to the office by 7am the following day. However, before I left the office the phone rang again. This time it was the Group Managing Editor, George Anthony Mbuggus on the line:” Young man!” he barked, “Why have you refused to go to Ouko’s home? Do you know how serious this is? Do you want your job or not?” I tried explaining to him that short of a miracle there was no way I would travel to Koru at that hour. He muttered some expletives before angrily banging the phone on me.

Through my mind’s eye I could see Mbuggus fuming and pacing up and down the News Room with his favourite cigarette in hand, cursing this silly young man who had the audacity to ignore his orders.

I staggered out of the office. My head was numb. It felt as if I had survived a major boxing match. My heart was heavy. Many thoughts flew through my mind. I could not visualise what might have happened to the minister whose function I had covered just a month earlier. I had enjoyed a cup of tea at Ouko’s Nyahera home and we even cracked some jokes in Kiluhiya; “I am a Luhyia you know” he had said with a hearty laughter. I also remembered my boss’s threat and refusal to reason and my heart sank.

After closing the office, I walked to the bus stop where I boarded my Kondele Mowuok, one of the old ramshackles’ that used to ply the route to my residence in Migosi Estate. There existed several such vehicles; rickety, rusty, old, tired and retired Peugeot 404s that ran by the grace of God. With their rusty frames, and torn seats, many of them did not even have functional fuel tanks. The driver would place a jerrican of petrol under the feet of the passengers with a pipe running across the dashboard into the fuel tank.

One had to sit in them with care and watch every move especially while alighting lest your feet get caught up in the web of holes below the seats. As they coughed and sneezed their way along the pothole filled route, you could actually count the number of holes they ran through. Their chassis were so weak it is a miracle they rarely poured passengers on the road.

A trip to Migosi was always an adventure. With passengers squeezed like Omena in these death traps, the sweaty and smelly driver who doubled up as the conductor would take off driving with half of his body out of the driver’s window. In his haste to carry as many people as possible, he literally pushed himself out of his own car. Most of these vehicles had a standby rock on the passenger side. The rock acted as the brake whenever the drive was obliged to alight and assist passengers with luggage.

These decrepit vehicles and their operators were terrified of only two things; the Big Fish Mama whose sheer size meant she occupied space of four people, and a ruthless traffic police officer named Kuria. The mamas were known to adamantly refuse to create space for others. They were also tough with the drivers and could not be bullied easily. Occasionally they ambushed the drivers with their Alor Ka (Sukisa mimi hapa) (I want to alight here). The mama would expect instant brakes. The drivers would desperately pump on the brakes which would most of the time refuse to cooperate. They always had to bear the fury and insults of the Mamas.

I arrived safely in Migosi but with some pain in my rib cage. I sat next to a scrawny fellow with elbows so sharp they could pierce through metal. I had my dinner at the Galaxy Hotel situated a walking distance from my house. Despite the heaviness of heart, I slept soundly but was up by 5am. I normally walked the long distance to town if I intended to reach the office before 8am. The Kondele Mowuok’s were not early risers.

I arrived at the office on Jubilee Plaza to find the corridor occupied. Colleagues from Nairobi were already there waiting for me. They had travelled overnight and spent several hours at Ouko’s home. They needed a typewriter and space to bang their story.

I was instructed to carry on other office duties. The boss had issued specific instructions that I cover the small ordinary stories. With tears in my eyes, I waited for the clock to hit 8.30am before I began my walk to the nearby Kisumu Hotel to cover a press conference called by Ambrose Adongo, the charismatic Secretary General of the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT).

Adongo kept time. He was waiting for journalists in the hotel lobby. After almost an hour of waiting, we realised that no other reporter was going to join us. I was the only journalist in Kisumu who was not on the Ouko beat.

The Secretary General ordered for tea. He gave me his written statement and muttered some things which I could barely register. He then squeezed something in my hand, thanked me and left. I sat there for some time staring at my cup of tea. I took a sip and realised it was already cold. I slowly walked away.

I was zombified. I felt rejected and dejected. My office had been taken over by what my boss considered to be superior journalists.

It is only when I reached the office that I realised Adongo had placed a sh 100 note in my hand. I did not know what to think of it.

When I entered the office, my colleague Catherine Gicheru was busy on phone, filing the colour story, describing the activities in the Ouko home. Suddenly a seemingly agitated lady ran into our office saying that there was someone who wanted to talk to a reporter on her office line.

I ran out. Our neighbour was a young lawyer who was trying to grow his legal practice. Mutegi had managed to trace his number and called asking to talk to me: “Go right now to Koru. The police are searching for Ouko’s body in the hilly neighbourhood.”

The cameraman and I dashed to the official car that came from Nairobi with my colleagues. Like a Formula One team on wings we sped off towards Koru. By sheer luck, I was elevated to covering the one assignment that would transform my life and work as a journalist. I never got to write Adongo’s story and I cannot even recall what we discussed.

Watch out for part 2/4 next week on Monday

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