Remembering Wahome Mutahi, 20 years later

Wahome Mutahi, popularly known as ‘Whispers’.

Wahome Mutahi, popularly known as ‘Whispers’, after a column of the same name, wrote for the Daily Nation newspaper from 1982 to 2003 and offered an artistic spoof on the vicissitudes of Kenyan national life.

Photo credit: Nation Media Group

Whenever cases of disastrous surgeries in Kenya are discussed, one prominent name often pops up — Wahome Mutahi.

In March 2003, the famous humourist was to have something of a basic operation at the Thika District Hospital to remove a swelling on the base of his neck.

However, something went totally wrong with the anaesthetic (medicine that makes a patient lose sensation during surgery) administered. Rather than regain his senses after the surgery as should be the case, he drifted into a coma. He would die four months later on July 22, 2003.

The anaesthetist on duty would later be suspended for six months after the Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board found him guilty of negligence. He got back into practice and in 2018, he was involved in another incident where a tooth realignment operation caused brain damage on a young boy. His defence was that in surgery, accidents “do occur”.

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of Wahome’s death.

For a man who entertained readers of the Sunday Nation every week with his “Whispers” column, wrote numerous books and scripted several plays, Wahome was suddenly plucked from the pedestal of Kenya’s most treasured entertainers.

Ahead of the anniversary, Lifestyle interviewed his widow and two of his three children.

Being the innovative writer that he was, Wahome – also known as Whispers or the Son of the Soil (SOS) – had a nickname for those closest to him who featured in his column. His wife, Ricarda Njoki, was Thatcher, the “prime minister” of the household in the mould of the United Kingdom’s “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher. The name stuck, she tells Lifestyle, and some friends still call her that.

Wahome Mutahi

Wahome Mutahi, popularly known as ‘Whispers’.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

“Even at home, there are some people who, when we are together, sometimes tell me, ‘Wee Thatcher!’” the 67-year-old widow says.

His firstborn son, Patrick Wahome, was Whispers Junior. Sometimes he was Ras Whispers; other times Man Whispero and at other times the Domestic Thug. Hardly anyone lately uses any of those nicknames when referring to him.

“People don’t call him by his column name,” his sister said.

That sister was the second born, Caroline Muthoni. She was Pajero in the column — and sometimes the Investment, other times Pajey and in some instances Ka-Beijing. The nickname “Pajero” or “Paj” stuck with her. During the interview – which was full of quirky humour – her brother kept calling her “Paj”.

“That name stuck. People, friends, family, call me by that name,” said Caroline. “It stuck from school… It’s now normal.”

The lastborn in the household, Evelyne Wanjugu, did not, however, feature in the column.

“It is most likely because the column was started before I was born. I never got around to asking him why I never featured,” Evelyne told the Saturday Nation in a 2013 interview.

However, the family says, Wahome often exaggerated and distorted the traits of the people he depicted in his writings.

“People assume the way the characters were portrayed is the way they were in actual life, which was not the case,” said Caroline. “Had he been alive, I would have asked him why he chose to portray the characters that way.”

The widow was dealt a blow in 2015 when a judge dismissed a case in which she was seeking compensation from the State, owing to the negligence at the Thika hospital that she believes led to the death of her husband.

She tells Lifestyle that she never filed an appeal against the decision of Justice Rose Ougo, who said the family failed to prove the cause of Wahome’s death as there was no post-mortem report filed.

“We didn’t follow up,” says Ricarda, a retired nurse. “We were surprised by the way it was decided by the judge because there was one doctor who was found negligent. The medical board, which is overseen by doctors, said there was negligence, but in court, they said there was no evidence. So, I don’t know. There was no justice there.”

She adds: “I just said that we should leave it to God, but there was no justice.”

Ricarda, now in her seventh year of retirement, lives in Membley, a suburb of Ruiru in Kiambu County. She is a small-scale chicken farmer. Rearing chickens, she says, keeps her busy.

She got the legal authority to succeed Wahome’s estate, and one of the benefits from getting the letters of administration is receiving royalties from the books he wrote.

Ricarda says only one publisher, Oxford, gives her royalties from the sale of Wahome’s books every year as expected.

“Let me say Oxford (University Press East Africa) are the ones who pay me annually,” she says. “The rest promise to pay but they do not honour their word.”

She, however, acknowledges that Longhorn also paid her some royalties this year.

Before his life was cut short, Wahome had published titles such as Three Days on the Cross, Jail Bugs, How to be a Kenyan, The Ghost of Garbatula, The Miracle Merchants, Doomsday, among others.

He also wrote plays, among them Mugaathe Mubogothi (His Excellency the Hallucinator), Igoti ria Muigi (The People’s Court) and Makariria Kioro (They Will Cry in the Toilet). He acted in some of the plays.

Even as he wrote columns and plays that had the audience cracking their ribs, Ricarda says, at home he was a pretty reserved man.

“In the house, you couldn’t even say he was funny. He was a very quiet man in the house. But sometimes you could hear him say something and you could detect the humour. In the house, he was very quiet, reading his papers and books. You could not even say he is the one who writes the ‘Whispers’ column in the Sunday Nation. He was busy with his things, (especially) books. He liked reading very much,” she says.

The two met in 1974, when they were secondary school students in Nyeri. They got married in 1979.

Children of the late humourist Wahome Mutahi (from left) Patrick, Evelyne and Caroline during a hike of Mt Kenya in 2019 dubbed “Climb for Justice”.

“The family has grown. He left us when the three children were in school. Now I have six grandchildren,” says Ricarda, adding that the eldest grandchild is 15.

Of the six grandchildren, two are boys and both are named Wahome. One of them is Caroline’s son, who has an unmistakable tooth gap that is a trademark of the Wahome family.

They also have a “doctor” in the family after Patrick got his PhD in African studies from the University of Edinburgh in 2021.

So good was his thesis for the PhD that it was ranked one of the two best awards announced in 2022 by the African Studies Association of the UK. The thesis was titled Statehood, Sovereignty and Identities: Exploring Policing in Kenya’s Informal Settlements of Mathare and Kaptembwo.

Patrick, who works with the Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies, says such kind of writing is his stock-in-trade.

“None of us ventured into creative writing (like our father). But in terms of writing, Patrick has published books,” says Caroline.

Patrick adds: “I do research and analysis, so I do write quite a lot of reports. But these are field-based reports. I do research reports, journal papers, book chapters and all that. Part of my other life is in academia. That’s why I also publish quite a lot in that.”

He, however, says none of his published works is creative writing.

Caroline worked as a features writer at the Standard Group before she joined the world of non-profit organisations as a communications officer. She currently works with a global Non-Governmental organisation.

The lastborn, Evelyne, is a businesswoman.

Ricarda says she is happy with how the family has turned out, despite the children losing their father so early.

“I’m very happy with how the family is progressing,” she said. “I can say God has revealed Himself to us.”

In the late 1980s, Wahome and his younger brother Njuguna were arrested and detained on suspicion that they belonged to the outlawed Mwakenya Movement that was accused of plotting to overthrow President Daniel arap Moi. They were guests of the infamous Nyayo House before they were taken to Kamiti Maximum Prison. The events of the arrest would inspire Wahome’s novel Three Days on the Cross.

Ricarda, reliving the anguish of those times, said it was emotional torture.

Ricarda Njoki

Ricarda Njoki alias Thatcher, Wahome Mutahi’s widow, on July 21, 2023.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

“We were in the dark for a whole month. Even when we went to the police, I remember us visiting all the police stations but they didn’t tell us (where they were),” she says.

She explains that it can be tough and torturous when you don’t know where your loved one is—or even if he is alive.

“He was not guilty of anything. He blamed Moi for jailing him. He had done nothing wrong. Charges read to him were that he knew about the Mwakenya but did not report it to the authorities. That was why he was jailed, and he said he had no idea about those things,” she recalls.

After Moi left office, a number of lawsuits were filed by Kenyans who were seeking compensation for illegal detention and torture. Ricarda says Wahome’s brother was involved in one of the cases. However, the pursuit went cold after he died.

“I think he was among the ones who had filed the case. But we never saw anything. I heard that some people were paid. But we never heard anything, now that the brother who was following the case also died. So, it just ended like that,” she says.

The Wahome children say they have maintained the spirit of political consciousness.

“It is even in the larger family, not just our nuclear family. They are very political,” says Patrick. “So, it’s something that we grew up with. And it has never rubbed out of us.”

In 2019 and 2021, the three Wahome children hiked mounts Kenya and Kilimanjaro respectively under what was termed “Climb for Justice”.

“It was in aid of raising money for an organisation called Defenders Coalition,” says Caroline.

As Lifestyle interviewed the two Wahome children, we were eager to know whether the famous family name has been opening doors for them.

“Opened doors or created expectations?” shot back Patrick, causing laughter.

Wahome Mutahi, Evelyne Wanjugu

Children of  Wahome Mutahi, Evelyne Wanjugu (left), Patrick Mutahi (centre) and Caroline Muthoni (right) during the interview in 2013.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

I’d say there are those people who recognise the name. They definitely will treat you differently. It is not doors opening as such, but I get favours here and there from people who recognise the name. Then they start talking about the column, our father and all that. That one happens, at least in my case. So, that name recognition is there,” says Patrick.

Caroline notes: “It is more of expectations. You know, there is the assumption that fame comes with money and a certain status. It was not the case money-wise for Whisi (the short form of her father’s nickname). But I think there are people who appreciate and they come and tell us, ‘You know, it’s because of your dad that I am in this career,’ or ‘He paid my school fees’. These are random people. The things that he did for people are massive, which we get to learn day by day. We never knew this. Not like we even know these people. They are just strangers.” She, however, says the name has not really opened doors.

“If someone has done something (to me) because of the Whisi name, then I don’t know. No one has ever said outright that ‘I have done this because you are the daughter’. He touched very many people out here, and that’s the feedback we get over and over again,” she says.

Wahome, whose column ran from 1982 to the time of his death, has been immortalised in various ways. Among them is the Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize by the Kenya Publishers Association. A winner is announced every two years.

“That’s something that’s almost permanent. It keeps the memory,” says Patrick.

There is also a memorial bust of him outside the Kenya National Theatre. A book containing the best of his humour columns, titled Best of Whispers: Politics, Family and Society, was released in 2018 during the 15th anniversary of his death. It is published by Twaweza Communications under permission from the Nation Media Group, the copyright holder.

“It’s been a good souvenir for his fans,” says Patrick.

An acclaimed book on his works, Popular Media in Kenyan History: Fiction and Newspapers as Political Actors, has also been written by British-based journalist-turned-academic Prof George Ogola. The book, whose author teaches at the University of Nottingham, was published in 2017 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Ricarda thinks his fans could have done more to honour his memory this year.

“The way he had served Kenyans, there was a need to celebrate him. Twenty years (anniversary) is not two days. There was a need to celebrate. He had entertained them for all those decades,” she says.

The family has also been looking for financial support to make a documentary of Wahome using footage from various sources. However, no individual or organisation is yet to respond to their appeal.

“We have been trying to do a film to commemorate Whisi. We have knocked on all doors looking for funding, all that you can think of — anyone and everyone. And we thought this is something that could easily be taken up,” says Caroline.

She adds: “The idea for the film is not for us to make money; it’s for keeping the legacy and linking it to his contribution to art, into writing, into mentorship, into politics, democracy and governance issues. The pitch is something we thought would sell itself, but it has not been easy to get funding. At least from my end, it was disappointing since I put so much time into it. But I guess we learn every day.”

Patrick says the family has a lot of footage that can be used to do a documentary but he admits that “it has been difficult fundraising is not easy”.

“Some of the footage is from friends, who were either recording during plays and all that. We just need to back it up with other things, with more current interviews, for example. We know of several friends who have it. But it also costs money to get it from them because that’s part of their professional portfolio,” he says.

The family is, nonetheless, grateful for all those who endeavour to keep Wahome’s name alive.

“His legacy lives on,” says Ricarda