Kalembe: Charcoal burner who rose to dine with the mighty takes final bow

From a civic leader, the school drop out curved his own political mantle

In Summary
  • First, he rode on his pro-squatters campaign in Kibwezi before lighting up the country with his humour.
  • The ex-legislator's Tip Tip party failed to inspire him back to active politics in 2013. 
Former Kibwezi MP Kalembe Ndile./COURTESY
Former Kibwezi MP Kalembe Ndile./COURTESY

In the Akamba language, Kalembe denotes smallness yet Richard Kalembe Ndile, who died on Sunday, was a big politician in Kenya.

The paradox of the former Kibwezi MP's name did not stand in his way to greatness despite coming from a humble background.

His father was landless and a casual labourer at a copper mining site in Western Uganda, in the 1970s where he was living with his family.

Although they returned to Kenya to a squalor life and being forced to sell charcoal on the Mombasa-Nairobi highway, Kalembe was destined for great things.

In fact, at the age of 33, Kalembe was already a household name-fighting for the rights of the landless.

It was his aggressive fights for the squatters in Kibwezi that easily endeared Kalembe to his people who in 1997 elections sent him to the Mavoko County Council as their civic leader.

Unknown to him, it was here at the council that he would horn his political career for greatness after he was unanimously voted as the chairman of the Mavoko County Council.

The former MP's run-ins with law enforcers stretched his popularity far beyond his ward and was in 2002 elections voted in as the MP for Kibwezi constituency.

The election as Kibwezi MP threw the son of a squatter into the limelight of national politics.

He would later serve the country with unlimited doses of humour that lit up the country's political arena.

Despite his documented academic inadequacies, Kalembe rose from squalor as a charcoal seller to dine at the country's high table.

Actually, Kalembe's name emanated from the Kilembe Copper Mines in Uganda where his father was working in the 1970s.

Story has it that when his father returned to Kenya, Kalembe would fondly talk about the copper mills, earning himself the moniker Kilembe.

However, with the Akamba culture, Kilembe which denotes 'bigness' was considered not suitable for him as he was a 'small man.'

He would later be handed the nickname Kalembe to befit his 'smallness' as they settled as squatters back in Kibwezi.

Under that life of squatter-hood, young Kalembe found himself struggling to get education and at some point admitted that he dropped out while at Emali Secondary School.

Having been brought up under such dire conditions, Kalembe cultivated a burning desire to fight for the rights of fellow squatters, who incidentally are the majority in Kibwezi constituency.

The ex-MP would be remembered for his humour and comical remarks that left people in stitches.

The ex-legislators theatrics had positioned him as an influential politician, earning him a slot in retired President Kibaki's Cabinet as an assistant minister.

Kalembe was handed the ministry of Wildlife as an assistant minister during the reign of the Narc government, giving him an opportunity to tour the country as a senior government official.

It was during his official engagements that Kenyans would later learn that the former councillor was suffering from academic inadequacies.

With most government speeches largely written in English, Kalembe had trouble delivering the contents, often exposing himself to public ridicule.

However, the vocal politician from Makueni county would lose any subsequent attempt to win the parliamentary seat.

In 2007 to ODM's Philip Kaloki who won the seat while in the 2013 and the 2017 polls Patrick Musimba, an independent candidate, clinched the seat.

But whether you asked in Makueni or Nairobi, Kalembe was no doubt a unique politician with limited academic knowledge but who leveraged on his other endowments like humour to drive his politics.

The ex-MP would later launch The Independent Party (TIP TIP ) party and joined the Jubilee coalition in 2015.

He would, however, lament over being sidelined by the party after his name was scraped off the list for consideration for the East African Legislative Assembly  seat.

In 2015 President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed him to the board of the Tana Athi Waterworks for three years.

In 2006 while attending the Mwingi Cultural Festival, Kalembe was forced to run for his dear life after a fracas ensued in a meeting also attended by then ODM-Kenya luminary Kalonzo Musyoka.

"I can't forget the running I had to do in Mwingi. Many Kenyans do not know why I ran, but it was life-saving," Kalembe revealed in a TV interview in 2019.

Kalembe who died Sunday at The Nairobi Hospital aged 57, was euolgised as a self-made leader.

Uhuru termed him as a lively politician who loved and worked with everyone with the interests of the country at heart.

"It is unfortunate that death has taken from us Hon Kalembe Ndile in his prime,” the President said in his message of condolence to the family.

Deputy President William Ruto remembered him as a leader who devoted his life to serve the people.

“He was a master of equal justice who set an incredible example of service to all. He will best be remembered for his modesty, insights, independent voice and fighting for the rights of the underprivileged,” the DP said.

Former Prime Minister and ODM leader Raila Odinga,  described Kalembe as a charismatic leader.

“He was a man with exemplary grassroots mobilisation skills and who cared deeply for the underprivileged,” Raila said.

Kalonzo Musyoka’s through his Wiper Democratic Movement also joined the country in eulogising Kalembe.

“Kibwezi people and Kenya at large have surely lost a dedicated leader who always yearned for change. A leader with a big heart. May his soul rest in peace,” the party said in a tweet.

-Edited by SKanyara