[In early July 2000, I traveled from Johannesburg to St. Paul, Minnesota, USA, to attend the annual conference of Kenyans Citizens Abroad (KCA) and delivered a keynote address challenging Kenyans born after independence, the Uhuru Generation, to take up responsibility for the future of their country (http://njonjomue.blogspot.com/2012/02/uhuru-generation-taking-stand-on-high.html ). In the weeks following the speech, it elicited robust debate from Kenyans at home and around the world. Life Magazine of the Sunday Standard in Nairobi carried a special feature on the speech in their September 24 - October 1 2000 edition. Mildred Ngesa, Life Magazine's writer, interviewed me and wrote the following feature]
Dry bones can live again
By Mildred Ngesa
Fed up with the mess in this country? Tired of the pot-holes, burst sewers, water and power rationing, noisy, unruly matatus, crude makangas, thuggish policemen and menacing street children?
Pissed off by fat, greedy leaders who only know how to exchange punches, politicians who have perfected the art of corruption and a government that couldn’t care less about the people it is supposed to serve?
Packing your bags to leave because life has basically become a nightmare in this country where nothing seems to work any more? I know exactly what you mean because I also live in this same valley of dry bones. Like you, I have become too cynical to even imagine that these bones can live again. However, one man’s views may change your mind.
Njonjo Mue, unlike the prophet Ezekiel is sure these dry bones will live again. In a remarkable speech at the annual conference of the Kenya Community Abroad (KCA), it is Njonjo, a human rights lawyer, who likened the situation in
to the valley of dry bones in the Bible. Kenya
closely resembles Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. For we are surrounded by dry bones scattered over a parched and thirsty land. The dry bones encompass massive corruption and looting of the resources of the land by their custodians, tribalism, collapsed systems, urban decay, rural under-development and so on,” Mue said. Kenya
His speech was captivating to say the least! His convictions were daring and his resolutions mind-boggling. So awed were his audiences by his idealistic stand on various issues that his speech, Uhuru Generation: Taking a Stand on High Ground, was circulated via the internet all over the world.
But how exactly did the notion of dry bones formulate in Njonjo’s mind?
“Last year, I came home to bury my father… As I was driving towards the city from Eastlands, I passed by Machakos “airport” and was dumbfounded by the chaos and mess. The traffic was so unruly – matatus blaring and bulldozing their way all over the place. Things were basically a big mess.
“I sat back and though: is this how bad things have become? Doesn’t anything work any more? Will anything live on after this? That’s when Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones hit me.” Njonjo’s speech extensively addresses
’s “dry bones”. Kenya
It’s not even that Njonjo said anything new in his speech. Many Kenyans feel what he expressed in his speech. His sentiments are not alien to any of us. In fact, Njonjo just put into words what many of us have been grappling with and dying to say for a long, long time.
So who is this man Njonjo? When I met Njonjo for the first time during this interview I was taken aback by his simplicity and good-naturedness.
“I have heard people accuse me of being too idealistic in my thinking. I make no apologies for being idealistic because if people like Martin Luther King in his visionary speech, I Have a Dream, were not idealistic, the outcome would not have been one of freedom for
’s black people.” America
Njonjo is probably right since some of the great revolutions of our time were engineered and orchestrated by very idealistic individuals. He is quick to point out that when he uses the term revolution, he does not mean violent action. “Revolutions begin with the empowerment of the mind. The manifestation of a vision – a vision for the future that defines the attitude that will shape a collective destiny,” Njonjo explained.
This is the same vision that the well traveled, outspoken human rights activist harbours for the country he loves –
. In his speech and again during the interview, Njonjo reiterated the importance of a collective vision. “Without vision, the people perish… without a future, human beings are programmed to go back to their past…. We can blame our woes on any number of people – Parliament blames Biwott for the power rationing, Biwott blames Kibaki and Nyachae; Nyachae says Moi should take responsibility; Moi says he is not a rainmaker!” Kenya
Njonjo is fearless in his approach to various issues. He has no inhibitions in castigating wrong-doers or condemning injustice. His name may be alien to many local Kenyans, but abroad it is already causing ripples, especially among those Kenyans who feel they have a role to play in salvaging our deteriorating country.
Born 33 years ago, Njonjo knew he would one day practice law. He ended up specializing in social, gender and racial justice issues before landing a job with the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ). “From the word go, I always knw I had a calling in human rights issues. After pursuing a masters at Oxford University (UK), I secured a job with ARTICLE 19, a global non-profit organization dedicated to advocating for basic human rights. ARTICLE 19 has its headquarters in the
. This organization has given me the chance to explore my interests in the area of human rights,” said Njonjo. UK
At the time of his joining ARTICLE 19, the organization was just spreading its tentacles to Africa where its first branch office was inaugurated in
. This is where Njonjo is currently based – managing the regional office. South Africa
“ARTICLE 19 is the Global Campaign for Free Expression. We monitor, research, publish, lobby, campaign and litigate on behalf of freedom of expression. We develop standards to advance media freedom, assist individuals to speak out and campaign for the free flow of information within countries and internationally.”
Through his travels with ARTICLE 19, Njonjo has had the opportunity to meet a number of Kenyans in the Diaspora who expressed concern about the declining trends in
“Uhuru Generation: Taking a stand on high ground is the first speech I presented at the KCA conference. I knew that talking about the Uhuru Generation (those born after the stroke of midnight on December 12, 1963) would raise eye-brows for those who feel they are left out of this age bracket, but my use of this term symbolic,” he explained.
It is not surprising that Njonjo’s speech was viewed with some degree of hostility by those who felt left out. “The cut-off date should be viewed as a metaphor…I explained this in my second speech. I used this metaphor in an attempt to tell Kenyans and the world that those of us born in independent
recognize we have a special responsibility to stand up, rebuild and defend out country. Our loyalties are not divided – we have nowhere else to go.” Kenya
Njonjo elaborated on this issue by saying that the uhuru generation is itself not homogenous and realizes there are bad fruits in the group. However, he says, “This generation as a collective block understands the language of exclusion and alienation, of pain and frustration, of not being in control of our own country… the uhuru generation has identified itself as the true owners of this country.”
Njonjo’s voice is a voice of hope. His is a voice that says all is not lost and that there is indeed hope for the dry bones in the valley of death. Although he hopes Kenyans will not continue to leave the country in search of greener pastures, Njonjo also says he understands why some opt to relocate or immigrate.
“Sometimes a change of environment is needed so as to compare and realize what a difference it would make if things actually worked here. However, I believe in being able to solve our own problems and knowing that there’s no place better than home. I have opted to come back home because I am personally tired of driving on other people’s smooth roads while ours are infested with pot-holes.”
Many will surely argue that a man like Njonjo has not lived in this country long enough to speak so authoritatively of what ails it. Initiating campaigns while living in the lap of luxury in some far off country is too easy. What does Njonjo have to say about such accusations?
“It does not mean that one has to be here to feel the pinch. I have a family here – brothers, sisters, uncles, cousins – I feel their pain. People tend to seek comfort and companionship in misery. That is why they condemn those who are not here. If you genuinely believe in the cause you advocate, you are committed to do whatever you can from wherever you are. Take the situation of
where lobbyists did a lot to dismantle apartheid from the outside. It’s the classic case of not being able to see the forest for the trees. One sometimes has to step back and away from the situation in order to see the bigger picture,” Njonjo replied. South Africa
Njonjo believes that it is up to the uhuru generation to break the monotony and lethargy that has held
back. “We always chant, “Moi must go!” forgetting that we cannot start building our houses from the rooftops. We cannot change the government of today by chopping off its head. We need inspired leadership, a prophetic voice that will look into the future. Not just a relevant voice for the moment. The uhuru generation has to think about the future because the future belongs to them.” Kenya
Whenever Njonjo speaks, he often mentions the great names in our history books, whose idealistic views have helped change the world. He commends Martin Luther King and is not short of praise for Nelson Mandela, who had a vision for
’s independence before he went to jail. “Just imagine – Mandela saw the need to train some of the activist and freedom fighters for future leadership roles. He was thinking long term. People like President Thabo Mbeki were smuggled out of the country to study and be groomed for leadership. How come Kenyans aren’t grooming any future leaders now?” asked Njonjo. South Africa
“I am not advocating that we throw all those of the older generation into the sea; we will continue to value their wisdom and their experience. But great though their accomplishments are, we must hasten to remind ourselves that a growing nation cannot afford to rest on its laurels, for its children will not find solace in its glorious past. We must confront present realities in order to march confidently into our common future.”
The future Njonjo speaks of is the future bestowed on the uhuru generation. Hopefully, a generation that has the confidence to make the dry bones live again. The generation that Njonjo believes will live up to Prophet Ezekiel’s prophecy.