THE UNTOLD STORY

The journalist who translated Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mt Kenya book to Kiswahili

Facing Mount Kenya was translated into Naushangilia Mlima wa Kenya by veteran late journalist Lawrence John Kibui.

In Summary

• Lawrence John Kibui was born in 1918 near Jeans School — present-day Kabete Approved — before the family moved to Ngong around 1922.

• Before joining the papers, Kibui worked as a wireless operator in Kisumu for the SS Usoga as the Second World War found him working for East African Railways and Harbours.

President Jomo Kenyatta receives copies of the Kiswahili version of his book Facing Mount Kenya from Prof Bethwell Allan Ogot of East African Publishing House and the author - Naushangilia Mlima wa Kenya veteran journalist Lawrence John Kibui (left)
President Jomo Kenyatta receives copies of the Kiswahili version of his book Facing Mount Kenya from Prof Bethwell Allan Ogot of East African Publishing House and the author - Naushangilia Mlima wa Kenya veteran journalist Lawrence John Kibui (left)
Image: COURTESY

Dear reader, have you come across the book Facing Mount Kenya by the founding father of the nation, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta?

If not, chances are then that you have not come across the translated Kiswahili version – Naushangilia Mlima wa Kenya.

Before we get excited, I am not about to review either the English or Kiswahili version; I have tasked myself with the role of presenting to you the writer of the latter.

 
 

Facing Mount Kenya was translated into Naushangilia Mlima wa Kenya by veteran late journalist Lawrence John Kibui. The book was published by the East African Publishing House in 1966.

An available signed copy belonging to Kibui is dated May 31, 1966. A copy was at the time going for Sh10. “E.A.P.H imefurahiwa na kuheshimiwa sana kutoa kibatu hiki kikuu katika lugha ya Kiswahili kwa mara ya kwanza (EAPH is excited and feels respected to publish this great book in Kiswahili for the first time)”, reads the last paragraph of the book cover.

Who was the author and what motivated him to translate the book? In his own words from a story written in 1990, “fate has sometimes its imponderable ways of shaping people's destiny, often twisting pre-arranged paths towards ones wishful goals”.

Kibui was referring to his unplanned meeting with newspapers. He described it as the most unexpected contact with The Standard, which was formerly the East African Standard before the breakup of the then East African Community.

Kibui was born in 1918 near Jeans School — present-day Kabete Approved — before the family moved to Ngong around 1922.

On the memorable day, as he was grazing his father’s animals at Oloolua, not far from the Ngong Hill, he came across a man staring at a piece of paper and laughing loudly.

He came to learn later that the piece of paper was a “newspaper”, a page from The Standard! Though he did not understand the message that made the man laugh by himself, the fact that a simple paper could carry information is what Kibui found miraculous.

 
 

The man “looking” at the paper informed the young Kibui who estimated his age at the time to be about nine, that one had to comprehend those figures on the paper to understand the message. The man further informed Kibui what he was doing with the piece of paper was called “reading” and that there were places where he could go to learn how to decipher the messages in the papers.

That first contact with a piece of newspaper led Kibui to seek education but it was months before he managed to join night classes that he heard were going on among the labourers where his family was now living at Oloolua.

To his delight and the amusement of the “teacher”, it was none other than the man he had seen months earlier reading a piece of paper!

After his first class, he would attend classes every evening after tending to his father’s animals. He was the only boy in the class of 10 as the rest were adult labourers. That did not diminish his determination to learn.

The young student confided in his mother fearing that his father would not have approved of his plan to go to school.

The Oloolua bush school with the teacher whom he learnt was borrowed from the Church of Scotland Mission, Kikuyu, the same organisation that built the famous Alliance High School, was a memorable start to the road to the world of papers for Kibui.

Before joining the papers, Kibui worked as a wireless operator in Kisumu for the SS Usoga as the Second World War found him working for East African Railways and Harbours. The adventurous stories of sailors and high seas captivated him and inspired him to travel.

It was on the railroad that he met Henry Muoria, who had big dreams of starting a small company to publish a newspaper, an idea Kibui thought was crazy at the time, as neither of them was trained in journalism.

Muoria was optimistic they would make it because Kenyatta had just arrived from Europe and began political meetings in the country. Muoria did eventually come up with a publication, a Kikuyu paper Mumenyereri (Caretaker).

For some other mushrooming small folders, however, many of the articles were lifted from the mainstream newspaper of the time to cut travelling costs and then translated to either Kikuyu or Kiswahili.

Kibui’s breakthrough came in May 1948 when the East African Standard employed him as an editor for a Kikuyu paper Mucemanio, ironically pitting him against Muoria.

“May 17, 1948, was the happiest day in my life. As fate had it, the East African Standard employed me as an editor of a newly planned Kikuyu paper....”  Kibui stated in one of his last articles in 1990.

Mucemanio, which was intended to counter other publications considered anti-government, did not last long.

However, Kibui was retained by the Standard as a reporter for the sister publication, Baraza. This took him back to the first contact with a piece of the paper and he was convinced it was a good omen and that writing is what he was meant to do.

Here he worked with the likes of Joseph Thuo, Tom Mzungu, Nicholas Charles, Francis Khamisi, Musa Amalemba, William Kimilu, Boaz Omari, GB Ochiel, George Mbuguss, John Abuoga, Joram Amadi and Julius Kinuthia, among others.

Memorable assignments apart from Kenyatta’s meetings, activities of the Kikuyu Central Association included the start of treatment of ordinary Africans at the first native civil hospital King George VI Hospital, now Kenyatta National Hospital.

As the political temperature in the country rose, unions began their activities giving the papers more fodder for daily news.

Fortunately for the writers, the Standard and the Baraza — the mainstream publications — had little competition despite a feeling of insecurity among the writers as the two papers were associated with the government. The other papers, the Daily Chronicle and the Sunday Post, did not pose much threat.

Among other events that Kibui covered were the then world featherweight boxing champion Nigeria’s Kid Hogan Bassey whom he interviewed for the Los Angeles Mirror News while on a practical journalism course.

In 1958, Kibui got an opportunity to study at the Medill School of Journalism, North Western University, Chicago, and on his return, left The Standard in 1960.

He was employed by the Kenya Information Department in 1962 as the first African provincial information officer in Central province stationed in Nyeri. After Nyeri, he was posted to Nairobi as the Mhariri Mkuu (editor-in-chief) wa Sauti ya Kenya (Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, today, previously Voice of Kenya).

His experiences at the Baraza and the KBC inspired him to translate Facing Mount Kenya in 1966. In 1971, he joined Voice of America until his retirement in 1986.

Kibui died in October 1992 aged 74 and is survived by two sons, eight daughters more than 40 grand and great-grandchildren.

Journalists and writers have been accused of penning everybody’s story but their own. The legacy of Kibui, described as a jolly man and good storyteller, left behind was his book Naushangilia Mlima wa Kenya. A number of his grand and great-grandchildren have also followed in his footsteps in the media.

Over to you Kiswahili writers, to give us a review of the book.

Wambui works for Moi University, Eldoret

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