My friend Joe Nyagah: Great be the ties that bind

In Summary

• I first knew the Nyagah family through our late father, the Rev (Canon) Hezbon Shimei Nyong’o, who used to tell us stories about his days in Nanyuki during the Mau Mau. 

• When I eventually got married in 1979, six good years after Joe, he drove me in his car to All Saints Cathedral for my wedding.

Former minister Joe Nyagah speaking in his Gachoka home
PRAISED: Former minister Joe Nyagah speaking in his Gachoka home
Image: REUBEN GITHINJI

It is with a heavy heart that I write this piece as a tribute to my friend Joe Nyagah who passed on December 11th, 20202, in Nairobi after a short illness. A gentleman with a tremendous sense of humor. He was great company and a friend in need as well as deed in the true sense of that well known saying. He had friends across race and color; he was omnipresent in Kenyan politics as a parliamentarian, minister and diplomat. He made a mark in history.

I first knew the Nyagah family through our late father, the Rev (Canon) Hezbon Shimei Nyong’o, who used to tell us stories about his days in Nanyuki during the Mau Mau. In 1953 my father had been posted to Nanyuki as a young Anglican clergy serving the King’s African Rifles (KAR). We were not expected to visit father, nor did he ever come home for holidays while there for three years. But he made many friends within the church in the Mount Kenya Region, and one of them was Jeremiah Joseph Mwaniki Nyagah, Joe’s late father. The others were the late Bishop Obadiah Kariuki and Rev. Sospeter Magua, both of whom he had known during their training years at St. Paul’s Theological College, Limuru. These names were familiar to us in the many stories father told us of his exploits as an Anglican priest serving in a war zone. FROM THE VERY BEGINNING MANY TIES BOUND US TOGETHER.

In 1962 my late brother Aggrey and I joined the Alliance High School when the legendary headmaster, Edward Carey Francis, was heading the school on his last year of service.  Two years after that Joe joined the same school. Aggrey and I felt we were meeting someone we had known for a long time, if only from the stories father had told us about his father. The years at Alliance were full of youthful experiences which remained printed in our minds, sometimes even romanticized, as nostalgia became the pass time of men rapidly being swallowed by adulthood and its many earthly responsibilities. Great be the ties that bind.

The school motto at Alliance was Strong to Serve. It was instilled in us in hymns from Redemption Songs and Songs of Praise twice a day, morning and evening, except Saturdays. The sermons were not devoid of it either, nor were speech days and pep talks that teachers engaged in when disciplining a boy who, for some reason, might have behaved contrary to school rules and the school motto.

We were fully involved in extracurricular activities such as drama and music, while also walking hand in hand in the famous “valley” with girls from the Alliance Girls High School. We didn’t do anything more, and Mary, Joe’s sister, can testify to that since she was in the same class with my sister Susan! Great be the ties that bind.

Joe was a singer of no mean repute. He belonged to a band called the Strangers, together with Abdala Bekah, Ben Swai and the retired Bishop of Butere, Michael Sande. Their only rival band in the Alliance ecosystem was the Strollers, where Joe Mungai, Sammy Mwangi, Ben Mumo and George Ongaya styled themselves as the Beatles.     

One can therefore understand why Joe grew up the way he did, why he was such stickler for decency, discipline, honour, fairness, work, punctuality, public service and civilized behaviour, but always relaxed and self-effacing in many ways. He not only stepped into the footsteps of his father but lived up to the spirit of the protestant ethic that Alliance High School instilled in the boys.  Great indeed be the ties that bind!

Wind the clock forwards and you will find that after I left Alliance High School and went to Makerere as an undergraduate in 1971 I found that there had been many Kenyans of high repute who had trailed the blaze before us in that renown University College, the only one of its kind in East Africa then. Such were men like Jeremiah Joseph Mwaniki Nyagah (1940-43) and Mwai Kibaki who joined later in the mid-fifties. At Makerere the university motto was, and still is, we build for the future (pro futuro edificanos). Mwai Kibaki, later to become Kenya’s third president who is remembered for Kenya’s renaissance after years of authoritarian rule, was served by both Joe and I as ministers. These are the ties that continued to bind the two of us as history was unfolding.

Wind the clock forward again and I find myself at the University of Chicago doing my post-graduate degrees in Political Science from October 1971. Two years later Joe also arrives to do his Masters Degree in Business Administration at Kelloggs Business School, Northwestern University in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago. He calls me from a downtown hotel and announces “I am here,” with a laugh at the end as if I had seen him the previous day. So I go to fetch him and insist he quits the hotel to stay with me in my two- bedroom apartment in Hyde Park, the south side of Chicago where the university is. Great be the ties that bind.

Wind the clock forward again and Joe announces, again casually, that he was getting married after he had moved out and staying alone to be nearer his school as well as the First National Bank of Chicago where he was an apprentice. I am soon introduced to Margaret, a diminutive school teacher from Scotland who had come to Kenya to pursue her profession at State House Girls High School in Nairobi. My sister Susan had just finished her teaching practice at that school. Great indeed be the ties that bind through the invisible hand of God!

One morning Joe wakes up and calls me that the wedding was that afternoon at a church downtown. I was to arrive in time since I was the bestman! As a graduate student, I didn’t have even a suit, let alone any form of formal clothing. So I put on my kitenge shirt, jump into the metro and get there perfectly in time to be instructed by the priest on the brief wedding procedures. When Mwaniki was born and needed to be baptized, it was the same thing. Joe simply fetched me from my house in Nairobi and drove me to church to be the young boy’s Godfather. By the way, my sister Mary had been the nurse who delivered Mwaniki at Nairobi Hospital. She seems to have specialized in delivering the children of VIPs. President Uhuru Kenyatta reminded us at my mother’s funeral that Mary delivered their firstborn at MP Shah Hospital. Great be the ties that bind!

When I eventually got married in 1979, six good years after Joe, he drove me in his car to All Saints Cathedral for my wedding. Like a good Ja-Luo, mine had to be more organized; much more in style. Dark suits, bow ties and all that; arriving in a sleek Marcedes Benz, driven by the son of a minister; but do I say. Joe insisted that the first night Dorothy and I had to spend at Hotel Boulevard: the newest thing in town. That is how our honeymoon started.

Much more memorable, however, were our years as Members of Parliament, and subsequently, ministers, in the Orange Democratic Party (ODM) and subsequently ministers in the Coalition Government (2008-2013). We toured the country together during the campaigns for the referendum, the party elections and the general elections. Sir Isaac Walton was quite often the scene of our meetings and workshops, with Joe always telling campaigners to be as serious as Joe Nyagah! A message he delivered with a serious face hiding a naughty smile beneath it. That was vintage Joe!

I speak on behalf of many friends who have similar stories to tell about Joe. He kept his dear friends to his bosom, opening up to them, encouraging them under difficult times and being with them at moments of joy and sadness. Those friends are here and abroad, like our former teachers at Alliance with whom he kept in close contact more than any of us. Sally Kosgeh, a dear friend to both of us, can tell her own history. I am sure Francis Muthaura can speak on behalf of all those we worked with in government who enjoyed Joe’s company and comradeship.

Finally, on behalf of Raila Amolo Odinga and the ODM fraternity, Joe would have thanked you today for the mission you sent us to together during the settlement of the controversial election of 2007/08. We met President Jakaya Kikwete on behalf of Raila, and I was thoroughly impressed by Joe’s power of persuasion on our stand and points of view while insisting on the indivisibility of the Kenyan nation, and sanctity of holding together as East Africans. We have lost a diplomat per excellence, Joseph William Nthiga Nyagah.

Joe: you go to heaven with the many ties that bind us together.

Great be the ties that bind.

Rest in peace “wuod mama.”