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Sunday, July 27 - August 2, 2003
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Madd: My times with Whispers
By Madd

Much of my professional life has featured Wahome Mutahi in one way or the other. Indeed, he is one of the people who yanked me off the streets where I imagined I was comfortable as a "freelance" artist, having ditched employment with the publishers of the now defunct Viva Magazine.

The others were Wilfred Machua (who’s since dumped that name), Yusuf Dawood and the late Justin Macharia who edited the Sunday Nation.

I walked into the old Nation House and promptly became buddies with Whispers — as he was known to all. We had a common bond; we were both stone broke!

I illustrated the weekly Whispers column besides Dawood’s Surgeon’s Diary before being signed on as an editorial cartoonist as well. Wahome’s column had begun a couple of years earlier at the Sunday Standard. I knew right from the start that I was in partnership with a serious artist. Wahome, similarly, respected my work. So a formidable team was born in the mid-1980s.

We quickly figured out that we would bore our audience if we carried our friendship into our columns and so presented ourselves to our readers as a pair at war.

Naturally, as human watchers, we took the most outstanding features that we bore in order to "attack" each other. Wahome zeroed in on the size of my eyes and I became Crocodilus Niloticus with several relatives in Lake Turkana and the Tana River. I responded in my weekly composite cartoon feature, It’s a Madd, Madd World, by harping on his receding hairline which I saw as an "airport".

I would taunt him about planes that had lost their way in the night seeking him out with search lights and trying to land on his balding patch. The "rivalry" made us very popular at the time and some were "shocked" to find us having a swallow together at Rhoda’s (the popular, tall barmaid who became a permanent character in our features. She passed away a few years ago). This is the pub where we also became very close to long-time broadcaster Alfred Mike Mureithi aka Ching Boy, completing the "trio majeshi". Mike joined in by also throwing barbs at us on his radio show, which we adequately fended off with pen, typewriter and paper.

We painted ourselves as people who loved their drink, but in actual fact, though we did, it was not as messy as we put it. If we lived our characters’ lives we wouldn’t have kept our jobs! It was all tuned to observing society with a humorous eye.

It is Mike who came up with that piece of noise, which meant nothing, but had readers baffled; bubudiu. Wahome and I picked it up and used it as a general substitute for words we were too tired to write. For example, we’d write "he was so bubudiued, he couldn’t get home, the next day he was feeling bubudiu mbovu".

Readers wrote in to ask what on earth the word meant (they did, of course, understand sentences in which the "word" was used). Finally, our overall boss, George Mbugguss, got mad with us he decided to run all the mail. That day there were only two subjects on the readers’ mail page; bubudiu and the rain-making serpent called Omieri.

Mbugguss asked us to explain in a brief note below the letters and we did, thus, "We are still trying to bubudiu the meaning of bubudiu" — and the matter was put to rest.

Many might not know it, but I did write a couple of Whispers columns, once when he had to travel urgently and once when I had to complete a half written column after he suffered the writer’s block!

One day, at the height of the sham Mwakenya persecutions, I went to borrow a ‘pound’ from Wahome, this time not in the loo. He was writing his column and had done a paragraph and a half. As he was giving me a hundred reasons why he wasn’t going to part with the then coveted blue note, the receptionist rang. There was a guy or two to see him. He went downstairs and we never saw him again for the next 13 months.

He had fallen victim to the government’s paranoid crackdown on imagined enemies. I survived, I’ve been told, because cartoonists weren’t regarded as "much of a threat". The half done Whispers was published later.

Wahome left prison a year later (he was in the dreaded Nyayo House dungeons for a month), frail but full of life and ready to resume what he loved most, writing.

He was thrown into a scare once, though, when that famous Nyayo House torturer (was he Onyango?) came to the editorial room one day to see a journalist I won’t name. I didn’t know Onyango, but it was I he approached and asked for his friend. I nodded and pointed at the journalist across the newsroom. As fate would have it, Wahome was sitting not far from our colleague and he thought Maddo was telling Onyango where to find him — again! He almost fainted.

In 1992, Whispers and I formed Views Limited with some shareholding by Lonrho. The media company sold articles and artwork to publications with the East African Standard being our biggest client. Our "war" was revived. We also worked closely on several projects at the time.

Times were changing then and we had become bolder in our work. That was the year that saw the then President Moi appear as a cartoon caricature on the cover of Society magazine. It was also then that Wahome re-entered the world of theatre more seriously, appearing on stage and writing scripts. I managed to appear alongside my great friend on stage once with only one line made up of three words to deliver. Since I found cramming those three simple words into my head absolute torture, I "quit" the stage, leaving Wahome to pursue what he was naturally born for.

Whispers also introduced me to Central Kenya, which I now know very well (after Kiboswa City). I met his mum, Octavia, or "Appep", in Nyeri — the slopes of Mt Kenya — and was introduced to his young family that was staying in Murang’a then. Ricarda, "Thatcher", turned out to be a professional nurse and I rebuked her husband for having painted a different picture of her to his readers. Another surprise was in store for me. In the early days of Whispers, the Son of the Soil had only two offspring, "Junior" (Patrick) and the "Investment" (Caroline). I met someone else, Evelyn, who was tiny then. She was later introduced into the semi-fictional account by this great writer as the "Pajero".

We eventually drifted apart with his re-joining Sunday Nation while I remained at the East African Standard though we were to remain friends and business associates.

I found Wahome intelligent, brilliant even, vibrant and highly innovative — one of those people said to occur in a country only once in a century.

The country has suffered a blow. But Wahome Mutahi’s life has not been in vain. He has bequeathed the youth of Kenya a strong and powerful heritage. Literature is what has built other nations and their cultures. Certainly ours will be great one day, and one of the blocks in that foundation will be this great writer and thinker.

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