It is understandably easy to forget in our own continental American sanctuary that the world is a rather more hostile place, where for the vast majority of people the concept of fitness is a luxury beyond their capacity to consider, much less achieve, a place where a puffy Achilles tendon or overly tight illiotibial band isn’t considered a problem. It is in this light that I note the passing of John Michuki, a man who helped guide Kenya from its colonial past through its first five decades of nationhood, and in so doing laid the foundation for, then insured the rise and ongoing success of the Kenyan running phenomenon.
Michuki died from a heart attack last week in Nairobi at age 79. I mention his passing not because he had any direct involvement with Kenya’s running excellence – in fact, he had none at all. At the time of his passing he was serving his fourth five-year term as a Member of Parliament for his native Kangema, while also serving as the Minister for Environment and National Resources in the Kibaki government.
I mention Mr. Michuki because it was through men like him that Kenya’s runners were afforded the one absolute all athletes require to achieve their full potential, an environment of political stability and economic opportunity. All we need do is consider the plight of nearby Somalia and Eritrea to see how a people can be haunted and hunted by the consequences of inopportune leadership in the delicate transition from colonial to independent rule, to witness how savage can be the whirlwind between chaos and civility.
It was during my first trip to Kenya thirteen years ago that I first came understand how important peace and fiscal stability had been to the development of Kenyan athletic achievement. I had previously visited Ethiopia where the people had suffered through a catastrophic 13-year rule of The Dergue (1974-1987), the communist regime that became a lost generation for the once vibrant (and now resurrected) Ethiopian running culture.
While on my trip to Kenya in January 1999 I met John Michuki. And in just a few brief meetings he left an indelible impression. Over his half-century of public service as a Member of Parliament and as a cabinet secretary under three presidents he made an even larger impression on his nation.
After attending the Fourth Annual Eldoret Half Marathon that morning – won by Simon Biwot in 1:02:02 – we boarded African Eagle flight 656 to Nairobi at 6:40 p.m. Upon landing at Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi, we took a cab to the Safari Park Hotel. But when we got there, the manager told us we had been transferred to the Windsor Golf Hotel and Country Club, another fifteen minutes away by cab. Though displeased, I was quickly quieted by Joseph, our cabbie.
“It is more better than the Safari Park,” he said, and once we arrived, there was no doubt that it was so.
Built in 1992, the Windsor was a neo-Victorian spread of buildings and gardens fronting a brilliant expanse of golfing green. After settling into room 207, I repaired to the Library Bar for a beer and small repast. I didn’t know if it was the late hour, off-season or what, but I was the sole customer in the place at 9:45 p.m.
As I sat at the mahogany bar I noticed a stately Kenyan gentleman in a blue-striped Oxford shirt and green suede vest enter. With a face which brought to mind former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, the man approached every bit the politician, offered his hand, and with a voice like fine brandy asked, “Are you from the U.S. or the U.K.?”
“U.S. Boston,” I replied taking his hand in a firm grip.
When I had ordered my beer I asked the barman who owned the Windsor in all its pricy, neo-Victorian opulence.
“Was it a corporation?”
“No,” he informed me. “It’s private. A man named John Michuki.’
And so, with this information in mind, it became obvious that the gentleman whose hand I was shaking must, indeed, be the very same Mr. John Michuki.
“Ah,” he said with the deep calming assurance of a man in his element. “I have two children who were educated in Boston at B.U.”
And so it began. His voice, alone, poured out like liquid velvet as he told me of his daughter who had attended Amherst, and another child who did grad work in finance. John drank his scotch with water back, and smoked his cigarettes sparingly. A natural aristocrat of the Kikuyu tribe, he seemed the physical embodiment of modern Kenya.
66 years old when I met him, John was born in December 1932 into a large polygamous family, the first child of the 45th of 47 brides of Chief Michuki wa Kagwi. But when his father died John was only seven years old, and thus did not receive the inheritance like his earlier born siblings. With his strong-willed mother by his side, he moved to Nairobi where he worked at menial tailoring jobs before and during World War II before relocating to Nyeri in the Central Highlands after the war where he belatedly undertook his primary education. By 1947 he gained entry into the Mang’u High School for advanced level education where he met life-long friend, Mwai Kibaki, who would later become the third President of Kenya in 2002.
In 1961 Michuki’s talents landed him a government scholarship to Oxford University in England where he studied economics, finance, and public administration. Upon his return to Kenya he embarked on his civil service career, first as a Nyeri District Commissioner from 1962-`63. In a span of nearly 50 years, Michuki worked for Presidents Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi, and Mwai Kibaki. He served as Permanent Secretary of Finance from 1964-1970, and was Alternate Governor for Kenya at the World Bank.
“After 1970 I started the Kenya Commercial Bank,” John told me that night in the Library Bar. “And set up the Central Bank of Kenya, as well.”
Throughout his career as public servant, and later as a successful businessman, Michuki’s reputation was that of a tough-talking, no-nonsense leader. Since he had been born to a chief, and then first entered public service in the final days of colonial rule when, according to The Standard newspaper, “Kenyans knew nothing more than the brutality that was the imperial forces under the colonial governors,” it is understandable that he would assume a patrician’s mien. Yet, in my admittedly brief talks with him, he expressed a desire “to help people move toward financial independence”. In time he developed 47 branches of the Kenya Commercial Bank.
“I found that local people were able to save, but were not getting credit. If they can take care of their money, who says they can’t take care of a small loan?”
When I spoke to him about the ongoing work being done to develop Kenyan girls as runners on par with boys, he wondered of the societal hurdle that would have to be overcome.
“In the long run it may work,” he said in his stentorian voice, “but girls not only represent help around the house, they bring a dowry for marriage. So you must include their assistance in lieu of the work they no longer would do for the family. You must also consider how to introduce a program into schools, not relative just to competition, but in awareness of sport to encourage talent before having local, inter-school, district, and provincial competitions.”
That the Kenyan athletic juggernaut has continued in a straight line from Kip Keino to Henry Rono, and now to Geoffrey Mutai and Patrick Makau - and today has seen the increased development of Kenyan girls and women, from pioneers like Tegla Loroupe and Catherine Ndereba to today’s stars like Mary Keitany and Edna Kiplagat. It is nothing less than a monumental achievement, considering how fragile political equilibrium can be.
Now, it is true that Mr. Michuki personally benefitted a great deal by his government position. In fact, the wealthiest men in Kenya tend to be government officials. I heard one story where Mr. Michuki during his stint as Minister of Transportation initiated what came to be known as the “Michuki Rules” for the matatus, the ubiquitous vans that are the main source of public transport in Kenya. Mr. Michuki instituted rules to install speed governors, passenger seat belts, clearly defined routes with only a specified number of passengers
As a consequence of the “Michuki Rules” matatu fatalities were reduced by 70%. At the same time, Mr. Michuki awarded the no-bid exclusive seat-belt concession to one of his relatives. So it was another situation where not only was the nation benefited, but Mr. Michuki, as well, typical of how government and business are managed in much of the world.
But back to the necessity of political stability in the rise of a nation. Recall that a disputed presidential election in December 2007 led to an outbreak of tribal-based violence that caused many of Kenya’s top athletes to suspend their training. Long-simmering animosities were released in a spasm of anger and resentment, often directed against members of President Kibaki’s Kikuyu ethnic group living outside their traditional settlement areas in places like Eldoret. Eventually, a power-sharing agreement was reached in late February 2008, and a coalition government was named in April returning stability to the nation and athletes to their training.
That flare up was evidence enough of how tenuous a new nation’s political environment can be. That Kenya has been able to avoid such self-destructive misery over its early development is an accomplishment that cannot be minimized. And it will remain as a legacy of that generation of Kenyan leaders who, like John Michuki, may never have run a step in earnest competition themselves, but who nonetheless ushered their country along the often rocky road from colony to internationally respected nation. Not a bad legacy, indeed.
RIP, Mr. Michuki. Thanks for the drink.