The first time Joannah Stutchbury and I really got talking was in 1991. We were young professionals working for a local television station. She was in the traffic department as head of programmes, while I was an editor in the newsroom.
While we had spoken casually over the preceding months, it was at a staff party that year that I got my first insight into this woman, who did not mince words and brought passion to everything she touched. On the night of the party, her turquoise blue eyes shone with excitement as uncontrollable as her mass of brown curls. Joannah had found a beau and I still remember her bouncing energy as she changed into a little chamois leather outfit that showed off her long legs and fancy boots.
That night I met Mick, the man she would eventually marry and build a family with, and who kept us both bent over in laughter for hours, as he would when we got together over the years.
It’s actually something of an oddity that we got on so well. School was never really Joannah’s thing but you would never know it from her knowledge of the world, of history and culture and her prodigious knowledge of Kenya’s local plants and animals.
By her early 30s, around the time I met her, she had already worked on the sets of blockbuster films and back-packed her way across a big swathe of the world on a shoestring budget. When she introduced me to her family, I got to know where her adventurous character and passion came from. We spent countless afternoons with her English born father, Brian and third generation Kenyan mother Jennifer.
Colourful stories drawn from Brian’s dramatic years with the Royal Air Force in World War II, to Joannah’s childhood playing on the farm in the shadow of Mount Elgon, Kitale through stints in Zimbabwe, the Middle East and England as they followed her father to his next job.
But home always pulled the family back. For Joannah, there was nowhere she would rather be. She loved the people - except those who yelled “muzungu” as she scoured Gikomba and Toi markets for stuff she could recycle. She said it made her feel like they did not see the human being inside the white skin. She bargained happily with friendly vendors in her version of Kiswahili to get the best price on period pieces for the costume business she ran to sustain herself since looking after the environment paid nothing.
More than anything else she loved the land, the trees, the monkeys and other wildlife, the sound of the river and the wild deer that sometimes made their way onto her property. There was no corner of Kenya she did not explore.
She banned plastic from her house 30 years before Kenya caught on, and recycled everything; turning old wheelbarrows into beautiful flower pots and broken porcelain plates and old tiles into decorative pots and chair
Her first house was built on land next to the Kiambu Forest, a forest that originally covered 350 acres and is now reduced to only 38 acres. Jo gave strict instructions that only those trees necessary to fit the footprint of the house were to be cut – not one tree more. Once complete, the house that Joanna lived in for over 25 years was called an architectural dream by many and one would never know that the window frames and claw foot bathtub had been salvaged from the rubble of building sites and hotel renovations.
So, I thought she had completely lost it when in 2017 she abandoned her beautiful house – to build another more sustainable house. With her children now adults and charting their own paths, Jo decided to build a cottage small enough for her needs using traditional methods and locally found natural materials.
Passionate about environment
Believe me, Joannah was passionate about the environment. So one morning in 2018 when the sound of heavy machinery drifted up from the swampy land that adjoins the family property, she had to investigate. She found a private developer digging up the swamp and learned that they were planning to turn it into an access road.
When the developers would not listen, passion saw Joannah climb into the excavator and she refused to budge and was captured in a now viral photo. She reached out to friends for help and a call to the Kenya Forestry Service brought welcome support and confiscation of the developer's equipment and secured the wetland.
Joannah’s straight talking and passion for the environment would plunge her into trouble. It also made her some powerful enemies, and those forces appear to have ambushed her outside her gate on July 15 and taken away a passionate defender of the defenceless earth.
I cry for my friend but she was not a sell-out, and she lived true to herself to the end.
Rose Lukalo is a media practitioner based in Nairobi