First by-line craze: ‘Why is she just smiling without asking me who wrote the story?’ I silently wondered with enthusiasm
[dropcap]S[/dropcap]haring a newsroom with some of the country’s best journalists was a matter of privilege in those early days. As a trainee journalist, there was nothing more exciting and soothing than having banter daily with the then top-notch scribes.
George Anthony Mbuggus (Editor-in-Chief), Joe Kadhia (Deputy Editor-in-Chief), Laston Mutegi Njau (News Editor), Catherine Waithera Gicheru (Deputy News Editor), Otula Owuor (Science Editor), Wahome ‘Whispers’ Mutahi (Associate Editor – Culture and Arts), Justin Macharia (Sunday Editor), Patrick Mungai (Features Editor), Wangethi Mwangi (Chief Sub-Editor), Nicholas Musonye (Sports Editor), Peter Warutere (Business Editor) and Nixon Kariithi (Deputy Business Editor) were the men who formed the leadership meniscus on whose watch I cut my teeth (or as Chinua Achebe would say it, ‘I broke my bones’) along Tom Mboya Street on the first floor of Nation House, where the then headquarters of the country’s largest media outfit, Nation Printers and Publishers (now Nation Media Group on Nation Centre) were located.
In ways more than one these crop of men and woman formed a substantial percentage of Kenya’s creme-de-la-creme in the Fourth Estate at the time. They were some of the best hands to work with or under and even just be around them. You always learned a lot, so fast and steadily.
Mutegi Njau in particular was a bully of sorts. Though he and I got (and still do) along very much – of course with a lot of perseverance – it is not lost on me that so many of my intern colleagues from the University of Nairobi’s School of Journalism, Kenya Institute of Communication (KIMC) and Moi University abandoned their attachments in a huff after only one or two weeks because they could not stand the relentless terror unleashed by the abrasive News Editor.
Whereas he sharpened your skills and workmanship to credible levels, you really needed to be made of some sterner stuff to withstand Mutegi. I am among the few who tolerated him for the entire three-month (for a record four times) internship periods. I do not regret. And I thank him to date.
Tough, inquisitive, thorough, pedagogy and nocturnal Speak-Easy enthusiasts gave you the best and expected the best from you as well. It was not, therefore, surprising that in less than six months after joining college (my current boss at People Daily and former class-mate at KIMC Joseph Maina Muiruri can bear me witness), I made history as the first student in our class to have a published article in the Sunday Nation.
The media industry has since transformed and expanded tremendously such that today’s trainee journalists might not be as mesmerised as we used to be then on registering your first by-line in the print media or voice on radio and face on Kenya Broadcasting Corporation television screen.
It was in 1989. I used to stay with my sister, Margaret Naliaka, in Eastleigh. I had woken up very early that Sunday because I wanted the whole world to know that I was now a published man of letters. Sunday Editor Justin Macharia had hinted to me the previous evening: “kijana (youngman) we are using your article tomorrow. It is a good piece. Keep it up. Write more.”
So on this day I asked my brother-in-law, Darpson Musawa (my sister’s husband) that I would go and buy that day’s (he liked reading) papers for him. He gave me the money for that. I got the Nation and Standard and went straight to the page where my article was, read through it three times while standing at the vendor’s selling point. I was disappointed that none of the persons who had crowded there was commenting on my story, leave alone opening the page where it was.
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I went back to the house, spread the page on the table and went to take a shower. I left for office where I anticipated that some fellows there would make positive comments about my piece. On entering Matatu No. 9, I went to sit next to a middle-aged (I must admit she was very pretty) woman with a mean-looking face that falls in the parentheses of banking and accountancy who was reading that Sunday Nation.
She was reading Wahome Mutahi’s ‘Whispers’ column. On completion she started to quickly flip through the other pages. I heaved a sigh of relief when she stopped on page 17 where my article was and began to read it earnestly. I had pegged the theme of my story on revelling parents who carry along their children to noisy social joints where they engage in binge drinking, chain-smoking and sensual dancing in front of their tender offsprings, only to regret years later when those very children take cue from them and engage in similar escapades. Renown artiste Paul Kelemba (Maddo) had given it an apt eye-catching caricature to sum it all.
Why is no one exited?
As the Matatu cruised to town, I could see the woman moving her fingers from one line to the next as she read the story animated. Every now and then she would shift face from the page and smile with a lot of joy. At other times she would just grin and continue reading. Since I was the author of that story, I was expecting her to tell me that the writer of the article had powerfully driven the point home. She did not.
Every time she broke into laughter I would ask myself: “Why is she just smiling without asking me who wrote the story? Does she know that I am the author? I could as well have told her, “You should know people.” But that was a whole two decades before that phrase would emerge from a Deputy Chief Justice called Dr Nancy Baraza to make relevance to readers.
In no time we arrived in town and I alighted without the woman knowing that I am the one who had lightened up her morning. My frustrations were not over. In the office, not even one person made reference to the story. I had a sad day.
I had to wait till the following day while in class for our News Writing lecturer, one Siliya (a political exile from Malawi) to make a positive comment about the article and instantly turned me into a college celebrity as a published author. That journey, craze and drive have not stopped. It will never stop. The travails of a first time by-line.
The author is a Revise Editor with The People Dailynewspaper,Email: [email protected]
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