The year was 2009, I was introduced to Dr Joyce Nyairo, then a Ford Foundation Program Officer. She had been told about the work that I was doing on the curation of the Sheng language via my online dictionary http://sheng.co.ke and she immediately took an interest in the work stating that such work shouldn’t be carried out without better support to enable it reach more people.
Fast forward to early 2010, Dr Nyairo invited me to her office for a grant-writing meeting and later, we were to have lunch with Dr Mutunga, then Ford Foundation’s Regional Director. I knew Dr Mutunga from all his activism work that was in the public domain but I hadn’t met him in person. Our lunch that was to be 30 minutes ended up running to an hour and half as Dr Mutunga bombarded me with questions about the origin of my work and how I had gotten to remain steadfast despite the challenges. He was excited that Dr Nyairo had found our work useful and worth supporting. We were later vetted and found to meet the criteria to be supported by Ford Foundation. Dr Mutunga was the signing authority of our first grant with the Ford Foundation.
As a result of our, Go Sheng, being Ford Foundation grantees, I found myself interacting occasionally with Dr Mutunga. It wasn’t until later when he became the Chief Justice in 2011, that our interactions increased considerably because he had a deep liking for the youth and he felt that it was important for him to reach out to the youth in the language they understood best. Sheng. To this end, he would text me at any time something came to his mind to share with the youth and he would seek my opinion on how to phrase it. This led to a series of tweets that got many people wagging their tongues and even more, wondering how proficient Williski, his preferred Sheng name, had become. He called me his official Sheng Guru.
Just before the 2010 constitution was promulgated in August, our organization – Go Sheng Services (http://gosheng.org) undertook a project to translate the Bill of Rights and the Traffic Act into Sheng. Dr Mutunga was instrumental in this effort as he directly put us in touch with Profs. Yash and Jill Ghai who were gracious as to grant us access to their work – a booklet that simplified the new constitution. Williski felt that the booklet by the Ghais was the perfect document to be translated to help the youth better understand the constitution, given that it was the first time the country was witnessing a publicly written constitution come into force.
The week before he left office, I paid Williski a visit at his office to hand him a ‘kwa heri’ gift from Go Sheng. The gift was a coffee mug and a tee-shirt inscribed with ‘Buddah’. The Sheng word for ‘old man’. He was very excited by the gift and promised to wear the tee-shirt in his next engagement with the youth of Korogocho – where a lot of his youth interfaces occur. He wore it as he had promised.
A few months after he retired as Chief Justice, Williski gave me the task of reading his solidarity speech at the National Youth Leaders Convention in December 2016. His speech opened – as had been the trend – with a line in Sheng, greeting the youth present. He extolled the youth for their hard work and called on them to be more patriotic by making sure that they joined the nation-building train. He called on the youth to be ready – and actively participate in building a strong(er) opposition that would keep the government in check. He urged the youth to take up social causes that would positively impact the lives of those around them.
Since leaving office, we have constantly kept in touch and he still gets to ask questions around words and concepts as used in Sheng. Kenya was fortunate to have had a Chief Justice who was steadfast in his beliefs about fairness and justice for the voiceless.