Bikozulu: The man behind the mask

His blog is the most popular in Kenya with thousands of subscribers. His influence is such that a single blog post helped raise millions for a perfect stranger to get cancer treatment. Yet few know who Jackson Biko really is. Magunga Williams takes a stab at unravelling the mysterious man.

The first time I asked Biko for an interview, he turned me down. He said he does not take interviews, which I found rather paradoxical given that one of his fortes is conducting interviews. I figured out that he was scared of the boot being on the other foot. He has been conducting interviews in this city, talking to business moguls and industry leaders, undressing them, making them shed their corporate veils and opening them up to the world. And now here I was, asking to do to him the same thing he does to other people. He cringed, understandably.

However, when I finally got him to agree to talk to me and asked him about this, he said it is because he does not like photos. Imagine that! Photos! I had to swear by my honour not to make him take any pictures of himself. And therein lies the allure of this man, Jackson Biko. He is known by many. Loved and criticised with the same fiery passion. Yet if we were to line him up at a parade and ask his readers to pick him out, very few would be able to.

He likes it that way, this Biko. He likes to be at the centre of events without being the centrepiece. Meaning, he wants to be a fly on the wall so that he can watch people and occurrences unspool and later capture them in words. His exact words were, “I do not like to be the eye of the storm even though sometimes I create a storm.”

He tells me that when he is talking to someone at, say a bar, and this person does not know who he is, the said individual will be more open. They will have a free conversation. However, the moment he mentions his name and the guy recognises he is that writer, then everything changes. No more candid conversations. All you get is smoke and mirrors. Continue reading

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Wordsmith: Wangethi’s Second Act

Wangethi Mwangi, former Editorial Director at Nation Media Group, and now Senior Advisor at African Media Initiative, shares insights on the biggest stories of the last three decades, his personal interactions with two Kenyan presidents and how the Internet is shaping the future of media in Africa.

By Wanjiru Waithaka

Photography: Emma Nzioka, AMI, Wangethi family

It was a bitter cold day with sheets of rain pouring down relentlessly. Warm air from the car’s interior fogged up the windows, matching the fog outside that had reduced visibility to just a few metres. The rain was a steady drumbeat on the roof as the car sped towards the coffee farms of Limuru, making good time on a road devoid of traffic, which had been cleared to allow passage of the president’s motorcade.

The late Juvénal Habyarimana, third President of the Republic of Rwanda, was in Nairobi on an official visit. Wangethi Mwangi, a trainee sub-editor with the Standard newspaper, was in a vehicle a few metres behind him, together with photographer Frank Wanjohi.

The motorcade had just passed the shopping centre at Banana when the storm felled a tree which hit electric cables, sending them crashing to the ground where school children waved miniature flags as they cheered the president. Three died on the spot. The Standard driver brought the car to a screeching halt at Wangethi’s urging as the rest of the motorcade sped on. Wanjohi leaped out of the car and began taking pictures, cupping the lens with his hands to shield the camera from the rain.

Wangethi started interviewing onlookers while taking down details of the scene. The police arrived soon after and the dead and injured were taken to Nazareth Hospital.

Back in the newsroom, he banged out his copy on an ancient type writer on six sheets of paper separated by carbon paper. The copies usually went to the news editor, chief sub-editor and the editor-in-chief among others. He pulled the sheets out of the typewriter, pleased with his handiwork.

His editor wasn’t impressed. He immediately put fresh sheets of paper into his own typewriter and taught Wangethi his first crucial lesson in journalism – how to write an intro. Wangethi had started the story thus: ‘Three school children were electrocuted yesterday…’. The editor typed: ‘Tragedy struck deep in the heart of Kiambu yesterday…’ and rewrote the entire first paragraph.

The story went to the front page giving Wangethi his first byline in the paper. A person unfamiliar with the workings of a newsroom would expect that Wangethi would be reprimanded for abandoning the Habyarimana assignment but instead he received praise for spotting a breaking story and following his instincts. After all, the paper could always use copy from the Kenya News Agency (KNA) for the Habyarimana story.

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This was one of two incidents early in his career that shaped the way he approaches journalism even today. The other also involved a dignitary, but was the complete opposite of the stellar performance he displayed on the Habyarimana assignment.

The UN had just opened its Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat) office in Nairobi and Arcot Ramachandran, Under-Secretary General had been appointed its first Executive Director. The late Mitch Odero, news editor at the Standard, asked Wangethi to go to the airport and cover his arrival.

“Obviously, it was a big thing and yet I had no idea about Habitat and no time to research. He just gave me a car and photographer and asked me to go and report the story.” Wangethi racked his brain wondering how he was going to pull off the assignment.

“Calestous Juma, a reporter for the Nation, saved the day,” Wangethi recalls. Juma, now a respected professor at Harvard University, knew his subject. “He had studied a lot about the environment and was already acquainted with Ramachandran, so he fired all the questions while the rest of us took notes.” Juma wrote an excellent story for the Nation.

Wangethi describes his own story as passable. “I promised myself I would never go to an assignment unprepared, and would ensure anyone working under me was properly briefed before going out on assignment,” he says.

Meeting Wangethi for the first time is a confusing experience. His ability to smell a breaking story from miles away is legendary but he has a reputation for being a ruthless taskmaster who thunders when angry, is intimidating to his juniors and flat out arrogant even with superiors.

Managing editors who walked around the newsroom like they owned it, inspiring fear in juniors themselves, were said to be reduced to stuttering wrecks in Wangethi’s presence, almost as if their brains had been lobotomised or cloned such that they were unable to communicate in anything more than a mumble.

Kwamchetsi Makokha, a Nation columnist and communications consultant puts it thus: “With Wangethi, you have 60 seconds to make a good impression. If you don’t earn his respect when he first meets you, you’ll never earn it, no matter what you do in subsequent weeks, months or years.”

My first impression of him is a friendly social gentleman with a mild personality and not the least bit intimidating. Where is the monster I was warned about?

Wangethi laughs at this saying that is not his management style but when pressed, he admits there is some truth to it. “I was very demanding, very authoritative and also very impatient. That’s what I would call the extreme side of me, but if I liked you, I could be very patient, understanding and accommodating.”

He shouted when upset especially when someone goofed on a story. What is that common refrain ‘Lawyers jail their mistakes, doctors bury theirs, but journalists publish theirs for the entire world to see’? In such a high pressure environment where deadlines are critical, and reporters have only hours to put stories together, it’s perhaps understandable that an Editorial Director would lose his cool when errors slipped into the page.

After all, he was responsible for everything that went into the paper and was the one people sued when unhappy about a story. This sometimes extended to advertising where he was blamed when readers considered an ad offensive, never mind that ads were the preserve of the advertising department.

Wangethi also concedes that he can be very dismissive and has in the past denied someone a job in the newsroom or a promotion within a few minutes of meeting them. He says he goes with his gut and has no apologies about it. This confidence in himself, which has thrust him into leadership positions in his journalism career, has its roots in his childhood. Continue reading

Cashing in on ‘I Do’

I love weddings (watching them on TV actually; attending them, not so much) and I’ve always wondered, why do they have to cost so much? In the February issue of Sage magazine, we reflect on the cost of saying I Do to the one you love.

It features conversations with wedding planners, business opportunities created by the wedding industry and 5 ways in which savvy but cash strapped brides are saving money and still getting a fabulous wedding. That is one article you don’t want to miss!

This issue also features football legend Joe Kadenge whose compelling story by the incomparable Owaahh is a must read. Our finance writer shows you how to invest offshore and Kithaka wa Mberia, one of Kenya’s most successful authors shares tips on how to make money from books.

Along with that is our usual sprinkling of articles on personal finance, fashion, style, decor, fitness, food, motoring and the arts.

Sage is only Ksh400 bob and is available in Nakumatt and Chandarana supermarkets. A digital version is available on Magzter.

Have a fabulous read!

Grab your copy of Sage second issue!

I don’t know about you but for me, the end of the year is always a period of reflection where I contemplate what I’ve achieved vis-à-vis what I had planned when the year began. The reflections are not always happy ones, sometimes bitter sweet, but always, there is a sense of hope that whatever dreams I have, will come to pass in the New Year.

For many infertile couples, getting to hear about in Vitro Fertilisation (IVF), offers hope of a new dawn after years of stigma with the wife bearing the brunt. Cruel relatives have by then called her all sorts of names, often urging her husband to get himself another wife to bear him children, never mind that he could be the one with the problem.

Although IVF has been around for a decade in Kenya, it is still controversial. Surrogates have been called everything from gold diggers to adulterers, and couples deemed selfish for spending so much money – sometimes millions – in the quest for a child who carries their DNA. Our second issue explores all things IVF; from the business end of the procedures, to the ways in which infertile couples, egg and sperm donors, surrogates, doctors and other stakeholders are navigating this minefield, courting cultural and religious taboos at every turn, while a legal vacuum compounds the agony for couples fortunate enough to be blessed with an IVF baby.

In this issue we also walk with Zain Verjee, former CNN anchor, as she embarks on a journey into entrepreneurship in the digital space. Kenya’s most popular blogger, Jackson Biko has honoured us with a rare interview and Them Mushrooms, still going strong after four decades, share their musical voyage, filled with triumph and tragedy alike, as well as their plans to take their music in a new direction. These are just a few of the gems we prepared for you, so turn the page and get reading. We love to hear from you, so drop us a line when you’re done, or talk to us on social media.

Wishing you a joyful and fruitful 2017.

Sage magazine is finally here!

More than a year in the making, loads of work, plenty of obstacles. But it was all worth it. My newest baby is here. Not a book, but a magazine. A business and lifestyle magazine that is also geared towards the arts. No surprises there, since I’m an artist.

Among the artists featured in the launch issue: Jua Cali, Kenya’s king of Genge, Osborne Macharia, photographer par excellence and Tom Mboya, who abandoned an 8-year hotel career to pursue his first love: painting.

We have an indepth feature on the changing landscape of media in Africa with one of Africa’s great journalists Wangethi Mwangi, former editorial director at Nation Media Group and now a senior advisor at African Media Initiative. Wangethi shares his insights on the biggest stories of the last three decades, his personal interactions with two Kenyan presidents and how the Internet is shaping the future of media in Africa.

Sage magazine also features plenty of investment and career advice, and lifestyle features including fitness, decor, motoring, food and travel.

We have a great team starting with the #SageSquad, Ronni Waithaka and MaryG Waithaka, who have been instrumental in putting the mag together. And then there’s #TeamSage, a wonderful cast of writers and photographers who we’re honoured to be working with. Just to mention a few: Kelly Murungi (Rookie Manager), Owaah, Oyunga Pala, Magunga Williams, Dickson Otieno, Judith Mwobobia, Fredrick Omondi and Andrew Onyango.

Thank you all from the bottom of my heart for taking a chance on us and believing in the dream even before we could show you the finished product. Looking forward to a wonderful journey together.

Sage magazine is a monthly publication and is available in supermarkets and newspaper vendors from December. A digital version will be available on Magzter. Price just Ksh400 bob. Grab your copy today!

Click here to read the entire first issue (November).

The ambulance

I was in deep thought, completely absorbed in planning the second issue of the magazine we would soon be launching, when the sound startled me back to the present.

A siren. Really loud. A minute later I saw it. An ambulance. Exactly the same model as the matatu I was sitting in but without the yellow stripe across the middle. Cream in colour, strobe lights flashing, siren blaring. Continue reading

Humble beginnings

Nuggets of wisdom about success in life come from the most unlikely sources sometimes.

So there I was in slow moving traffic along State House Road in a cab some weeks ago. Usually, I’m chatting away but on that sunny morning, I was pensive, looking at my surroundings without seeing them. I vaguely noticed the old man shuffling along in tattered clothes with akalas on his feet, begging bowl in hand, a young fellow guiding him with a hand on his elbow, from car window to car window. Nothing new. A common sight on Nairobi’s streets.

Some motorists hastily roll up their windows when they saw the pair coming. Staring stonily ahead, brows knit in concentration at some speck on the horizon when the dark man with the weather beaten face drew parallel to their side mirrors. Perhaps imagining that if they didn’t look at him then he didn’t exist. Or perhaps wishing he would move on quickly.

Others looked at him curiously, perhaps taking in the lines etched on his face like an ancient piece of parchment, lines that marked the endless roads and valleys he had crossed to get here, a beggar in his sixties perhaps? I’m never good at telling people’s ages just by looking at them. Few dropped anything into his bowl.

I’d already dismissed the man and his young friend (or relative) from my mind and gone back to my silent musings when Kingori, my cabbie suddenly spoke. “That young man,” he jerked a thumb over his right shoulder as the car crawled forward, “He is young and strong. He can work and provide for the old man. So why is he walking him around in the hot sun begging?” Continue reading

Age

Whoever said age is just a number should be shot. Or boiled in hot oil. Or made to walk barefoot on sharp rocks until his feet bleed. You get the drift.

It’s taken me 43 years to finally get why people (especially women) lie about their age. It’s taken this long because as a writer, I’ve often wished I was older simply because most people with stories worth telling (in book form) are my father’s age or older. And their natural preference when it comes to putting their stories to paper is to deal with a peer, usually a professor of literature. Thinning grey hair, pot-bellied, perhaps walking with a slight stoop, fading eyesight and who vividly remembers Jomo Kenyatta. Continue reading