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Kenya’s Charles Njonjo: misunderstood normal gentleman

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Kenya’s Charles Njonjo: misunderstood normal gentleman

Well, to the right, in fact: Njonjo and Khama in London, late 1940s.



The weekend brought a rumour that Charles Mugane Njonjo of Kenya had died. The trigger-happy folks, upon receiving the hoax, hit their keyboards, eager to be the first conveyers of “the news.”  


Even before Njonjo reacted to his death from the land of the living, it was very clear that he was alive. There was no mention of him on the websites of the credible news organizations in Kenya. That was why I wrote my reaction to the malicious report.  “They wish him dead,” I wrote, “they dread who is ahead. But in true Njonjo style, he ignores them with a smile. Just watch them whine, Mr. Njonjo, and sip your wine, assured of our love, oldest Budonian we have.”


Yes, I am a Njonjophile, an admirer of the gentleman, not because of his politics, but because of his outlook and accomplishments. I may be one of a minority. I am aware of many made-up stories about the gentleman, all of them probably designed to assuage the jealousies of those burdened with insecurities.  


These stories, which I will not give oxygen by repeating, are symptoms of humanity’s discomfort with wealthy people, with the professionally successful, and with those who eschew populism and mob-mentality.


Even the factual things that get reported reflect pettiness of mind, the reporter’s agenda being to imply that Njonjo lives in the clouds, far above Kenya’s reality. For example, one yawns upon reading that Njonjo has twenty pin-striped suits, “all tailored in Britain.” I mean, really! Who cares? Would they rather he bought them from China or Italy? Don’t the majority of Africans don imported suits, and pretty much everything else in their wardrobes. 


Without doubt, Njonjo is a man with excellent fashion sense, a great poster boy for his profession and a throwback to the wonderful days when well-fitting good threads added visual joy to admiring eyes. Look at a photo of Uganda’s leaders of the early 1960s and you will see what I mean. Incidentally, to my eyes, the three best dressed Ugandan leaders of that period were Prime Minister Milton Obote, Owekitiibwa Amos Sempa, Uganda’s first African minister of finance, and Dr. Solomon Asea, our first ambassador to the United States of America. Dapper is the word. But I digress.


We are also told that Njonjo has a net worth of $60 million. One report claims that Njonjo and his brother James control a business empire worth $3 billion. Whatever the actual figure is, one thing is certain. Njonjo has had excellent opportunities to generate great wealth through honest investment. He is very entitled to his tables at the world’s best watering holes, such as Nairobi’s New Stanley Hotel, probably his hangout when it was that city’s best dining address. 


Even if he had been born into a poor family, a man who became Kenya’s second African lawyer in 1952 and remained single, with no family responsibilities, until 1972 would have had no reason to be anything but financially rich. 


His education at Alliance High School in Kenya, King’s College, Budo in Uganda, Fort Hare in South Africa, Exeter College and Gray’s Inn in England broadened his scope and tastes, made him great contacts, and prepared him for success. 


The idea that his father’s wealth guaranteed him an easy life is rather simplistic. Having earned a scholarship to study public administration at Exeter in the United Kingdom, Njonjo was expected to return to Kenya to serve in the colonial government. However, since his real ambition was to become a barrister, he elected to stay in England and pursue studies in that profession. The colonial government promptly cut off his stipend, probably expecting the rebellious student to abandon his plans.


Njonjo stayed in England and paid for his education and upkeep by doing what Ugandans erroneously call “odd jobs.” He was called to the bar at Gray’s Inn in 1952. There is a sweet story in the Evening Standard (London) of June 2, 1952, that hints at how normal this misunderstood gentleman was (and still is.) 


Under the headline “Sweet potatoes: An airborne present”, the Standard reported: ‘Among the luggage which arrived at London Airport over the weekend were two 4ft long sugar canes and three sweet potatoes, each weighing 3lb. They were brought from Nairobi by Mrs. Arabella Downes, wife of an East African Airways official, and are presents for the son of an African chief living in London. Mrs. Downes explained: “A few hours before we were due to leave, my neighbour, Chief Josiah Njonjo, of the Kikuyu tribe, asked me to take the gifts to his son Charles who is studying law in London.”’


Njonjo had already established his credentials as a well-grounded African in England by his bold engagements against racism. A lifelong friend of Seretse Khama of Botswana, Njonjo was by his side when the future president of Botswana was dealing with racist opposition to his planned marriage to Ruth Williams, an English woman. Seretse and Ruth married on September 29, 1948. 


Twenty-four years later, at age 52, Njonjo himself married Margaret Bryson, an Englishwoman with whom he was in love. That reason for marriage did not seem to satisfy self-appointed judges on private matters of the heart. People asked him why he had waited that long and why an English woman, as though there was an ordained timetable for falling in love or a law against marrying a person of another race. 


Happily, the Njonjos are still married, 49 years later. From very reliable accounts, by people who actually know them, Charles and Margaret Njonjo have raised normal children. My wife and I had the privilege of meeting their second daughter Nimu at a wake in Nairobi in July 2019. Ms. Njonjo, who spoke and acted like any other well-bred lady, happily served my wife some tea.  This involved walking from the garden to fetch the beverage from a fair distance from us. There was not a hint of the airs that afflict people who have suddenly “fallen into things” or become “honourable.”


None of this is a surprise to those who appreciate the transformative power of a good education, which is really what made Njonjo who he is. A gentleman. Confident. Independent. With a good taste for fine things that he has worked hard to acquire. 


And like an educated and wealthy gentleman, Njonjo, nearly 102 years old, is a committed philanthropist whose generosity to many important causes in Kenya deserve more journalistic attention than irrelevant stuff like his love for roses on his lapel or his perfect use of the English language.


May the Lord continue to bless Mr. Njonjo with good health and many years on Earth.




Photo of Njonjo and Seretse Khama taken from the website of the Government of Botswana.





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