Melita Oletenges: My lunch with Rita Tinina that became a farewell

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The late Rita Tinina. She took every new task with greater enthusiasm than the previous one.

Photo credit: Courtesy

What you need to know:

  • In retrospect, our conversation wasn't ordinary; it was Rita imparting her wisdom and wishes for us and the future of journalism.

On Thursday March 14, the newsroom hummed with its usual rhythm, journalists bustling about with stories to chase and deadlines to meet.

The editor on duty was Rita Tinina, a veteran journalist whose wisdom and experience was revered by many, including myself and Duncan Khaemba.

Little did we know that this day would mark the final deep and wide-ranging discussion of our careers, lives and friendship with Rita.

The day began unremarkably, until Rita made an impromptu lunch invitation at her desk. 

"Young man, let's have lunch. Khaemba, let's take this guy with us," Khaemba wanted to elbow me out, but RT insisted with her characteristic warmth, but just before we left she edited my script.

It wasn't our first lunch with RT, and I've always treasured these moments, drawing on her experience and wise counsel over a meal. Usually she would choose the venue, but this time she left the decision to us, playfully suggesting fine dining before settling on Swahili food, one of Rita's favourites.

By 1.30pm, we were sitting down to lunch, sharing a platter and engaging in discussions that ranged from newsroom dynamics and journalistic ethics to the nature of friendship.

In retrospect, our conversation wasn't ordinary; it was Rita imparting her wisdom and wishes for us and the future of journalism. In retrospect, a farewell.

"Things have changed, young man. Embrace the new format of news," she advised, referring to the evolving landscape of newsroom convergence.

To Khaemba, she insisted: "Newsroom politics will continue. Stay focused regardless."

Our lunch was a mosaic of moments as Rita carefully selected from the platter, asking Khaemba to confirm whether the portions were chicken or fish. She had an aversion to fish and decided to skip it, but her Maasai spirit shone through as she savoured the goat meat, and we followed suit.

The waiter, Faisal, brought three bananas with the meal, typical of Swahili cuisine. Rita mentioned that one thing she never understood was how bananas would taste with rice. I encouraged her to try it, but she just smiled and shrugged it off. 

Throughout the meal, Khaemba gently reminded her to eat, but she was so engrossed in our conversation that hunger took a back seat.

Rita's words resonated deeply, each syllable carrying the weight of years of experience and insight. She moved seamlessly from topic to topic, touching on the challenges and opportunities that await us in the field of journalism.

An invaluable lesson from Rita was her deep appreciation of friendships in the chaotic environment of the newsroom. She mentioned a former colleague's impending wedding and suggested a carpool, a testament to her value of camaraderie and practicality.

''Why should we all drive there Khaemba, surely? Wewe Ndio utatupeleka," she quipped.

Our lunch extended beyond the expected timeframe, filled with laughter, insights, and shared memories. Rita insisted on settling the bill, adding a playful remark about attending another theatre play, a tradition we had relished in the past.

As we said goodbye after lunch, Rita went back to planning her evening bulletin while Khaemba and I resumed our tasks in the editing suites and called it a day.

It seemed to be a typical week until Sunday arrived with a shocking revelation.

The absence of the 1pm news round-up, a task never overlooked by Rita, caused concern amongst the team. Efforts to reach her proved futile, leading to a growing sense of unease. Calls went unanswered and the realisation of her absence began to sink in.

Conversations with our output editor, John Mwaura, only deepened the anxiety. Khaemba and I exchanged worried glances, both knowing something was wrong.

I called Khaemba at 12.10pm to inform him of Rita's absence and urged him to find out more. The urgency in his voice reflected my own concern. He asked if I had checked her desk, a place she rarely left during working hours. I assured him that we had looked everywhere, but she was nowhere to be found.

Khaemba made a phone call, hoping for a reassuring answer, but what he got rocked our world. He knew I was about to go on air and asked me to call him immediately after the bulletin. The minutes leading up to the broadcast were filled with anxiety and fear, a cloud of uncertainty hanging over us.

As soon as I finished anchoring, I dialled Khaemba's number, my heart pounding with anxiety. His voice was shaking as he told us the news we had never expected. Rita Tinina, our mentor, colleague and friend, had died unexpectedly.

The shock reverberated through the newsroom, leaving us numb and heartbroken. The vibrant presence of Rita, with her infectious laugh and unwavering dedication, was now a cherished memory tinged with grief.

In the days that followed, tributes poured in from colleagues, friends and industry peers, each expressing a sense of loss and admiration for Rita's contributions to journalism. Her legacy went beyond headlines and bylines; it was the impact she had on every life she touched, the lessons she taught and the kindness she exuded effortlessly.

Reflecting on our last lunch together, I couldn't help but recall Rita's advice to younger journalists, a beacon of wisdom amidst the chaos of the newsroom.

Her words of encouragement, her reminders to stay focused despite the challenges and her unwavering belief in the power of storytelling resonated now more than ever.

To all aspiring journalists out there, Rita Tinina's legacy is a guiding light. Embrace change, navigate politics with grace, cherish friendships and, above all, be driven by your passion for truth and storytelling.

In her memory, we continue to strive for excellence, knowing that Rita's spirit lives on in every story we tell, every word we write and every life we touch.

Rita Tinina may have left us physically, but her influence, her wisdom and her indomitable spirit will forever remain in the fabric of journalism and in our hearts.