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February 21, 2019

G-Spot: Of famed plagiarists and plain old copycats

Whether it was malevolent or not, potential US First Lady Melania Trump’s plagiarism of a speech by incumbent Michelle Obama rekindled memories of copycats. The first one was of when America’s Vice President Joe Biden first properly came to my attention. 

It was 1987, I was living in England and very serious about politics, especially British (as I lived there), Kenyan (to the point of preferring Weekly Review copies as gifts from Kenya over coffee, tea or Farmer’s Choice sausages), India and Pakistan (always fascinating) and the US (their politics is always entertaining).

In a British election that year, Margaret Thatcher had won her “three times a lady” victory. The poll had seen Neil Kinnock and his red rose-clad Labour Party look almost electable after several years in the doldrums.

Kinnock had made a campaign video in the style of US presidential campaigns, speaking eloquently of being “the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university. Was it because our predecessors were thick?” It didn’t win him the election, but it stood out.

So imagine my surprise when I heard the same speech in an American accent four months later from an aspirant in the Democratic party race for nomination, one Senator Joseph Biden. He asked rhetorically: “Why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go a university? Is it because our fathers and mothers were not bright?”

A few years later, I was working as a writer on the now-defunct Sunday Times in Kenya. I wrote on all topics, from the arts to politics, and had so much energy, I even wrote for the daily paper, the Kenya Times.

Once, having written an opinion piece I was particularly pleased with, I was stunned to hear a huge chunk of it regurgitated in a speech written for President  Daniel Moi. Clearly one of his speech writers had lifted my column word for word and not even bothered to notify me.

But the one incident that sticks out didn’t involve me but my colleague and friend Mburu Mucoki, who wrote the humour column Kimongonye. Kimosh, as we called him, came to work one Tuesday with a concerned look, waving a copy of the Sunday Nation, our chief rival at the Sunday Times.

We soon saw why. That week’s Whispers column was a word for word copy of a previous edition of Kimongonye. We couldn’t believe that our friend the late, lamented Wahome Mutahi was a copycat, but there it was in black and white.

Eventually it was found that a very busy Mutahi had subcontracted his column to a scribe with humour failure, who had thought he’d never be caught out. 

Follow me on Twitter @MwangiGithahu

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