It’s the motorbike you heard first; a Yamaha Super Tenere, 750 CC. Its thunderous roar filled every room of the unremarkable building we occupied at Wilson Airport. No matter how busy you were at your desk you wouldn’t pretend to ignore the fact that he had arrived. When he finally walked through the office floor that housed DRUM, ADAM AND TRUE LOVE magazines, a floor of writers and stylists and editors and a clutch of sales people; bedecked in black from chin to boot, a shiny helmet tucked under his right armpit, he was a complete contrast to his loud bike. He spoke softly. A gentleman. He was agreeable. He was the knife (pala) that he was named after and for the longest time he had cut through our thorax and found a home in our hearts with his writing; infuriating some, inspiring some and if he did neither, at least you took notice of his work.
And he was my boss, my editor. Which was crazy because for me and a host of other budding writers, Oyunga was that beacon, that imposing literary lighthouse that stood tall and represented a promise that we, too, would finally find the promised land and we would eventually become respected men of letters.
When I first met Oyunga he wasn’t what I expected him to be. (Which, really is the same for all writers) I expected a brash and boisterous lad who stood in the middle of the room with a beer in hand. Instead I found a mostly reflective man, who walked alone in his own shadow created by his legend, and most weekends he rode his loud bike out to faraway places expunged of human voices.
What stood out for me was his deep self awareness. I was completely drawn to that; this ability to remain rooted in his self. This meant that I constantly sat at his feet and tried to tap into this well of depth. This was apt because our paths crossed at a very crucial point in my life; as a late bloomer I was just turning 30 and spinning like a reed in a storm: I didn’t know myself as a man, I didn’t know where I was headed or what I stood for or believed in, my convictions were like ribbons in the wind, twisting to the whims of nature. I swayed and searched. Although a lot of other influences in my life eventually shaped me into the man I am now, he played an important role in some of those aspects. For example, it’s him who got me to really start reading fervently, as well as exercising (he called me fat when I joined the magazine), he got me to drop sugar and fizzy drinks (haven’t touched sugar for 10 years) and introduced me to the virtues of discipline and staying on the wagon.
I remember always going to his apartment at United Kenya Club, in town, this quaint bachelor pad flooded with light from massive windows. The decor of his houses have always been a reflection of who he is; a minimalist. No clutter – if he didn’t need it, he didn’t keep it. That included people. I have never seen a TV in the two houses he lived in because he filled his time with silence, words and sometimes an eccentric spiritual teacher saying things on Youtube. His curiosity intrigued me.
Him being a rum lover, I would rock up with a bottle of Old Monk and we would sit at the counter of his open kitchen and talk for hours. I saw him as a proper writer and I wanted to emulate him, to write like him and embody some of the values I admired in him like calmness and how authentic he managed to remain in his celebrity.
I remember his small writing desk that was thrust against the wall by the window overlooking the parking-lot below. He wrote on a Macbook Pro a time when Macbooks were for a selected few. I remember thinking, by Josh, when I grow up I will also write from such a fancy laptop like a true writer. (A bad workman quarrels with my tools). Over time we stopped being teacher and student. We became friends. He’s a guy you can rely on. He shows up. He helped me bury my mother when my world was filled with unyielding darkness.
When I took over Mantalk from him, I was terrified. The night before my maiden story I couldn’t even pee. It’s also him who gave the best writing advice that has served me over time; don’t ever believe in your own hype.
And so when I called him and asked him if I could interview him for this 40s series and he said yes, I was at loss, because how does a student write the story of the master?
He’s having a haircut at Prime Apartments at the end of Rhapta Road, Westlands. I send an Uber to him. (Uber Kenya is now the official sponsors of this 40’s series. Ahsante). Peter, a baritone voiced Uber driver calls me when he gets there and says “Bwana Biko, I’m outside here.” Now, I normally wish boils on people who call me “Bwana Biko” because I sound like I’m a school bursar in some school in Kaplong. Today I chill. I send him Oyunga’s number and they connect.
Forty-five minutes later we walk into The Chop House the steakhouse at The Radisson Blu. It’s elegant and chic. Typically he’s cynical. “Why couldn’t we just go to a simple place?” he moans as Godwin Okello, our waiter, takes his jacket off him and hangs it on a wooden coat-hanger next to him. He orders the 21-day aged fillet steak, a 200 g of prime beef grilled in a Josper oven and comes with blistered tomatoes. “Medium to well done, please.” he tells Godwin who also recommends their “brilliant red wine”, a bottle of Chalk Hill Blue Shiraz Cabernet. I’m no fun of steak so I go for roast chicken breast in garlic herb butter, cauliflower puree and fried carrot strings. I suspect that writing menus is also an artform in itself because you read things like blistered tomatoes (tomatoes with blisters?), carrot strings, pulled pork steam burns… Chefs seem to have us on with these saucy adjectives. As the menus are taken off our hands I realise I have just made a monumental mistake as an interviewer; sitting with my back to the room.
“When we started writing back in the day, we didn’t consider ourselves writers.” Oyunga says settling back in his chair. “There was a notion that writers were people who studied literature in campo, and not people like me who were studying anthropology.” He started as gym instructor white studying at UoN. Mundia Muchiri gave him his first stab at newspaper writing by assigning his fitness stories and later some “oddball” features.
His bottle of wine arrives swathed in a white napkin like a holy scroll. Godwin shows him the label and speaks of ‘aromas of red berry fruit” and “hint of wood” as he pours a mouthful in a bordeaux glass to taste. Then wine is the colour of a duck’s blood. I’m on still water. (Running the next day).
Rhoda Orengo – former editor of Satmag – one time ran into him and said, Oyunga you are a rugby guy, why don’t you write something “guy guy” about rugby and what happens there. Consequently first foray into social commentary was something cheesy along the lines of “Ten things women should know about men.”
“It was an interesting period. We would type in cyber cafes, save in a diskette, go to Nation center and hand your story by hand!” he chuckles then sips his wine. “Sometimes you would realise that your diskette was infected by a virus and so you would have to go all the way back to the estate where you had typed your piece in a cyber cafe and hope that the file has not been deleted. Nation editors didn’t have their own private emails, people used Hotmail. Do you remember Hotmail? I mean if you used Yahoo you were the more savvier ones.”
“The cool ones had email addresses like Theblade47@yahoo.com, oh boy, so cutting edge.” he says sarcastically and we laugh as the starters are set before us by two gentleman, one wearing black and the other white (probably the Yin and Yang of the kitchen). The one in black is the executive chef, Wissem Abdilatif fresh off a boat from Tunisia and speaks in a near whisper and the other in white is Executive sous chef, Jeff Gitonga. Wissem tells us about the starters and I only catch seared tuna, grilled asparagus and minted yoghurt.
“Rhoda [Orengo] and I had a very interesting relationship,” he reflects after the two leave. “People don’t give her enough credit for turning Satmag into what it is today. She might not have had great people skills but Rhoda made me a good editor later. Without her I don’t think I would have survived the 10 years I did at Satmag because she never cut you any slack when it came to deadlines. You had to meet her deadline short of killing your mother. With her you always felt the world was ending, she would call you and say with frustration,’ yawa, Oyunga where is my story? What are you guys doing to me? Why are you guys stressing me!”
I really laugh at that because it’s so true. “Why are you guys doing this to me?’ is a line I also heard many times.
“Now you have young writers who only write when they feel inspired,” he scratches the air in quotation marks. “ Rhoda’s deadlines didn’t move, inspiration or not.” Back in the day Mantalk had three writers, he tells me; Clyde Morvit, himself and Tony Mochama. “I was the third wheel actually,” he says.
We fork our starters that had arrived earlier. There is a nice mild din of clicking cutlery in the restaurant.
“They said you were an angry man with issues.” I say of his Mantalk notoriety days.
He dismisses that with with a snort. “ You have to understand that it was a period that this feminist wave had taken over and men were reacting to this image which wasn’t who were are. Men were under attack.” he says. “ women had found a voice in the media after a long feminist struggle and most of the editors in the new lifestyle platforms were women. Finally men were sitting across tables with women and it was payback time and men were being told off. It was open season. They kept bashing us,” here he adopts a whiny voice. “ Oh, African men are not romantic enough, oh African men dress badly, oh African men have no manners…We had to defend ourselves from this ridiculous Westernised notion of men, women wanted us to represent. Fairy tales they picked off soap operas.”
The main course arrives. The presentation is impressive. He twists black pepper on his steak. Piped music curls over our heads like smoke.
“What was your decision to remain anonymous at that time based on?”
“I’m shy that’s not what many people will understand. I didn’t want to be put on podiums to defend my bizarre theories.I was actually surprised that people were getting annoyed at my articles because I was writing satire and it became evident that most people didn’t understand satire.”
I ask him what he – a 43-year old – thinks of the current crop of men now.
“I find guys to be pretentious now, but it’s not their fault,” he adds. “ Guys now are under so much pressure to live up to some ideal. In our days we weren’t trying to be men, we were just men, we used Brut!”
“Brut Faberge!” I say.
“Now guys feel like they have to have a personality!” He says the word personality with such contempt that I have to put down my fork for a minute. “ Men now feel the need to keep an impression, an ideal that our women want of them. It’s like there is a behaviour code going around and it’s our women to be blamed because now they demand for men of means and men of class.”
The steakhouse is now fairly full diners. At the end of the room you can see the activities in the kitchen through a massive rectangular glass window. Godwin fills his glass, he nods at him and he’s ghost again. He’s a good waiter, Godwin, he knows when to come to the table just when there is a coma in a conversation. He moves like mist under doorways. At some point the duty manager shows up to say hello and asks how the meal is.
“The steak is all right, “Oyunga says. “But it’s a bit chewy. I love the salad, it’s very very good.” I tell him my chicken is fantastic.
There is a story I love of the Old Roman Empire. Of a victorious general coming from a war. He would be driven through the streets of Rome in a chariot of four horses, decorated with gold and ivory and followed by his troops and preceded by his spoils in war. The ceremony would sometimes take two days with massive crowds turning to cheer him and lionize him as he headed to the temple of Jupiter where he would be given a chance to give a speech of his legion and greatness. The victorious general would be viewed as a divine god. The god of Jupiter.
Now, the most interesting element of this procession was a slave who all this time stood behind the general, holding a golden crown over his head. Through the cheering and ululating he only had one job; to whisper to him in reminder that he was only a man, a mere mortal, and not a god.
“Who was your slave? I ask Oyunga. “Who was that person who made sure that your notoriety and fame didn’t get to your head?”
“My Mean Machine friends. There was Tony Karembu who was my best man and I his. Fame can destroy you. Maradona tried being a man, a mortal but the Argentines couldn’t let him, they told him he was a god. It’s difficult.” he reflects. “It also helped that I didn’t hang out with media guys and I resisted any attempt for them to pull me in. Also celebrity factor just gets in the way of writing. When you think of yourself as a celebrity you get caught up in a fake persona. There are many so called celebrities in Kenya who have forgotten who they really are. I see two-bit bloggers now trying to bleed their two cents of celebrity and I’m astonished. Back in the day we didn’t stalk fame, in fact, it wasn’t cool to be famous, celebrity was a crass word. We didn’t feel like celebrities because we didn’t feel like we had arrived. Plus I drove a freaking VW Beetle.”
“What do you think the celebrity culture now is founded on?” I ask ensnaring him.
“Vanity and emptiness.” he shoots. It’s only when you have no substance inside you that you would want to mop up hype outside.”
The table is cleared. The crumbs are wiped off the table. Oyunga’s glass is filled again. We protest any offer of desserts.
In 2005 – when he was 30- he visited Laos and he spent quite some time traversing that part of Asia, it’s there that his love for motorcycles and religion was founded. “When I came back from Asia I was a changed man. I saw the world differently and it spilled over in my writing. I questioned things.” He packed his things and moved to shags. Six months later he got called back to edit Adam magazine. In 2010 he quit Mantalk and not long after got involved in a near death experience when he was hit off his motorbike by a motorist along State House road. It changed everything. Things that seemed important stopped being important. He went back to shags to heal, to reflect, to spend time with his mother, to embrace his roots more. He farmed. He attended funeral committees and church functions. He mended fences in the boma went to the farming market to sell produce. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he admits. “ I had become a villager, one of those guys in funerals who are told, “yaye, jo dala, please give up your seats for jo’ Narobi.”
That kills me. So typical of shags.
“What do you regret most about your life?” I ask.
“You know, I can’t see those as regrets but lessons during hard times. It’s during those hard times that you experience the greatest growth. I had my biggest lessons and growth when I was out of work and in shags.”
Udesh, the Executive Pastry Chef shows up bearing dessert; Chocolate Heaven. Oyunga asks him if he’s from Sri Lanka by any chance and he says yes and off they go, talking about Buddhism and they realise they both know of a monk in Nairobi called Bante and they bang on about the faith for a while and Udesh is surprised at his knowledge of the teachings. I sit there staring at my notes. Finally Udesh leaves and Oyunga regales me further with the resilience and ferocity of the Sri Lankan warriors, the Tamil Tigers.
With his cynicism to relationships and marriage nobody expected him to get married. But he did at 42-years of age. He and his wife, Dorothy Ghettuba who I have known as long as I have known him, had a garden wedding in Naivasha.
“What made you decide to marry?”
“I think when you are done you are done.” he says. “ I come from a steady family unit; my parents were together for 40-years until my dad’s passing. So were my grandparents. I was clear that I wasn’t going to get married early because I had things I needed to pursue and I found marriage so distracting.”
He tastes the burnt orange ice cream and agrees that it tastes heavenly.
“People don’t give themselves the luxury of exploring life before they decide to marry,” he continues. “ As Africans we are seen to be irresponsible if we put off marriage to when we are ready. I think we should be allowed to find ourselves first no matter how long it takes before we decide to marry.”
“What did you see in Dorothy that made you decide that you were going to marry her?” I press.
“That’s a good question.” he says leaning back in thought. “ Dorothy has lots of great qualities. She is a very hard worker and has such powerful self belief that I admire. I found her tenacious and bold and she is the lady who is unafraid to take risks. We share one very special thing, we both have the ability to risk it all to get what we want. Most people can’t risk much for what they want. Most people prefer the safe corner of life. Dorothy doesn’t. Everybody wants you when you are at your strongest but can they be there when you are at your weakest? She met me when I was at my weakest and she stayed.”
“Do you think you make a better husband now because you are in your 40s?”
“Maybe. But I know that she has found me at a time when I’m more patient. In your 30’s you have these relationship ‘rules’; a chic can’t do this, a chic can’t do that, if a chic crosses this line it’s a wrap etc. In your 40’s you realise that some things are fluid, that too much ego isn’t worth much.”
I’m so pressed but I ignore it. I will not be controlled by my bladder, I tell myself. I’m the boss of me.
His black jacket that hangs next to him on the hanger looks like a legless and headless bodyguard. The most useless type.
“What has surprised you most about marriage?” I ask.
“How uncomplicated it is. It’s the small things that count, never the big ones. It’s saying good morning. It’s opening for her the door when she is leaving the house. It’s asking her if she wants water when you go to the kitchen to get water for yourself. It’s fixing for her the mosquito net when she is about to get to bed. It’s saying thank you and please. It’s checking in with her and saying you will be late. Courtesy. I think for me that’s the hallmark.”
OK, the bladder wins. I go to the the little boy’s room to take a leak. In the urinal a drunken man from a function tries to have a conversation. As a general rule I never talk to other men while we are both holding our members in our hands. I just stare ahead as he blabbers in his drunken euphoria.
When I get back Oyunga is on his phone sending a message home that he’s almost done. It’s just after 9pm, we have been talking since 6:30pm.
“Have y0u had your first fight ama it’s still honeymoon?”
He laughs. “ We have.”
“What about?” I push.
He thinks about it. “Do I really want to go there? Fights teach you about people’s limits. Good thing we have clean fights, we are very frank. She is a straight shooter, I mull things over a bit. But when we are done issues never linger.”
“Has marriage changed your views on what you wrote for a decade on relationships?” I ask.
“Yeah, my views started changing as I neared 37 years of age. Most of my views before were limited. But I think based on my age I have come to marriage a little more prepared than most.”
I ask him, “what would you advise a woman in her early 30s?”
He pushes away his glass of wine, folds his napkin and places it the table. “Always value yourself, put in the work and remember whatever life throws at you, happiness is a choice. In the end we attract who we are, not what we want.”
“And what’s the one advise you would give a man in his early 30s?
“Man, I loved my 30s. I would tell them to explore and dig into their persona. Know who you are. While my peers were spending their 30s building careers I was reading and exploring myself through reading and travelling and talking to people. I spent the first seven years of my 30s trying to figure shit out: Who was I? Why does the world work like this and how do I fit in? I embraced the tragedies life threw at me. Spend your 30s being curious. Ask yourself, what is my purpose. Do it early.”
Then he adds.
“You know, I spent my life waiting for a job as an anthropologist, little did I know I was living it as a writer recording the human condition.”
If you have a story of your 40s, or know someone with a riveting story. (They can’t be anonymous). Please email me with just a para of what the story is on firstname.lastname@example.org.