Hilary Ng’weno died on July 1, 2021. He was 83. The Harvard-educated nuclear physicist who became one of Kenya’s most iconic journalists and leading popular history documentary-maker, in 1964 became the first black editor-in-chief of the Daily Nation, and at 26 its youngest, after just nine months at the paper as a reporter.
He resigned a year later and went off to start what would be serial entrepreneurship in media. Walking away from editorial honcho at Nation at the time was something you didn’t do. It reveals a lot about Ng’weno’s temperament that he did. A fussy genius, he didn’t suffer fools gladly. Speaking his truth softly, he was controversial and managed to ruffle many feathers. He also went on to start Kenya’s first private TV station, STV.
The list of his exploits is long, but from an East African perspective, two of them stand out. In 1975, he founded the Weekly Review, a magazine of news analysis with an unashamedly highbrow posture. It was what you ended up with if you got Time magazine, The Economist, and The New Yorker and mixed them in African soil. There hadn’t been anything like it in Kenya, and indeed East Africa, except perhaps the Kampala-born Transition magazine which, however, was a journal of opinion and essays, and didn’t cover the news.
The Weekly Review was born when it was the dark ages for media freedom in Uganda during the rule of military dictator Idi Amin. Many copies used to circulate in informal networks. A copy, especially with a typically meaty story on Amin, would start its journey in Kampala under a sack of food, then head eastwards to Jinja, Mbale, Soroti, and spent its dying days weeks later, dog eared and withered, in Lira in the north.
In his later years as journalist-historian, in 2007, Ng’weno made the 15-part TV series The Making of a Nation. The last parts aired as Kenya went to its disastrous election of December 2007, which plunged it into its worst post-independence violence.
The commission led by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, and former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa to negotiate an end to the violence and divide the political spoils, watched The Making of a Nation for their backgrounder. A dive into the forces and characters that shaped Kenya’s independence and post-independence fortunes -- and its geopolitical adventures in East Africa -- was greatly helped by the clarity that comes from the passage of time. Mkapa wondered whether it was possible to do a Making of a Nation for Tanzania, given the fact that the country’s audio-visual archive was measly.
With Ng’weno’s passing, Mkapa’s sentiments deserve to be given life, not just for Tanzania, but all of Eastern Africa. There are easily 50 events of the past 60 years in the region that cry out for a Ng’weno treatment: the long war in northern Uganda, the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, the South Sudan wars, the Burundi insurgencies, the Zanzibar Revolution, the meaning of Julius Nyerere, and the works of Amin, to name a few. Hopefully, we shall not wait for Ng’weno to resurrect to do them.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]