By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 22 May 2018)
Often, when I feel overwhelmed with an overload of stories to write, I think of Hilary Ng’weno who was my second editor-in-chief from the time I first came to Kenya as a Rotary Foundation fellow back in the 1970s. The first editor was the late Odhiambo Okite, a wonderful man who advised me to apply for a job writing about Arts and Entertainment for Stellascope, Hilary’s company. It was a job he said hadn’t been advertised as yet.
Okite knew I loved writing about the arts since I’d been hired to write and edit stories about women for the NCCK publication ‘Target’. But often I’d write theatre reviews for the paper since I was still doing a master’s degree in literature at University of Nairobi and I’d been a member of John Ruganda’s Free Traveling Theatre two years before.
Well, I went for that interview and was humbled to meet this man who not only founded the most influential political magazine in Kenya at the time, Weekly Review. Hilary had also been Kenya’s first indigenous African editor of The Daily Nation. As it turned out, I got the job and The Nairobi Times was officially launched in November 1977.
One of the first things my new workmates advised me was to keep my distance from Hilary. Otherwise, I could easily ‘get the sack’ since his managing editor, Sarah Elderkin didn’t want any woman spending too much time with Hilary. If she saw a staff member female take ‘too long’ in his office, that woman wasn’t likely to last long on the job.
It was a warning I took seriously, especially after having one run-in early on with Sarah. So I spoke to Hilary very rarely. But on one occasion, (the one I recall when I feel overloaded with stories to write) Hilary saw that I was a bit slow going on a story he was waiting for. He paused a moment, then said (to paraphrase) he could hardly sympathize since he easily writes three or four stories at a go and doesn’t even feel a sweat. Those were not exactly his words, but the quantity and quality of writing he could pound out of his typewriter (in those pre-computer days) in a flash was beyond impressive. It was unfathomable genius.
I’d already known that Hilary (like my brother Steve) had gone to Harvard and studied nuclear physics (or some other esoteric brand of that science). He’d come home, but as there weren’t jobs back then for nuclear physicists, he picked journalism as an alternative. And that is how he came to be the Nation’s first African editor in 1965.
What was most thrilling about working for Hilary was being on the ground floor with his team as he launched The Nairobi Times. I believe he envisaged it being a Kenyan cross between New York Times, Washington Post and the London Observer.
Nairobi Times ran from late 1977 until 1983 when we were bought by Daniel arap Moi and became The Kenya Times. My own feeling is that our paper, NT, was ahead of its time, just as was Hilary. The other problem I suspect was that Hilary was more of a media man and intellectual than a savvy businessman who was shrewd about making and managing money. He had a wonderful vision for Nairobi Times: he wanted no petty crime stories or juicy gossip in the paper. That implicitly meant the vast majority of newspaper-reading Kenyans wouldn’t buy the paper. The other problem related to advertising. At the outset, Hilary insisted that Nairobi Times was for an ‘elite’ readership. It was a marketing trope that appealed to corporate elites and diplomats, but apparently had less relevance to ordinary Kenyans.
Years later I learned the real problem with Nairobi Times had been the advertising agencies which were not forthcoming about giving Hilary ads. Apparently, a black African’s presence in the mainstream media was not welcome, so there was a concerted effort to ensure he couldn’t obtain the ads required to keep the paper afloat.
Whatever the story, what I know is that it was tragic when we (the NT staff) were shipped off to State House to ‘pay homage’ to our new boss, President Daniel arap Moi.
I had been so humbled and am still so proud to have worked for Hilary that I refused to stick with Kenya Times (also known as ‘Kenya Sometimes’) for long. And although I did as I’d been advised and never got too close to Hilary, I will forever be deeply grateful for what I gained from working with him.
First of all was the professionalism that he always conveyed as a first class journalist. Second was the farsighted freedom of thought that he displayed up until the time he had to compromise when he had to sell Nairobi Times.
Occasionally, I would write book reviews or arts stories for Weekly Review, the publication that put Hilary on the map not just in Kenya but internationally. I was once told the US State Department even ran a course to study the writings and analyses by Hilary in Weekly Review.
The one caution Hilary gave me early on in my work at Nairobi Times and Weekly Review was be careful about the way I analyzed the arts. I had just studied for three years with Ngugi wa Thiong’o at University of Nairobi and much of Ngugi’s Leftist perspective had rubbed off on me. But Hilary forewarned that if I continued writing along that line, I would either get myself deported or fired!
I took his message seriously, and so today, I continue to write about ‘soft news’ which is how the arts are normally viewed. For better or worse, I still write without rocking too many people’s boats, apart from the artists. But to tell the truth, I owe my career in journalism to Hilary. Thank you, sir, for hiring me back in August, 1977.