t is a Thursday morning when my three colleagues and I - two cameramen and our executive producer - take a 6am Jambo Jet flight from Nairobi. We land in Eldoret just after 7am, take our ground transportation, make a pitstop and have breakfast, before getting to Reuben Kigame’s leafy home in the outskirts of the County of Champions, where Kigame’s wife Julie Alividza insists we must have breakfast, again. It seems we have little say in the matter. We oblige. Kigame joins us and skips small talk. We’re having tea and coffee talking about Kenya’s existential crisis, with Kigame’s sing-song yet powerful voice making the conversation less depressing. Things are bad. But do not despair. I shall fix them. We shall fix them. It is as if Kigame is speaking to his family.
In April 2006, Kenya’s and East Africa’s preeminent historian Prof. Bethwel Allan Ogot made one of the most profound yet damning statements about Kenya as we know it, or as we knew it. ‘‘Project Kenya is dead,’’ Ogot said. ‘‘The tribe has eaten the nation.’’ In December 2007, just over a year later, Ogot was vindicated in an I-told-you-so-much-as-I-wish-I-wasn’t-right way when the country went up in smoke following a disputed presidential election. Kenya as we knew it changed forever.
And so for Reuben Kigame whose entire life was spent mingling with people from all over Kenya from the time he was sent to boarding school aged seven - visually impaired students have limited choices when it comes to schooling, and almost always end up in the same institutions no matter which part of Kenya they come from - the answer was to create his own little republic, following in the footsteps of one his musical heroes, Fela Kuti, who named his home Kalakuta Republic and opened it up to anyone and everyone, except his country’s military dictators and their bloody thritsy agents who were personas non grata but who occasionally performed violent raids.
Kigame’s little republic is a not-so-old bungalow which gives you Colonial District Commissioner residence vibes courtesy of the extensive yet tasteful wood paneling, the aged but not out of place wall to wall carpets, the massive hallways, the red brick tile roof and the man-made forest engulfing the compound. Were it not for the need to catch some sunshine, Kigame says he would have covered the house in a canopy. And no, no one is allowed to cut down a single tree. There will be a problem if anyone attempts.
You walk into Kigame’s kei-apple secured compound - you can’t see anything from the outside, and spot on your right two shipping containers which have been turned into the reception area for his music school. On the left is a series of classrooms, each of them dedicated to the teaching of a musical instrument. In one classroom there is a set of guitars hung on the wall, in another there is a sparkling drum set. Then there’s a little performance room, where Kigame says students showcase their newly acquired skills to their parents once the learning is complete. Next to the classrooms is a sole shipping container which used to house Kigame’s radio station, located next to a Safaricom mast. Then there’s the tarmacked basketball court which leads you into the main house, where Kigame has turned the former garage into a fully fledged recording studio.
‘‘Life happens here,’’ Kigame says when he shows me around. ‘‘I operate from here to the world, and only the rules that I live by operate here. You can’t smoke. You can’t insult anyone. If you come here you feel the peace, and it can happen, just give me more room. I am no dictator. I listen to my children and my wife. If we can’t listen we can’t lead. If we all believed in something then lived it out, this society will change.’’
We see a lot of comings and goings around the compound, and even our interview gets interrupted a few times when a young lad or lady pops in wanting to see Kigame. At some point a young man opens the door, then he and Kigame start conversing in Lingala. ‘‘Ozana biloko,’’ Kigame goes. ‘‘Ozana yo… nakobetela yo,’’ I manage to pick from Kigame. Was that Lingala? Yes it was, Kigame confirms. The young man is one of his musical mentees. There are usually many around the compound, but a lot of them are now back in school. Later on another young man shows up and speaks to Kigame in Kinyore. They all call him Papa around the compound. Kigame is at ease throughout, and says, ‘‘This is how we live here.’’ There are no pretensions.
Kigame says he lives the way he does because of Kibos School for the Blind.
‘‘Most times musical instruments were under lock and key, so we tried our fingers on the piano only when the chapel prefect forgot to lock it up,’’ Kigame says. ‘‘Now I have a piano in my house and I don’t ever want to see my children or any other child restricted from accessing it because growing up, that exposure itself is what builds you. The child should be able to break a few things, to experiment, so that they can pick up skills. It informs my approach to mentorship because I let young people make mistakes around me, since that’s the only way you can correct them and show them the right way.’’
And indeed, Kigame’s piano is unrestricted. Before we settle for the interview, my executive producer pulls a quick one and plays a couple of tunes on the piano. They say they’re refreshing their skills which were last put to the test in primary school. Later on, Kigame himself does the onus and plays us a few of his favorite songs both on the piano and on one of his many guitars. And when Kigame shifts from presidential aspirant to musician, the mood in the room shifts, silence falls all round and his rattling voice pierces the air as if he were performing for a huge crowd in concert. What similarly stands out is that Kigame navigates his environment with little assistance, knowing where to turn and where to sit. It’s truly his sanctuary.
After leaving Kenyatta University in 1990, Kigame was posted as a teacher at Maryhill School, where he taught History, Christian Religious Education and Social Education and Ethics. Much as he was excelling as a teacher - he led the Christian Union, founded the Journalism Club, and was part of the Drama Club where he wrote political plays for the students, teaching seemed a little restricting for Kigame, and so he quit after four years. By this time, Kigame had married his college sweetheart Mercy Wanderwa, with whom they had three daughters, Shalom, Shekinah and Shema.
Kigame’s first stop was the Youth for Christ Ministries, where he worked for a year as Ministries Coordinator before deciding it wasn’t for him. He then set up Word of Truth Ministries, the platform which Kigame uses to date in his spiritual and political work. By this time, Kigame’s music and speaking engagements were in demand, and media houses starting with the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, followed by the Royal Media, Family Media and Hope FM all came calling. As Kigame was working with these stations, he applied for his own radio licence in 2000, but then the only available frequencies were out of Nairobi, unless someone paid handsomely. And so after living in Nairobi’s Woodlands Road for 10 years with his kids attending St. Georges Primary School, Kigame decided to move to Eldoret in 2004. The radio frequency was granted in 2005. Unfortunately, Kigame’s wife Mercy was involved in a fatal road accident in 2006.
‘‘When my wife passed I dropped out of the long distance course I was studying for, and completely lost interest in certain things,’’ Kigame says. ‘‘Interestingly, my late wife Mercy was the daughter of an Angican priest, Canon Joseph Mwangi from Kirinyaga, and when I remarried later on, I learnt that my wife Julie is the granddaughter of yet another Anglican priest, Canon Esau Oywaya from Maseno.’’
Kigame has a son, Yeshua, whom he likes to call Yesh, with his wife Julie. Yesh comes back from school when my colleagues and I are about to leave, and looks shyly sad having missed the session. He’s the one who handles a lot of his father’s Zoom calls and the lot, call him the Kigame techie.
As I speak to Kigame, he leads me into his study, which is covered with books all around - encyclopedias, texts one music history, pop culture, religion, politics, you name it. Kigame tells me the collection contains his favorite books which no one takes away, but he has four times that number of books packed in boxes due to renovations. It is here that Kigame tells me that if elected, he will lead Kenya as a philosopher king, such that if there is debate between building an expressway and sparing people’s homes, human dignity will come first. Kigame hastens to add that he is not arrogant enough to believe that it is only philosopher kings who can lead. I take Kigame’s concession. Also in the study are four pairs of cowboy boots and a number of cowboy hats, for when Kigame’s country music bug bites.
In 2010, Kigame started an MA in Journalism and Media Studies, in which he analyzed the electronic pulpit and its impact, then embarked on his PhD on World Christianity in 2018, in which he’s writing about decolonizing African christianity, all these as part of his life project on Apologetics, on which he’s written the seminal ‘Christian Apologetics Through African Eyes’. I ask Kigame to expound on Apologetics, and he tells me it comes from the Greek word apologia, which means speaking away accusations or misunderstanding, meaning all he does is turn Christianity inside out as he engages interlocutors of all kinds, in his quest to make them appreciate its truest essence.
But what really are the things Kigame wants to deal with once he becomes president? He lists them. Striking against corruption - he’ll jail some people if they don’t atone and return what they’ve stolen. One has to put a bandaid on the patient before anything else. Kigame’s next priority will be to tackle hunger by disrupting the illegal import schemes, fixing storage and distribution. The third is fixing the national debt - live below our means and restructure existing debt. The fourth is regreening Kenya - if you violate the environment it will violate you. And the fifth is national cohesion - he was born in Vihiga, he schooled in Kisumu and Thika from age seven, he married a Kikuyu then a Luhya, and lives in Uasin Gishu.
‘‘I stand for a reboot of the nation, so that we have the cleanup of the soul, not just what’s visible and is external,’’ Kigame says. ‘‘We are in the hands of a few countrymen and women who are worse than the British colonial masters, because they are born here, they are Kenyans like us, but they oppress in a manner that even a foreigner does not oppress. A few families, a few individuals, have brought Kenya to a point where we have a few well endowed people and multitudes living below the poverty line. 58 years after independence, we’re still hungry. Those few families and a few of their friends are hoarding every possible resource because they are closer to the jar, they have acquired them, rightly or wrongly. They are stealing but we don’t like calling them thieves, we’re fighting for those who are pillaging our futures. We need to be angry enough.’’
On the realpolitik side of things, Kigame says he can’t yet put all his cards on the table, but volunteers that he is part of The Eagles National Alliance (TENA), a Christian alliance which brings together between 5 and 9 political parties. Then there is Kongamano La Mageuzi, in which a number of progressive political parties and civil society groups coalesce. Kigame’s other centers of organizing are artists and creators, people with disability, teachers - he was one before, christian media - he trained a good number of them. Kigame believes with these networks he’s already set off at dawn.
Will Kigame go into alliances with other politicians?
‘‘There’s no room for compromise for me, especially with anyone who has been in government before who is running,’’ Kigame says. ‘‘I will not sit with them to negotiate anything because they are the reason why we are where we are. I am not running because I want a position or I am hungry. I am in this because I want to see Kenyan citizens be able to smile again and for Kenya to finally breathe a sigh of relief.’’
By the time my colleagues and I are landing in Nairobi at 7pm, we feel like we are back from a different country, call it Kigame Land, where we were fed - lunch too was served just as we were planning to leave and eat on our way to the airport - and got to experience the musical, intellectual and spiritual firepower - Kigame fashions himself after the likes of Léopold Sédar Senghor - of someone who may have something to offer Kenya, but who may not be given the degree of due consideration as extended to his competitors. At least now you won’t say you don’t know Reuben Kigame.