Obituary: Magoha son of Magoha

Former Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha.

Photo credit: File

The dominant image of Prof George Magoha is a no-nonsense, conservatively dressed academic without human feelings. His towering height, heftily built body and clean-shaven head complete the picture of an impenetrable persona belonging to the outer space. Arrogant, proud and pushy, Prof Magoha strikes 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 connection, Prof Magoha nearly hit the roof and categorically told the MPs to reject him if they thought he hobnobbed with politicians to get State jobs. 

The MPs were put where they belonged. They got a taste of the man who revelled at calling himself Magoha son of Magoha and proudly stated that he never cared about the job because he never asked for it. 

Yet, beneath the veneer of a presumably headstrong and arrogant fellow was an affable personality with a deep sense of humour and hearty laugh. He made jokes of his chosen professional specialty, urology, saying euphemistically that he always helped rivers to 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.” 

His greatest distaste was mediocrity, dishonesty and nonchalance. Prof Magoha had no time for sloppy fellows who took time to digest things or were indecisive just he as he never took a “no” for an answer. He 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 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 in 2020. 

Earlier, at another incident at the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD), one of his directors at the ministry headquarters earned his wrath for coming late for a meeting. When the director entered, Prof 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, Prof 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. 

The professor of medicine took deep interest in serving the 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 young children. His frequent visits to schools and mingling easily with them attested to this.

Prof 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 incredible memory. Way back in 2016, we met Prof Magoha at the Association of African Universities (AAU) conference in Ghana. He had had just stepped down as the vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi after doing his 10-year term. Prof Magoha would regale us and a group of the international media for hours in the evenings with incredibly fascinating stories on diverse subjects, ranging from family, culture, religion, 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 medicine degrees and got his wife, Barbara. At the end of the conference, Prof Magoha was awarded a certificate of commendation for 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, Prof Magoha set up a taskforce to guide him on the implementation of the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC). Prof Magoha who believed in professional guidance spent a lot of time with the members of the Taskforce 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 after collecting views from the public. Prof Magoha would be in his element, talking freely and sharing his professional and personal views without inhibition.

As a member of the taskforce, we had had many memorable moments with Prof Magoha. On one occasion, Prof Magoha made an impromptu visit to the taskforce’s retreat in Naivasha and asked to be taken through the draft report from chapter one to the last. He sat keenly through the presentations from 10 am till 6 pm without tea or lunch break, listening, nodding and taking notes. Woe unto any presenter who did not have his or her facts right or pussy footed; he or she would harshly be pulled down from the podium. Yet the intention was not to haunt or intimidate but he wanted to be sure the taskforce members thoroughly understood and mastered what they were doing. He had the canny ability to distill issues, connect the dots, cull out chaff from wheat and rephrase the facts in a simple way.

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

My interaction with Prof Magoha started way back in the 1990s when as Education Editor at the 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 entitled: “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