George Magoha: Beneath the mask of a tough bully was a gentle and kind soul

George Magoha at Gachoka Primary School

Former Education Cabinet Secretary Prof. George Magoha with PP1 pupils on their CBC co-curriculum activity after reporting on their first day at Gachoka Primary School in 2020.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

The dominant image of Prof George Magoha is that of a no-nonsense, conservatively dressed academic devoid of emotions.

His towering height, heavily build and clean-shaven head completed the picture of an impenetrable persona. Arrogant, proud and pushy, Magoha struck fear in the hearts of many.

When he appeared before a parliamentary committee for vetting for appointment as Cabinet Secretary for Education in 2019, an MP asked a question that insinuated that he could have been picked for the job because of political connections, Magoha nearly hit the roof, and categorically told the MPs to reject him if they thought he hobnobbed with politicians to get state jobs. 

Yet, beneath the veneer of a headstrong and arrogant fellow was an affable personality with a deep sense of humour and a hearty laugh. He made jokes about his chosen profession — urology —saying euphemistically that he always helped rivers flow. One of his definitive journal papers was aptly titled: “Urological footprints in Kenya: That water may flow: A story about male genital cancer and dysfunction.”

He detested mediocrity, dishonesty and nonchalance. Magoha believed there was a solution to every challenge and pushed his charges to look exactly for that. He lived on the fast lane, always on the move and he loathed anyone who pulled him back. Not surprisingly, he was caught on camera shouting and dressing down his officers as was the case with the former Uasin Gishu County Education Director Gitonga Mbaka sometime last year.


Earlier, in another incident at the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development, a director at the ministry headquarters earned his wrath for arriving late for a meeting. When the director entered, Magoha was peeved, gave the officer a tongue-lashing and threatened to sack him, which word he used liberally. But that was not to be. Quietly, he would relent and let the matter rest.

Indeed, what many did not know was that beyond the shouts and threats, Magoha never acted. In fact, you would easily find him laughing thereafter with the person he had bullied just a few minutes earlier. He kind of thrived on scaring off people, which is not to intimate that he was sadistic, but it was just to test one’s mettle.

A portrait of former Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha at his home in Lavington, Nairobi

A portrait of former Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha at his home in Lavington, Nairobi, on January 25, 2023.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

The professor of medicine took a deep interest in serving the country’s children and publicly declared that his entry into the Ministry of Education had brought him to the place he should have started his career; working and dealing with the young ones. His frequent visits to schools and mingling easily with them attested to this.

Magoha was an amazing listener and humanely patient. Contrary to what many thought — that he was reticent, measured and easily miffed, he was a great storyteller with an incredible memory. Way back in 2016, we met Magoha at the Association of African Universities (AAU) conference in Ghana. He had just stepped down as the vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi after completing his 10-year term. 


Magoha would regale us and a group of international journalists for hours in the evenings with fascinating stories on diverse subjects, ranging from family, culture, religion, and health to the state of universities in Africa.

He was particularly at home with stories on West Africa, arguably, because of his long history with Nigeria where he studied for his medical degrees and from where got his wife, Barbara. At the end of the conference, Magoha was awarded a certificate of commendation for the outstanding achievement of turning around the University of Nairobi, which had been in slumberland for years before his tenure.

Fast-forward, soon after being appointed Cabinet secretary for Education in 2019, Magoha set up a task force to guide him on the implementation of the Competency-Based Curriculum. Magoha, who believed in professional guidance, spent a lot of time with the members of the Task Force on Enhancing Access, Relevance, Equity and Quality for Effective Curriculum Reforms Implementation to understand the work it was doing and the findings it was coming up with after collecting views from the public. 

Magoha would be in his element, talking freely and sharing his professional and personal views without inhibition.

As a member of the task force, we had many memorable moments with Magoha. On one occasion, he made an impromptu visit to a retreat in Naivasha and asked to be taken through the draft report from the first to the last chapter. 

He sat keenly through the presentations from 10 am, until 6 pm without tea or lunch breaks, listening, nodding and taking notes. Woe unto any presenter who did not have their facts right or pussy-footed around the issues; he or she would be harshly pulled down from the podium. 

Education Cabinet Secretary Prof. George Magoha puts a Construction Block at Bomu Secondary School.

Former Education Cabinet Secretary Prof. George Magoha puts a Construction Block on one of the walls of a Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) Class at Bomu Secondary School in Mombasa on July 21, 2022.

Photo credit: Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

Yet the intention was not to haunt or intimidate; he wanted to be sure the task force’s members thoroughly understood and mastered what they were doing. He had the canny ability to distil issues, connect the dots, cull out the chaff from the wheat and rephrase the facts in a simple way.

Biblical citations

A deeply religious and family man, Magoha was kind-hearted to a fault. His every statement was laced with biblical citations, stating that his work was a service to God’s people.

My interaction with Prof Magoha started way back in the 1990s when, as Education editor at Nation, I engaged with academics and covered all education events. And this interaction was to become a life-long engagement. 

For all the time we interacted, he stood out as a public-spirited individual with a mission to change society. 

My last conversation with him was just a few days before his untimely demise and it was about authoring his second book, which we had tentatively titled: Weathering the storm: How we managed education sector under Covid. 

Hopefully, we will still work on the title and publish it posthumously in dedication to his distinguished public service.