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Ng’weno, African gadfly who freed journalism from colonial-era yoke

Veteran journalist Hilary Ng’weno, best known as the founder of the iconic Weekly Review news magazine. He passed away on July 7, 2021.

The passing away on Wednesday of Hilary Boniface Ng’weno, known by his initials HBN, marks an important transitional moment in Kenyan journalism.

HBN was one of the last surviving journalists that shaped Kenya’s post-independence journalism. Educated at Alliance and Harvard, HBN joined the profession when the approach was predominantly what Rudyard Kipling had once memorialised in a verse:

I have six honest serving men;

They taught me all I knew;

Their names were Where, and What and When;

And How and Why and Who.

In newswriting, traditional journalism privileged the provision of the essence of news first, followed by other details in a descending order of importance, the idea being to facilitate the quick grasp of news by the busy reader.

Against this journalism of witnessing, otherwise known variously as “hard news”, “spot news” and “conveyancing journalism”, HBN almost single-handedly introduced and popularised news analysis as a genre of journalism in Kenya.

This new, interpretive journalism tried to put news in context by providing crucial background buttressed by new facts supported by investigations, including deep background interviews. Its rigours were just a notch lower than those demanded by academic writing, with the difference being the scientific method and the pedantry and pomposity common in the academe.

HBN brought into journalism a certain, almost quaint intellectual sophistication and style — the journalism of interpretation and explanation — which served the nation well at a time when serikali was really sirikari that closely guarded information, whether it was rightfully confidential or frivolously innocuous.

Part of the reason this arriviste brand of journalism caught on so well was that its advent coincided with the disappearance and subsequent discovery of the body of JM Kariuki, the then popular MP for Nyandarua North, in March 1975. Amid fake news peddled to cover up the disappearance, Hilary’s Weekly Review was a must read as it went beyond the delivery of the news about the disappearance to offer an educated speculation on what could have happened.

In his twilight years, HBN must have wondered whether he had popularised a monster, as news analysis was converted into the kind of journalism we now see being practised by hacks who are increasingly utilising labels, choice facts, skewed headlines, loaded and sometimes angry rhetoric to manipulate the news in furtherance of a narrow political agenda that undermines both democracy and the practice of citizenship.

Perhaps more profoundly, HBN helped graduate journalism from its linkages with the nationalist press that had fought colonialism to the adversarial posture necessary in oversighting the complexity of a modern state.

New crop of journalists

It must be appreciated that at independence, journalism stood with its mouth agape, mesmerised and worshipful of the new African leaders. In any case, there was often no difference between the journalists and the new leaders, with most of them having been journalists speaking truth to colonialism.

Indeed, of the Kapenguria Six, only Kung’u Karumba lacked connections with journalism. It is the likes of HBN who helped journalism break out of this imprisoning halo and demonstrated new possibilities and roles for journalism in the postcolonial context.

He contributed immensely in training a new crop of journalists who later on became great editors and journalists — the likes of Wachira Waruru, Joe Odindo, Rose Kimotho, Kwendo Opanga, Macharia Gaitho, Jaidi Kisero, Paul Kelemba, Lucy Oriang, Joe Rogoiyo, Dishon Shangalla, Betty Muriuki, Kamau Ngotho and Gitau Warigi — and top scholars such as Prof Peter Kareithi of Penn State and Prof Sam Chege of Kansas State, who once served as News Editor and Staff Writer, respectively, in HBN’s media empire.

Unlike most of us, he started his journalism at the top, becoming the first African editor of the Nation at the tender age of 25 years. Some would say he owed this position to his friendship with his important college mate at Harvard, His Highness the Aga Khan.

But to buy that explanation is to disregard an important historical phenomenon that might repeat itself soon, namely, that at the time of independence, all segments of the Kenyan society were engaged in a hugely symbolic transition otherwise known as Africanisation and Kenyanisation.

It was a golden era for the youth, with youthful beneficiaries like Tom Mboya, Mwai Kibaki, Zachary Onyonka, Kenneth Matiba, Peter Habenga Okondo, Stanley Githunguri and Chris Kirubi, to mention but a few, ascending to important positions in government, parastatals and the private sector.

HBN’s contribution also had a cross-cutting, cross-platform aspect to it. While most of us specialise in a single media format, HBN was at home in several formats. He was proficient in print as he was in TV and film production, not to mention in fiction and non-fiction writing. He published a famous novel, The Men from Pretoria, besides non-fiction writing and several instant books, including The Day Kenyatta Died. Recognising the role of the Weekly Review as a historical record, he facilitated the compilation of a voluminous index for the publication.

Great media empires

This professional breadth and cross-platform proficiency was early evidence of media convergence. Needless to say, entry into journalism now requires what are referred to as backpack skills — the ability to report across the media platforms and in several languages using highly miniaturised media technologies.

There is another way in which HBN contributed to this country. At a time the media scene was dominated by foreigners and the state, he built an indigenously owned media empire comprising the vaunted Weekly Review, The Nairobi Times, Rainbow, Financial Review, Industrial Review and Stellargraphics, a production house, and the project he was most lately associated with, the Kenya History Project.

Of course the business empire largely floundered, but then again what is new in journalism? The world over, journalists are hardly model business people, neither is great journalism compatible with obscene profits.

Public interest is a beloved grindstone on the neck of journalistic profitability and it will always take non-journalists to build great media empires, for a good journalist with a conscience will always lack the reptilian instinct of a typical businessman or a properly trained MBA psychopath with an eye only on the bottom line.

Internationally, HBN was unique in the sense that he brought formidable international linkages to local journalism and media scene. He was Associated Editor of the World Paper, a pioneering globalising institution that sought to aggregate important stories from around the world in a single outlet. He was also a long-serving columnist for Newsweek magazine.

Besides, he was an advisor to the World Bank and at one time the Chairman of the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA).

When people say Kenya is more famous than other African countries, it is because of the contributions of the likes of HBN, alongside those of our athletes, our pragmatic statesmen, with the wildlife and beauty of Kenya in the backdrop.

All we can say is this: a mighty journalist pen has dropped. May HBN’s soul rest in peace. – nation.co.ke