HILARY, MY MAIN JOURNALISTIC MENTOR
By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 19 may 2018)
I call Hilary Ng’weno the ‘grandfather of Kenyan journalism’. And I applaud the family from putting the spotlight on Hilary’s contribution to journalism in this country. There’s little doubt that he put Kenyan journalism on the global media map. And not only because he was the first indigenous African editor in chief of a leading English-language publication in Kenya, having taken on that title and task in 1965 for the Daily Nation, the most widely read daily newspaper in Kenya.
He caught media experts’ attention even more assiduously when he came out with Weekly Review (in 1975), the weekly (Newsweek-styled) political magazine that many Kenyans read as if it was a political ‘gospel’. So plugged in was Hilary into the political pulse of the nation that his grassroots reporting was studied abroad as well as locally. It was the concern of those who wanted to understand what was actually happened on the ground as the country was breaking post-colonial ground and the shifting tides of activity and intrigue weren’t easily decipherable except by local journalists working with Hilary who could read between the lines and interpreted what was really going on.
I had the good fortune of getting a ground-floor job at The Nairobi Times after Hilary decided (in 1977) to start a weekly newspaper that he would advertise as producing ‘quality journalism’ and catering for an emerging business class who, among other things, valued culture and the arts as well as business news and politics. I was hired to write about culture, entertainment and the arts, focusing on indigenous culture and highlighting African talents in all aspects of the arts.
It was my privilege to be hired by Hilary several months before the newspaper actually came out since that meant I could hear his pearls of wisdom regarding how to fulfill my job description, given I had only one journalism job before his (with the National Christian Council of Kenya at its weekly publication, “Target”) and I had just completed a master’s degree in Literature from University of Nairobi. So I felt Hilary actually hired me on trust, his trust of my former editor, the late Odhiambo Okite, and the quality of my interview with him which was thoughtful and honest.
Hilary also hadn’t gotten a degree in journalism. His field had been nuclear physics at Harvard (I believe) and then I think he studied for a time under Henry Kissinger. But that is hearsay since I didn’t learn those details from the man himself. In fact, I had been advised early on to keep my distance from my boss since the No. 2 in the office, Sarah, didn’t like people (particularly women) getting too close to him. Nonetheless, the few conversations I had with him were always instructive and I credit much of the knowledge I have working in journalism as come from Hilary.
Hilary has always been way ahead of his time journalistically, and in other ways as well. His work in documentary filmmaking has yet to be fully recognized or appreciated for what it means in the way of permanently archiving the lives of great Kenyan leaders. He may be celebrating the sort of birthday that implies it is time for him to retire. But if that time ever comes, be assured Hilary leaves a journalistic legacy that deserves study and emulating by other up-and-coming Kenyans who would wish to hold a candle to this ‘guka’ of the Kenyan Media.