Joe Ageyo: The Rita Tinina I knew, an elegy for a gentle giant

What you need to know:

  • While many have eulogised her as an exceptional journalist, which she undoubtedly was, it was Rita the person who left the greatest impact on me.
  • She embodied simplicity, kindness, grace, humility to an extraordinary degree, impeccable organisation, unimpeachable integrity and rock-solid reliability.

Some 24 hours ago, I received the tragic news of the passing of my friend and colleague, Rita Tinina or RT as many in the newsroom called her.

I still do not know exactly what to think but as I observe the outpouring of tributes and as the hours’ ebb along, it is dawning on me just how profound this loss is and just how immense Rita’s impact truly was. Indeed, no number of words can fully express everything that needs to be said about this gentle giant who has signed out.

I first crossed paths with Rita more than 23 years ago, as we both worked hard to make our mark in the television industry. While many have eulogised her as an exceptional journalist, which she undoubtedly was, it was Rita the person who left the greatest impact on me. She embodied simplicity, kindness, grace, humility to an extraordinary degree, impeccable organisation, unimpeachable integrity and rock-solid reliability.

In spite of her impressive professional achievements and profile, Rita kept her feet firmly on the ground, and her life free of drama. She took every new task with greater enthusiasm than the previous one. She mentored younger journalists with a gentle nudge and expressed her displeasure with a smile. She eschewed office politics and delivered on her tasks with purpose and dignity.

She was my ‘partner in crime’ as we covered the historic Kenyan cases at The Hague. Like a sponge, her brain soaked in tonnes of information – including the legal rigmarole of an international trial. When she finally came in front of the camera, she was pure class - no uh, um…, no bla bla bla…no stuttering and no hesitation. She had all her lines in the right places and needed no teleprompter to keep the show together. She was a natural, like turtle in water.

Rita was also my lead reporter when I produced NTV’s County Edition between 2010 and 2012.

Within minutes of arriving in any county, she would get her bearing and by evening she’d give reports from any corner of the county in such detail, you’d have been forgiven to think she’d grown up there. Indeed, she even made an attempt to speak a word or two from every county were visited.

The only word, she couldn’t handle when we went to Kisumu was Jokanyanam (a respectful way of referring to the Luo), which she kept mispronouncing as ‘Jokananyam’ – and I couldn’t stop teasing her about it. But such was the nature of this fallen giant – a consummate professional who played by the rules but never lost a moment to enjoy every bit of what she did.

Rita needed no video-editor to put together her stories. This earned her the name ‘editor’, since she learnt video editing when the skill was still alien among TV reporters. Any time I needed to step in as an anchor (of last resort), she would be my co-presenter. And on each of these occasions – and indeed any other - she graced the screen in impeccably tailored attire, radiating elegance and poise. Her flawless sense of fashion effortlessly highlighted the shortcomings of my own ill-fitting suits at the time, adding a splash of colour to every show we co-hosted. 

Rita called me Onditi – that middle name I rarely use – and I called her ‘Masai’, with a deliberately heavy Luo accent and we’d both have a good laugh. That time she probably wanted to take a few days off work and needed to convince me that I would miss nothing in her absence.

By then, she would have planned, shot and edited enough stories to cover the entire period of her break. She would then declare in her soft-spoken and disarming fashion ‘Onditi, you know, proper planning prevents problems’, she called it her 4Ps. Knowing I wasn’t half as organised, I would jokingly retort, ‘No, actually, it is problems that prevent proper planning’, and she would chuckle away and continue with her work. 

As an editor, it has been pure joy working with Rita. When I left NTV for KTN in 2012, to become a Managing Editor for the first time, I needed a dependable team. With just a few months to a transition election, I had to get a plug-and-play ‘A’ squad. Rita was top on my list. When I requested her to come and help me on my mission, she never hesitated, never argued and never bargained for her salary, ‘just get me a good deal’, she said, and a few days later she resigned and came on board. And for the following five years, we did some amazing journalism and even launched a news channel, for which she became a key pillar. 

In September last year, now back at NMG and in a new role as Editor-in-Chief, I was in the middle of a newsroom reorganisation. We needed to collapse all our various newsrooms into one centralised operation and re-orient our journalism in response to changing audience needs. It was clear to me that in every space I needed to have, not just seasoned hands, but dependable professionals who would keep the ship steady at every turn. Once again, I reached out to Rita and for the first time in her career, and after many previous failed attempts, I managed to convince her to take up an editor role. The rest, as they say, is history.

This week, Rita was supposed to finalise a special report which would have marked her on-air debut since rejoining NMG in October last year. She had also offered to help me put together a story I was working on. 

I am sure Rita would want to be remembered not just for the big elections, cases and political shenanigans she covered so well, but perhaps, more so, for the ‘small’ stories that brought that triumphant smile on her face. Rita loved stories about the environment, nature and especially, animals – wild or domestic. In fact, one of the stories that gave her the most satisfaction was when she traced a bunch of cats that had been left on their own following the death of Starehe Boys’ Centre founder, Geoffrey Griffins, in 2005. Yes, Rita could effortlessly make any story BIG. 

So, as we bid farewell to the earthly presence of this gentle soul, I choose to remember her, not as the thread in the tapestry of our lives, but as the vibrant hue that brought everything alight. 

Let us carry forward the legacy of Rita’s warmth and humanity, ensuring that her spirit continues to inspire us all. 

Rest in peace, ‘Masai’.