Walking With Willy

It was Willy who once told me that you can tell a lot about the way a person works, by observing the way they walk. So let me start my reflections on this big brother, whom I first met late in 2006, with observations from a fieldtrip of May 11, 2011.

The previous day, a group of us from the Nairobi office of the Ford Foundation had flown to Kigali, Rwanda. We arrived at the Rwanda-Uganda border too late that Tuesday evening to make the crossing. Undeterred, we made a new plan, turned back, found a town, and a hotel, whose names I no longer remember.

Our trip was back on schedule the following day, Wednesday. By early afternoon we were on the undulating slopes of the Kibale-Kisoro Road. There were nine of us in the van that was ferrying us on this long-planned visit to the Batwa community. We chatted away happily, oblivious of the challenges that lay ahead. The tarmac road ended abruptly soon after we left Kisoro town. As we started on the winding dirt road uphill, ominous clouds gathered in the horizon.

When the rain came down it was a light drizzle rather than a thunderstorm. But it added to the pools of water from the rain of the previous day and we quietly remembered the early warning from our grantee that it might, at some point, be necessary to abandon the cars and walk.

When that moment came, Willy was the first one out of the car. He made the practical decision of removing his pullover so that after the wet trek uphill, he would have something dry and warm to wear. The drizzle was gathering momentum, not loud and threatening, but steady and nagging. The climb was steep and winding. Willy was not out at the front, pretending to know the way. He stayed with the pack in the middle.

We paused on the slippery slopes to take in the splendour of the lakes in the distance and the neatly terraced gardens all around us. Willy climbed with ease and carefully measured steps occasionally giving advice and calling out warnings about sticky patches, treacherous trenches and other obstacles in the path:

“Susan, stay on the left, you are better off walking on the grass.”

“Joyce, why do you have your hands in your pockets, keep your arms out wide for balance.”

The rain increased, the day turned grey, our visibility so poor now. Willy never slipped and never panted. He looked back to take stock of those at the rear end of the climbing pack. And he kept up a steady conversation, telling witty stories about the village paths of his childhood in Kitui. His wit and quiet tone distracted us from fretting about wet hair and pestering our guides with questions: ‘How far is it? How much longer?’

As always, Willy greeted every person we met on the winding paths – in that unintrusive way in which he acknowledges everyone in his orbit, regardless of their role or rank. At some point, we were invited to take a short-cut through somebody’s garden. Willy took a quick look at the vibrant crop of beans we were bound to tread on. He remarked how neat the garden was and politely declined the kind offer to get us off the treacherous path.

When we arrived at the village hall, we were greeted by the welcome sight of the Batwa people, shelter, and benches. As we shook off our middle-class umbrellas and mournfully surveyed wet trouser bottoms and muddied Nike shoes, Willy remained on his feet until he confirmed that the whole group had made it to the top. Only then did he retrieve his pullover from a backpack, wear it, and sit down.

Ten minutes later, the rain eased off, the sun emerged from behind the clouds illuminating the mountains and lakes across the ridges as our hosts sung and danced with a catchy rhythm, grace, and vocal power that warmed our cold backs.

Two days later, as we stood in the dry heat of Kampala, on a neat farm not too far from the capital city, we received the news that the Judicial Services Commission had recommended to President Mwai Kibaki that he appoint Willy Mutunga the next Chief Justice of Kenya. A chapter had ended and a new one was about to begin.

From the moment I first spoke to Willy on the corridors of the Inter-continental Hotel in Nairobi – at a conference staged by Ford Foundation grantees – I noticed how people genuflected around him, anxious to be noticed, respectful, revering, obsequious in some instances, insincere in others. Willy said he found my presentation about alternative media, about the scope for radical messaging that exists in vehicle slogans, matatu art, popular music, and newspaper obituaries an inventive reading of our society. His reputation as a radical thinker preceded him, so I was thankful for his encouraging remarks not least because I was about to join him as a Program Officer at the Ford Foundation.

But I was not prepared for his wicked sense of humour which became apparent the moment he asked whether my surname had anything to do with one of his former law students, Alfred. From that moment, the camaraderie between Willy and I was sealed. It was his unexpected sense of humour that did it for me.  It was his welcoming of my cheeky response that made it clear to me that Willy had no need to be revered or praised. From that moment, I became the intellectual gadfly with the unending audacity to call out his foibles, and the privilege to collaborate with him on many important projects. Our work with the Asian-African Heritage Trust comes to mind. Getting Buni Media on its feet; trusting Uganda’s NGO Forum and PLACA; encouraging Youth Agenda; streamlining Kwani Trust; unravelling CREAW’s leadership dynamics, amongst many other intricate grantee assignments and finally, writing the Nairobi Field Office Strategy which was made easier by the wit and genius of our colleague, Dr Susan Kaaria.

I have learnt from Willy how to welcome criticism and to tolerate rebellion. When he left the Ford Foundation, many of us were surprised to see him sit back left in the car that ferried him from the swearing-in at State House, Nairobi. We were equally taken aback when he visited the former president, Daniel arap Moi, and then publicly snapped a catty retort to those who questioned this flirtation with a man that we thought of as Willy’s tormentor.

Whenever I pointed out to Willy what I read as inconsistencies in his pro-people and anti-privilege philosophy – ‘the chink in his revolutionary armour’, to borrow a phrase from Chinua Achebe – Willy did not bristle with the righteousness of the newly high and mighty that is typical of we Kenyans. Throughout his career as Chief Justice, Willy not only tolerated my criticism, whether it was in public through a newspaper op-ed or in private via email, or over lunch or a cup of tea, he engaged it. He asked questions, he pointed to inconsistencies in my own thinking; he knocked down my vanities and he built up my achievements.

Willy’s accessibility and generosity then, and since, his availability in long-running debates and in person – through toil, tears, and triumphs – is the reason I always describe him as my brother. We have our furious exchanges, but never fall-outs. He allows me to sulk, ignore him, and take slow, baby-steps as I wrap my head around the layers of human rights jurisprudence. I allow him to laugh at my contrariness and refusal to worship heroes. Heroism I tell him comes in moments; it is not a permanent state of grace, so it cannot be the sole description or measure of a (wo)man. Freedom, he teaches me is a perennial work in progress; backslides will happen, but they must never be the measure that pushes us out of the fight.

I have relatives who will never appreciate my sibling spats with Willy. In their version of loyalty, they nudged me to tip-toe around Willy when he was Chief Justice. But like me, Willy knows that loyalty is not fawning, loyalty is calling out the snares that are likely to swallow up those we care about. “Williski” or “Kijana” is what I call him, and “Ajoi” is his what he calls me as we salute the ingenuity of cosmopolitan Kenya and our dreams for a society that refuses to be defined by unworthy colonial anthropology, at the same time as it engages its past and mines everything that is valuable in it for living out better tomorrows. 

For me, Willy is a democrat and a just person not only because he defends a constitution that he allows me to critique, but precisely because he is a listener. He never entertains the idea of his own infallibility much less the infallibility of the institutions he has had a hand in building. 

Willy: thank you for your wicked sense of humour and loud laughter; for your sacrifices and your steady counsel; for your camaraderie, support, and filial friendship.


Related Posts