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Njonjo and Tutu: quiet departure ends an era

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Njonjo and Tutu: quiet departure ends an era

Charles Mugane Njonjo. Desmond Mpilo Tutu. Different in many ways. Similar in others. Blessed with long and impactful lives, one a centenarian, the other a nonagenarian. One a secular leader, proud of his African heritage, who helped steer independent Kenya through its wobbly infancy.  The other, a spiritual leader, proud of his African identity, who helped accelerate the end of formal apartheid in South Africa. 


One reserved and regal, the other extroverted and exuberant. Both men misunderstood. Njonjo an African meritocrat, allergic to incompetence and chaos, mistakenly thought to be anti-African. Tutu an African democrat, allergic to injustice, corruption, and violence, mistakenly thought weak and too compromising because he turned against a corrupt African National Congress leadership.


One emotionally tame in public, the other emotionally unrestrained. One born in material wealth and privilege, the other born in poverty and struggle. One reportedly endowed with very smart investment and management skills, the other reportedly undisciplined 

with personal money and disinterested in wealth accumulation.


One evidently unperturbed by negative myths crafted about his persona, the other reportedly eager to be liked. Both men exceptionally intelligent and driven to succeed, their lives firmly founded in an Anglican Christian tradition they held dear to the end.  Both men married only once, devoted to their wives and offspring, despite very busy public lives. 


Their respective legacies rich and far-reaching, their impact yet to be quantified by scholars not yet born. Both united in a final act so similar that one would be excused for suspecting a conspiracy to fade into the eternal night with a statement that cannot be ignored.


Tutu, a common man whose clerical collar and purple robes suggested self-denial and ordinary living, was placed in a plain pine coffin, to await the final disposal of his remains. We are told this was at his request because he wanted the cheapest available coffin “to avoid any ostentatious displays.”  


Njonjo, a natural member of the upper class in any country in the world, with a very healthy financial portfolio and an unapologetic enjoyment of the proceeds of his hard work, was placed in a simple coffin, suitable for combustion. We are told that he “did not want any fanfare, ceremony and a lot of what goes with funerals of people of his stature.”


Both men’s funerals undramatic, Njonjo’s body disposed of within hours of his death, and Tutu the world-famous man bade farewell by a hundred people in a dignified manner, whose simplicity raised his stature in death.


One man cremated in the traditional fiery manner in Nairobi, his remains reduced to ashes in an urn. The other aquamated in Cape Town, his remains reduced to ashes in an urn. A quiet departure after very impactful lives.


The two men have left us an important conversation about death and disposal of our remains that needs to be had at family dinner tables, in couples’ bedrooms, in various gatherings, on social media and in the news media. 


A conversation about our inevitable death is not easy, yet it must happen at some point. Better long before illness occurs. In any case accidental death can occur at any moment. I believe that the way Njonjo and Tutu prepared their families for the dreadful moment was a very loving act that eased the burden on people whose beloved patriarch has been ripped out of their midst.


Such a conversation prevents drama and chaos that often accompany the death of even one who has said a long goodbye through very prolonged illness and physical decline. In Sub-Saharan African culture, whole body burial is nearly universal. However, the option of aquamation or cremation is one that needs consideration and open conversation. Now is the time to do so, not after you are dead.


United in death, their bodies equal in every way, Njonjo and Tutu have become names in the register of past sojourners on Earth. Their souls now part of those who have gone before them, their new address a matter that we are supremely underqualified to guess.


Yes, Njonjo and Tutu did wonderful work in their respective lives. To our eyes, their good deeds outweighed their failures. They were devout Anglicans, one a faithful member of the congregation of All Saints Cathedral, Nairobi, the other, one of the most celebrated archbishops in the Global Anglican Communion. 


However, their religious adherence, their professional careers, their outstanding appointments and titles, and the excellent work of their hands, did not guarantee them admission into the eternal glory that awaits only those who believe in Jesus Christ. Not my words but the words of our Lord Jesus Christ in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”


Not my words but the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 10: 9-10 where he writes: because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”


Having not heard either man’s personal testimony, I cannot say what their destination is. It is my fervent hope that they have qualified for eternal rest and glory. However, one thing you will not hear from me is the prayer for their souls “to rest in eternal peace.”  This is one of those truly meaningless appeals that cannot make a difference once one is dead. 


Where we go for eternity is determined by the individual during life. It does not matter how sinfully, how criminally awfully or how religiously devout one has lived. The Bible is very clear about the only way through which one’s soul will rest after death. 


While all will resurrect when the unpredictable time comes, 1 Thessalonians 4:14 tells us that it is only those who have fallen asleep in Him that will be brought back with Jesus Christ. Happily, through his death and resurrection, Jesus paved the way for us to enjoy that privilege.


I join others in sending condolences to the families of Charles Njonjo and Desmond Tutu. May the Lord cover the bereaved with his grace. May the memories of happy times with the departed sustain them through this very difficult period. It has been a great privilege to live in their time. It is sad to see the end of an era. 







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