I have known Njenga Karume for a long time - as a matter of fact, since I was a child. My mother was his secretary for many years. Often, when at his Cianda House office in town, I would marvel at the numbers of people that would gather to see him. All kinds of people, a veritable hotpot, a mixture of tribes, races and ages with a myriad of issues.
And he would make time for them all. Equal time. No, the rich man in the dapper suit with a business deal was not more important than the old wizened woman in the tattered clothes seeking school fees for her grandchildren. They were all treated alike. This is what impressed me most about Karume.
There are great lessons to learn from his rags to riches story, captured in his book Beyond Expectations. There are also many lessons to learn from his political career that spanned decades, including his involvement in the struggle for multiparty democracy and the search for a new constitution. But, for me, the greatest lessons from the life of Njenga Karume are captured in the simple appreciation of, and empathy with, all people.
A couple of weeks ago I got the opportunity to interview Karume. We rushed to his Cianda home in Kiambu with the crew and by chance the Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, came to pay Karume a courtesy visit. Odinga spoke of a relationship that went back many, many years. Of instances in politics where it was personal relationships that held things together. He spoke of his father, the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga's relationship with Karume, and also of his own relationship with Karume too. After this there was a lovely Church service and it was time for my interview. Everyone was very concerned that he was tired and he was in pain, but nevertheless he sat for the interview.
I asked him what his greatest life lessons were... He said, wealth is not everything, "you cannot eat from two plates at the same time... We must focus on serving the nation." He went on, "When we were young, we did not think about tribes or wealth, we just thought about Kenya. How could we free Kenya? How could we build Kenya? We need to go back to that."
I thought that was profound. He added that the older generation should come out more to share these messages with the youth. I wished I had done that interview much earlier but I was still glad to have it then. Several hours later I was devastated at the office when I was told the tape had some issues, we spent hours trying to salvage the footage but it was no good, it was unusable.
I humbly requested another sitting and he accepted. But the next day he was so tired, there were scores of people visiting with him and I knew it was just not going to work. We started the interview but after a few minutes I cut it short. He needed to rest. He is resting now.
To his family I can only say thank you for sharing Mzee with us for so many years. He was a people person and a person of the people. To young people struggling to make it in Kenya today, let me try to summarize the lessons I have learnt from Karume...
Think not of oneself but of the bigger picture, the greater justice, the greater good. In building a better society you secure your future.
Build strong genuine networks they will be integral to your personal growth and development.
Treat all people alike, they are all children of God.
Finally, as Rudyard Kipling says in his poem IF - you must seek to talk with crowds but keep your virtue, and walk with Kings nor lose the common touch.
RIP Mzee Njenga wa Karume.