Volume 15 Number 2
Free, Frank and Fearless
01 April 2002

Why would a successful Kenyan salesman give up his career in order to become a thorn in his government’s flesh? Bedan Mbugua, editor of ‘The People’, talks to Paul Williams.

Bedan Mbugua had just won a luxury holiday for being declared ‘best salesman in Kenya’. ‘The sky is the limit for you at Ciba-Geigy,’ he told himself as he walked along the beach. Then he suddenly found himself asking how long he would stay with the pharmaceutical company. ‘To my surprise the answer came that I would only stay for another six months! I decided then that for the rest of my life I would like to serve Kenya and Africa.’

Journalism might be the best way, he thought.

Leaving his well paid job was a big step as his early life had been a struggle. He had lost his mother and father in the mid-Fifties when he was six and had largely brought himself up, earning his way by looking after cattle for others.

His journalism studies took him to the United States. In his Creative Writing class the professor asked, ‘What would you like to hear said about you at your funeral?’ The question helped to re-kindle the motivation he had felt back in Kenya. The answer came to him as quick as a flash—‘Here is a person who served his people’. By then he was Vice-President of the Students’ Union and could easily have forged a career for himself in America. But he knew he had to return to Kenya, which he did in 1979.

When he started working as a journalist in the early Eighties he ‘made a firm commitment to truth’. He traces his deep respect for the truth back to the influence of his mother. Although he only benefited from her tuition for a tragically short time, her tireless campaign against falsehood of any kind left an indelible impression. ‘To her truth was non-negotiable.’ He knew that this meant his path in Kenya would not be easy. Nor has it been.

In 1988, while editing a Christian publication called Beyond, he had his first major clash with the authorities. He decided that he must expose the government of the day for running a fraudulent election campaign. It was not an easy decision for a young editor. ‘I knew only too well what the consequences might be,’ he says. ‘I had seen how government security agents treated critics.’ At first he says he tried to convince himself that it would be better for the paper if he survived to fight another day and was able to cover future events, rather than be banned. ‘In any case, wouldn’t I be more effective as a free man rather than as a prisoner?’

The night before the article exposing the fraud was to be printed he could not sleep. The next morning he went to the office very early. ‘I prayed for half an hour and read from the Bible. In Ezekiel it said, “You are called to be a watchman.” I saw that the trumpet I was meant to blow was my newspaper.’ He then called in all his staff, told them that he had decided to go ahead and asked them to pray with him.

It wasn’t long before a government official appeared at his office armed with a banning order. That same afternoon he was arrested and rushed to court. There was no Counsel to represent him. He was pronounced guilty and told that sentence would be handed out after a week.

During this time he was summoned before the President. The case would be dropped if he would just apologize, otherwise he would be sent to jail. ‘How could I apologize for telling the truth to Kenyans, I wondered? My response was that it was better to go to prison than to be imprisoned by my conscience.’ He was sentenced to nine months.

On arrival at the prison, the warden who received him offered, for a small bribe, to secure easy work, two blankets and extra food. ‘This is a prison, you could die,’ he added ominously. ‘I explained that I had come to prison for standing up for the truth. I would not give a bribe.’ The next day he was detailed to break stones and given one blanket. But it only lasted 21 days. A huge international campaign for his release, taken up by journalist organizations and Amnesty International, had generated over a million letters—all addressed to the President. ‘Why didn’t you tell me that the small fellow had so many friends?’ the President is said to have complained to an aide.

In 1994 he was arrested again—this time for publishing an article in The People, of which he was now the editor. He sees the paper as ‘an instrument for disseminating truth’ and is proud that its banner contains the motto, ‘Free, frank and fearless’. His ‘crime’ was to have exposed an incident where the executive had interfered with the judiciary. He was given the option of paying a fine and apologizing for what he had written, or a prison sentence. Maintaining that ‘his conscience was not for sale’, he chose prison. This time he was sent to a remote jail for five months. He served three months and twenty days in conditions where he was mercilessly exposed to the sun. His singed hair still bears the marks of that experience.

He brushes aside any talk of his own bravery in his pursuit of honest journalism. ‘It’s not that I am especially brave. What I have is faith—and faith gives birth to a strong conviction. I think conviction is courage in disguise.’

On his release he determined to combine studying organic farming as a part of sustainable development with a return to ‘bold journalism’. ‘I went to the Organic Farming Institute and asked them to “show me in the garden” how it was applied. I wanted to learn it all from the practical angle.’ Although now back with all the pressures of editing the renamed People Daily, Mbugua sets aside one day every week to pass on his knowledge to groups of villagers. ‘At one stage I decided to “de-élitize” myself,’ he explains. ‘Through working in the villages I keep in touch with ordinary people.’

He expected to find that dealing with the threat of AIDS would be highest on the villagers’ list of priorities. But they turned out to be more concerned about becoming self-sufficient in growing food. ‘It’s expensive to buy fertilizers and sprays,’ he says. He shows the villagers how to dig trenches, how to ‘double dig’ their plots, how to build up soil nutrients, how to plant Napier trees to avoid soil erosion and how to prevent wastage of water. ‘I tell them, “Don’t come wearing a tie, but bring your instruments and be ready to work.”’ He makes it clear that he is not bringing hand-outs or ‘development in a basket’. ‘I’ve not brought food or cash or fertilizers,’ he tells them, ‘I have come because I have faith in you and because I have faith you can change your situation.’ He grows lettuce, celery and maize in his own garden.

One of his plans for the future is to help organize a cultural festival in Kenya in 2003 for the whole of Africa. ‘Its aim would be a renewal of Africa’s spirit and dignity that has been trampled upon first by colonialism and then by our own dictators.’ He sees it as a vehicle for peace in Africa.

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