If you grew up in the 80s and 90s then you may have seen a pile of the Weekly Review magazine in your house which kept growing each week. In some houses, it lay next to an equally growing pile of the Financial Times both publications of a distinguished physicist–turned journalist Hillary Ng’weno.
The latter is a household name in Kenya for both the young and the old generations with the former having come into contact with this work through a very popular historical documentary The Makers of a Nation. It was, therefore, very painful to quite a number of family, friends and fans to know that Hillary was no more owing to a long illness bravely born.
Born in 1939, at Pumwani Hospital, Hillary grew up at Muthurwa Estate and went on to study at St. Peter’s Claver and onto Mang’u high school where academic excellence was always a part of him. Following a distinguished performance, he was called to Makerere University to Study medicine but this was not to happen as he packed to a different destination: Havard University where he studied Physics. He would later become the first African fellow of the Harvard Center for International Affairs.
Hillary would ditch physics upon his return to Kenya and launched a career in journalism that saw him become the first African editor-in-chief of one of the biggest media houses in Kenya, The Nation. He later resigned to start the Weekly Review ((1975-1999), Joe (political satire), Nairobi Times, Financial Review, Rainbow, and later a broadcasting station STV as well as later The making of a Nation which aired on NTV.
While most of the ones who left us were not lucky enough to know what their loved ones though of them, and neither will some of us still alive, Hillary was lucky enough that his friends and family put up the Hillary Ng’weno at 80: a tribute to celebrate him and paint a picture of Hillary the man, journalist and entrepreneur. Below are excerpts from a few tributes
Bettina and Amolo Ng’weno
One thing is to see the difference in the quality of work and the other is to produce it. You excel at both. You have produced outstanding products as a result. You have put creativity, research, imagination, analysis, and opinion into your products and have changed many people’s lives as a result. Even those much younger than you. You will never know how many people you influenced – both young and old, in small and big ways with quality products that spoke truth to power, that sometimes sided with power, that sometimes made mistakes but was always honest and of quality. You should be very proud.
We admire your ability to see through the politics of international representations of how the world should be, be it religious, political, colonial, or class. A logic perhaps learned with other intentions of your teachers at Jesuit schools but a logic that serves you to be distinctly different from many people your age or younger. You do not need those who do not value you or what you hold dear, no matter their station, position, or influence.
We remember your refusal to meet the Queen Mum. Or complaint about being on the same list of eminent Kenyans because it included Mama Ngina, saying “what has she ever done for the world?” Like many of us in our family in terms of moral compass, political stance, or religious convictions, you do not need anyone. In that and in many ways you are your own man. You detach yourself so that work, new findings, the process of thought from our dinner conversations, and listening to you and Mum.
You were also a very good teacher of science and maths. The kind of joy of maths that you brought to teaching us as children, as Mum did with biology. You often say that there is not enough time in the day to do all the things you want to do. We run into people your age and they
often seem much older than you, much less interested in life and much more resigned to
things other people want them to do. We admire your energy at this age as we admired it when you were younger. But energy is not everything, it is also the continued interest in all things, the interest in the production and creation of new things, and the commitment to making them happen.
Your projects were not always financially successful, and even those that were yielded
an unpredictable income. Mum managed to keep the household cash flow stable so that
all we knew of these tribulations and opportunities was the talk at the dinner table; we didn’t experience limitations on what we wanted to do. This is a balancing act – and a partnership – that we only understand better in adulthood.
Amb. Dennis Afande (childhood friend and classmate at St. Peter’s Claver and Mangu High
Hillary was gifted academically and when he sat for Kenya African Preliminary Examination (KAPE) in 1951, and passed with high marks. He joined Mangu High School in 1952, in what was then Form III, in-class Form III-A (now form I). There were two streams, A and B. Those with high marks in KAPE joined A and the rest in B. It was the same scenario, two years later, after passing the Kenya Junior Secondary Examination (KJSE).
We participated in various activities at Mangu, occasionally we “Nairobi boys” singing jointly at some social events at the school. Hilary was a jack of all trades and somehow mastered all of them. He was a goal-keeper of our school’s football team. With Hilary in the goal posts and former Cabinet Minister, the late John Michuki, in the defence, Mangu could not lose to Alliance High School, in the Annual Football Match between the two great schools. He was also a pianist of our church organ in Mass services. He was my mentor, a person gifted with many talents and virtues, intellectually being the top of his class, physically, morally, and spiritually. He inspired me and encouraged me to follow in his footsteps to aim higher academically.
Muthoni Likimani (MBS)
Hilary Ng’weno is known for his media service to this nation. Mr. Ng’weno is one of the first Kenyan Africans to establish private media services in Kenya, both print (Nairobi Times) and electronic (STV). His media services were so deep. He used to bring out issues that many people would not dare talk about. As I see the current scandals, I wish The Weekly Review was still there. His kind of writing was rare. Hilary inspired many journalists of today and at present, there are several magazines and radio and television channels. All these have sprung up from the foundation he laid.
I was later surprised to learn that Hilary’s education and training was not in media,
which, to me, is a lesson that we need to be flexible in life and make use of whatever life throws at us. It also shows that one should follow their interests when choosing a career.
Jim Adams- Former World Bank Office head , Nairobi
In 1985 I was asked by Kim Jaycox, the World Bank Vice President for Africa, to head the World Bank office in Nairobi and met Hillary. His reputation was formidable – among other accomplishments, Kenya’s first graduate of Harvard, first African editor-in-chief of a newspaper, head of a humor magazine, head of a children’s magazine and, at that moment, the head of The Weekly Review, Kenya’s foremost weekly journal on politics.
In the three years that I led the Nairobi office, Hilary remained a supportive and valued advisor. He was always willing to meet and discuss any issue I needed help with. His broad knowledge of key development issues, his insights on all the key Kenyan actors, and his willingness to suggest how to best approach issues was generous and always helpful.
I also benefitted enormously from The Weekly Review. Unique in Kenya, it provided serious and in-depth analysis of ongoing political and economic developments. Operating in a press environment that was hardly open, it took on the central issues of the week and provided useful guidance to understanding key events in Kenya
He had clear and helpful ideas on what the Bank needed to do to become a more constructive and effective actor in Kenya. His insights into personalities and on specific issues were helpful in both the official meetings during my initial visit and when I formally assumed my responsibilities in August,1985.
His advice helped certainly helped in improving the Bank’s dialogue with the Government. I must add that he was not an uncritical observer of the Bank and its work. He felt some of the Bank priorities were misplaced and was concerned that the Bank’s approach to “political issues” was both unrealistic and superficial. I left the discussion energized and hopeful that Hilary would, after my arrival, have the time and patience to continue to engage on key issues that the Bank would confront.
Footage Courtesy of the Nation Media Group
New York Times, Feb 26, 1978
The quality and independence of Mr. Ng’weno’s publications are remarkable in the context of press limitations and government controls widespread in black Africa. While carefully toeing the
line that in the developing world separates free expression from what could be construed as sedition, the Ng’weno publications examine broad issues such as income distribution, Government housing policy, development strategies, tribal rivalries, the economics of tourism, and growing unemployment among university graduates.” NYT Feb. 26, 1978
Peggy Kabae (former employee)
Hilary was a very compassionate boss, he takes employees’ issues as his own; he helped in making our transition from Voice Of Kenya (VOK) Mombasa to Nairobi most comfortable, he went beyond his call of duty in finding us accommodation and schools for my children. My children and I are most grateful for this and will be eternally grateful to you, Sir.
At my new station, he made me realize fully my ability in the production of soap operas. At Stellagraphics we produced numerous soap operas with government messages. In these productions, we employed actors and actresses from the slums of Pumwani, Bahati, and Dandora.
In this aspect Hilary changed the lives of many, some of these actors and actresses have moved on since and can be seen doing the same in various stations across the country. This is not a small achievement for you have mentored and inspired most of the current genre in this field. You’d love to know that they celebrate you and wish you well on your 80th birthday. They say 80 is 13 in scrabble.
You made your dreams come true by starting STV. as a station, Although introverted you are not judgmental at all. For me, you gave me space to excel and taught me the real meaning of humility.
Peter Kareithi (former employee and now professor at Pennsylvania State University, U.S)
The New York Times article captured what over the years led to many calling Hilary the
most influential figure in journalism in post-independent Africa. He has undoubtedly been one of the most influential forces in my professional life. I have often told my journalism students in United States – where I have been teaching communication and
media studies for the past 25 years – that I learned almost everything that I know about journalism from Hilary Ng’weno. Given my many years of journalism education, some may find that a bit of an exaggeration. It is not. Lessons in the principles of good journalism and how to strive for excellence proliferate in journalism textbooks and reporters’ and editors’ handbooks and manuals the world over. But as any experienced journalist knows, these abstract ideas only become meaningful in concrete practice. And their applications are Continually And their applications are continually nuanced by the specific social, political, economic and ethical contexts in which journalists have to make news judgments and editorial decisions daily.
The above tributes barely scratch the surface about a story of pioneering, resilience, risk-taking, and being your own man as others are told by media big wigs he mentored such as Kwendo Opanga, Rose Kimotho, Macharia Gaitho among others.
They have also not delved into the nine books, over 160 documentaries under the Makers of a nation and 8 documentaries under “The Foundations of Our Nation”.
There is also the Hilary Ng’weno Centre for East Africa Media Research is based in the Department of Publishing and Media Studies (PMS), School of Information Sciences, Moi University. Thanks, Hillary for a job well done, and may your soul Rest In Eternal Peace. Ng’weno is survived by his wife Fleur Ng’weno and two daughters Amolo and Bettina Ng’weno.