A memoir by Sarah Elderkin: Working with Hilary

In Summary

• After paving the way in the late 1950s as the first Kenyan to study at Harvard University in the US, Hilary returned to Kenya to cut his journalistic teeth at the Nation

• Out of this column came the idea for ‘Joe’ magazine, an expanded collection of stories and cartoons, together with other items.

Hillary Ngeno
Hillary Ngeno

HILARY Ng’weno, who died this week aged 83, was a trailblazing giant of Kenya’s newspaper world, a brave pioneer and the mentor of countless journalists, many of whom have gone on to hold high positions in the Kenyan media. 

After paving the way in the late 1950s as the first Kenyan to study at Harvard University in the US, Hilary returned to Kenya to cut his journalistic teeth at the Nation, where soon after Independence, in 1965, he became the newspaper’s first African editor. 

It was not long, however, before Hilary ran into problems concerning continuing attempts at colonial control of his editorial role. He decided to leave the Nation and with his friend Peter Kabibi Kinyanjui he set up a PR company, African Media. Hilary also registered Stellascope Ltd, which would be the umbrella company for all that was to come.

I met Hilary and his wife Fleur in 1972 and in March the following year I joined Hilary’s office, where he and the artist Terry Hirst were finalising their plans for a magazine launch. 

The two men had worked together for a while, with Terry illustrating Hilary’s weekly newspaper column ‘With A Light Touch’. This featured a wry look at life from the point of view of the fictional ‘Joe Kihara’, a Kenyan everyman. Each week, Joe grumbled about his woes, which he usually attributed to the government or official bureaucracy. The satirical column was very popular with readers, who could personally relate to many of Joe’s experiences.

Out of this column came the idea for ‘Joe’ magazine, an expanded collection of stories and cartoons, together with other items, including new fiction from young writers (who included Ngugi wa Thiong’o). Hilary wrote the text and Terry did the illustrations. 

The magazine was an instant hit but Hilary and Terry were also considering a different, more serious, kind of magazine. To gauge public reaction for their idea, they devised a survey for Joe’s readers. The response showed there was significant public interest, and thus was born the notion of a weekly magazine reviewing the latest political developments. 

But before any new magazine would be published, Terry went off to pursue projects of his own and Hilary had yet other plans. He had a powerful interest in broadcast media and film, and in 1974 he negotiated a contract with the then Voice of Kenya (now KBC) television to produce two short programmes a week – Business World (15 minutes in length) and Sports Magazine (half-an-hour). 

Producing these programmes meant going out with a Voice of Kenya cameraman and recording live events on 16mm film, then taking the film back to the office and manually editing it on a rather antiquated machine. This process of analogue film-making was laborious and primitive compared with the digital world of today, and it all took many hours. Finally, we conveyed the precious finished reel to Broadcasting House for recording. 

Norbert Okare, a prominent broadcaster at the time, presented Business World, and a new young presenter, Nashon Atsiaya, fronted Sports Magazine. Mohammed Ali produced for VoK and the programmes aired weekly for six months.

We were then four in the company – Hilary, Joyce the office assistant, Mwangi the messenger and myself. That same year, 1974, we launched Picture Post, a leisure magazine that ran for six months or so. It was ahead of its time in style and did not make much impact. Hilary, ever busy, was simultaneously engaged in writing a novel, The Men From Pretoria, which was published later, in 1975.

But the idea of a weekly political magazine was still in his head, and eventually serious planning began for what would initially be called Hilary Ng’weno’s Weekly Review.

The magazine’s contents would include an objective look at Kenyan political and business news, reports of important African events, business news, a sports round-up and book reviews. 

The concept was daring, given the political climate. There were no other Kenyan magazines on the market, let alone a publication offering analysis of political activities. Life was very different then; any wrong word risked detention or worse, and the line between sycophancy and subversion was a treacherously thin one. People were more used to, and the government was comfortable with, such publications as the light-hearted lifestyle magazine Drum, which had been launched in South Africa in the 1950s.

But Hilary determinedly put up the shoestring capital of Ksh.2,000 and the first issue of what would become an iconic publication appeared on February 8, 1975.

The magazine might have struggled to make an impact but it happened that a tragic event a month later meant that everyone was suddenly scrambling for news. That event was the brutal murder of popular politician JM Kariuki. The magazine’s issue with JM’s face on the cover sold out overnight, and The Weekly Review, with its sober and responsible writing style, quickly became viewed as a source of credible information and a must-read for its diverse audience. 

Initially, government support was also forthcoming, in the form of paid-for government tender advertising to appear in the magazine’s pages. There was no internet then and government advertising was voluminous and an income lifeline for most news publications.

But it wasn’t long before some of those in authority, evidently feeling they were not getting the kind of positive coverage they might have liked, made their disapproval known, and in due course the government found a reason to cancel all its advertising contracts with Stellascope Ltd, the magazine’s publisher. Advertising agencies and other businesses, terrified of incurring government disapproval, rushed to follow suit and also withdrew their support. 

Suddenly, Stellascope, which by then had a few more employees, had virtually no income. For the next few years, Hilary was forced over and again to go cap in hand to the bank, virtually mortgaging his life and suffering constant worry over money. It was only after eight years at the edge of a financial precipice that the magazine eventually began to make a small profit.  

The launch of The Weekly Review had not stopped Hilary’s endless flow of creative ideas. In 1976, the children’s newspaper Rainbow was launched under Fleur’s stewardship (which lasted for 20 years) and in 1977 we launched The Nairobi Times, a broadsheet Sunday newspaper that had the first-ever (in Kenya) colour supplement, long before the other newspapers stopped being monochrome. The Nairobi Times was later relaunched as a daily tabloid but was ultimately sold to the ruling party, Kanu, where it was renamed The Kenya Times. 

The Weekly Review continued apace and in later years Stellascope’s operations expanded. To launch The Nairobi Times we had acquired our own printing press and installed it in a go-down in Nairobi’s industrial area, and the different disciplines in the company meant the workforce had grown from fewer than half-a-dozen to some 200. 

And despite the endless financial problems, we were carried ever forward by Hilary’s persistence and belief in what he was doing. We had no sophisticated equipment. Manual typewriters, early compositing machinery and ‘pasting-up’ of pages using, among other things, paper, rulers, glue, a darkroom and photographic developing fluids, were the order of the day. How this work was completed to meet daily deadlines is difficult to understand in this digital era, but it led to many publishing adventures over the years.

We had a very loyal staff – so much so that some of them bravely turned up for work during the latter hours of the 1982 coup attempt, and The Nairobi Times was the only newspaper on the streets the following day, after we had spent a scary all-nighter at the office listening to gunfire all round. 

I had become a company director in the mid-1970s and in later years increasingly managed the publishing side, while Hilary got more deeply involved in what was his real love – film and TV. He made a number of television programmes and series, including the controversial Usiniharakishe (Don’t Rush Me) which aimed to teach teenagers how to avoid early pregnancy, but which was withdrawn from the broadcast schedules after being condemned by reactionary MPs as ‘obscene’ – which it certainly was not. 

In the process of his film and TV work, Hilary became a valued historian. He directed a 15-part series called The Making of a Nation, followed by the compilation of 160 half-hour DVD profiles of eminent Kenyans, entitled Makers of a Nation. This work, which includes rare photographs and footage, provides an outstanding and irreplaceable historical record.

Many journalists came and went at Stellascope over the years, some of whom were young when they joined and who honed their skills at its publications. They included Wachira Waruru, Jaindi Kisero, Joseph Odindo, Macharia Gaitho, Absalom Mutere, Amboka Andere, Kwendo Opanga, Rose Kimotho, Mutegi Njau, Blamuel Njururi, Peter Kareithi, Peter Warutere, Muiru Ngugi, Kibe Kamuyu, Dishon Shangalla, Roy Gachuhi, Lucy Oriang’, Matthew Gathigira and photographers Sam Ouma, Hos Maina and Wallace Gichere, among many others. 

Seasoned journalists Philip Ochieng and Horace Awori had roles at different times, while former Fleet Street journalist Brian Tetley, who later produced iconic work with Camerapix’s ‘Mo’ Amin, also did a few locum stints. (Brian and Mo both died in 1996 when their Ethiopian Airlines plane was hijacked before crashing into the Indian Ocean.)

There are, of course, very many stories to tell of life and work with Hilary, very many other endeavours to be described, and very many awards and citations to be listed, but for those only a book will suffice. 

For now, we salute Hilary for his exceptional, outstanding mind, for his consummate professionalism and for his superb mentoring. He played an unequalled role in expanding the journalistic space in Kenya, and those of us who learned our trade with him owe him everything. He shaped our work and our lives, and we were privileged to work alongside a legend. Kenyans might live long before they see his like again. 

After the sadness of Hilary’s long final illness, may he now rest in peace.