The media fraternity is mourning the death of seasoned journalist Chege Mbitiru, the ‘king of short sentences’, who died aged 77.
Mr Mbitiru, a long-time Nation columnist, foreign news editor and at one point Sunday Nation managing editor, also worked for other news organisations, including the Associated Press.
Born in Kijabe, Mr Mbitiru went to Ohio University after which he worked for the Sandusky Register in Ohio and the Saginaw News in Michigan.
He then returned to Kenya to work with the Kenya News Agency before joining the Nation Media Group (NMG).
NMG Editorial Director Mutuma Mathiu remembered Mr Mbitiru as “a great journalist”.
Mr Mathiu added: “He was a true gentleman and a great journalist who will be greatly missed by his legion of admirers and readers alike.”
Former Nation foreign editor Henry Owuor mourned Mbitiru as a “distinguished correspondent who remained a true Nation friend for all the decades he worked as a journalist.”
Veteran journalist Kibe Kamunyu said he remembers him as a lecturer at the School of Journalism, where Mr Mbitiru kept repeating to his students: “If your mother tells you she loves you, go check it out.”
It is a line used to encourage journalism students to verify every item they put out as news.
“I found that statement very powerful as a journalist, because what that meant to me is that there is no source that is absolute. Can you imagine doubting whether your mother loves you? Chege said: ‘You cannot write that ‘My mother loves me, until you have checked with your sister (s), brother (s), your father, her friends, and only then can you write that ‘my mother loves me’, because you have sources that can back you up on that statement’,” Mr Kamunyu remembers Mr Mbitiru saying, a lesson he said has guided him in his long journalism career.
Mr Kamunyu decried what he said was lack of adherence to that cardinal principle, saying “journalists now, sadly, take what people say as gospel truth, with no attempt to check with other sources.”
Mr Kamunyu also remembers Mr Mbitiru for his brevity: “His sentences would be five, at most ten words. He said ‘I do that so that the reader reads the sentence and understand it before going to the next”.
Reading through his stories, Mr Kamunyu said, meant that “by the time you are done with 500 words, you have lots and lots of single sentences that you can remember.”
He never put two ideas in one sentence, Mr Kamunyu said.
Long-serving editor Mutegi Njau, who was a news editor when Mr Mbitiru was managing the Sunday Nation, remembers him for “his humility” as well as his guidance.
“But that doesn’t mean he was a meek editor. If one made a careless or stupid mistake one got a tough tongue-lashing and if necessary, a memo,” Mr Njau said.
Mr Njau, who said the veteran journalist would often prefer to walk from his home to the Nation Centre, also remembers Mbitiru for his love for vintage cars, saying “he spent his weekends cleaning the engine or repairing them.”
During his time at AP, Mr Mbitiru is remembered for his humour and friendly way of sharing his deep knowledge of East Africa and the continent.
“Chege was a good friend and colleague who, with a wry sense of humour, taught the rest of us about Africa. We worked closely together during the intervention in Somalia and the genocide in Rwanda. His calm demeanor and charm was always an anchor in trying times,” said Mr Terry Leonard, who was an AP correspondent in Nairobi from 1994 to 1996.
“He would always mix his smart, many times sarcastic, comments about the news with a chat that would connect the extraordinary events that raged across Africa in the mid-90s with conflicts in Latin America,” said Mr Ricardo Mazalan, the East Africa chief photographer in the mid-1990s.
“Some of the best books on my Africa bookshelf were recommended by him.”
Mr Mbitiru was an invaluable member of AP’s Nairobi team, said Reid G. Miller, former East African bureau chief.
“He was the go-to guy for background information about Kenya, its politics, history, customs and more,” said Miller.
“More than that, he was one of the sweetest, most tolerant men I have ever known.”
Mr Andrew Selsky, who had worked on AP’s international desk and later was Africa Editor, said that Mbitiru had sent him a Swahili-English dictionary.
“That gesture showed what a truly nice man he was,” said Mr Selsky.
AP’s chief correspondent at the United Nations, Edith Lederer, recalls flying to Nairobi from London immediately after the US Embassy bombing on August 7, 1998 and arriving the following morning, just before Mr Mbitiru came in from the bombed-out site where survivors and victims were being pulled from the debris.
It was a very emotional time, but Lederer said Mbitiru “was a reporter first and foremost — describing the scene vividly, with great quotes and colour.”
Lederer said she worked with Mbitiru that week to put together a story on the timeline of how the bombing unfolded.
“It was a story I know we were both proud of,” said Lederer.
“It showed not only Chege’s talents as a reporter and writer but his great love for his country and the pain its people were suffering.”
Mr Mbitiru leaves behind his widow Wanja and two sons, Njihia and Nyaga.
Additional reporting by AP
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