The Tuju home literally sprawls, spreading itself across the landscape like a magnificent behemoth. Walking in does not make it any less intimidating.
Twin stairways coil their way upwards with a chandelier hanging in the middle.Set in such a quiet spot, the only sound is howling wind.
Outside it’s green, manicured, fecund, alive.
A mock waterfall gushes softly. Much further along is a real river that runs clear with ripe grass framing it on both sides. It is breathtaking. It took a year to bring the outdoors to life, I am told, with the help of a good, and it appears quite gifted, friend. Might I add, the friend was not paid a cent.
Following his knock-your-socks-off declaration that he would be running for president, Raphael Tuju, former presidential advisor and journalist turned presidential aspirant and real estate guru, has been getting a lot of press, not all of it glowing.
Soon enough, his very easy, frequent laugh rings loud and that house dissolves into a home. Meeting the Tujus – Raphael and Mercy (who runs their serviced apartments in Upper Hill), high school sweethearts married for the last 34 years – is a rather interesting experience.
He says of marriage half jokingly (he does that a lot): “That tells you what kind of a man I am. I am pretty much a man of my word. I mean, I wasn’t loyal just to the president but have been to my friends, and to Mercy.” She admits this to be true. Most of his friends are those he made in high school.
Their kids are 26-year-old Mano, a pilot, and 24-year-old fraternal twins, Alma, who is studying for her masters in Melbourne and Yma who is working in Sydney. Their pictures smile all over the house, framed above mantel pieces, transforming the space into something warm.
The couple used to live in the house across that is now occupied by Mano, and have been on this property since 2008 and in the main house for just about a year. “I need to point out that even though it took 10 months to build this house, it took me 20 years to get to where I am now. I bought my first piece of land at 27. It was two-and-a half acres worth Sh 100,000. When I sold it 20 years later, it was worth Sh 20 million,” Tuju says.
But first things first. Did Tuju always harbour dreams of being president or was this triggered by recent events?
Turns out it is the latter, more specifically events in 2006/2007.
“Over the past few years I have seen the effects of the political elite’s focus on politics for politics sake. There has been very little attention paid to what I think is the biggest challenge of our time, the youth challenge.” Naturally, he discussed this with family, primarily Mercy and their three children. The most difficult conversation, however, was with his 78-year-old mother.
“She was very traumatised by the last general elections. She suffered a lot of vulgar abuse from the villagers because I was not in ODM. She pointed out then that in what is a very polarised area, I had spent an inordinate amount of time and resources helping people and she did not see how we had benefitted.
She had told me not to go into politics and in fact, admitted that as far as she was concerned when she gave birth to me she expected me to become a priest!”
The emotional news was broken to the elderly woman on the verandah of the Tuju home and he says, “What shocked me was that when I told her, she said if that was what I needed to do, then I had her blessing. That was a great moment for me.”
Mercy’s reaction though, was measured. “I am not a politician. I like my privacy and it bothered me a bit. I had selfish reasons, maybe because I am very private. But I promised to support him because when he means to do something, he goes ahead and does it. I decided I might as well support him because otherwise it was going to impact me negatively.”
To which Tuju pipes up: “In short she is saying that I am very stubborn.”
Soon enough, it emerges that Tuju is not running for presidency because he wants money, power or respect. He has accumulated those things in heaps in the course of the 52 years of his life.
The story behind his bid for president lies in the fact that he believes his version of the Kenyan dream came true; that whatever he has achieved through perseverance, hard work, sheer grit, discipline and a generous dose of God’s grace, can be achieved by any other Kenyan. He worries about the vast gap that exists between the rich and the poor and says that in a country where 80% of the population is below 40, and 70% of those below 30, youth is pretty much everyone.
“When the youth are unemployed and hopeless, they are a burden on those they depend on. If they are desperate, some resort to crime and the older generation who may have some form of livelihood suffers. You don’t feel that you are poor when everyone around you is barefoot. But if you are going to school on foot and other children are being dropped in a Range Rover ‘house’, then you feel it.”
His three-pronged campaign launch in English, Swahili and Sheng meant the infamous latter earned him more than a little criticism. “Sheng is part of my heritage. I grew up in Ziwani, Majengo area, and lived in Buru Buru. In Nakuru I lived in Section 58. I would like to be a role model for the children growing up in Dandora, Buru Buru and Kibera and for them to have hope and faith that they can also get out of their disadvantaged station in life.”
He believes he broke out of poverty because of a good education. He is an alumnus of Starehe Boys Centre where he says they were prepared for the challenges of life. He started his own business at 26 and had what can truly be said to be Kenya’s most successful journalism career ever. “I had a wonderful wife who supported me every step of the way. I also lived a very disciplined life compared to some of my contemporaries,” is how he puts it.
Tuju was raised in a polygamous home in Bondo. The day started in the early hours with a shot of porridge to set them off. There was no lunch save for the odd stolen sugar cane and random fruit if they were lucky. As the first born, he lived with a mother who was orphaned early and was essentially a market woman. Once in a while he would go with her to the market. Some days she would have to trade far away from home which meant she did not make it back. Those nights, the brood – comprising his mother’s and step-mother’s children – slept hungry.
“As the oldest child, it was up to me to take care of my siblings and if there was nothing to eat, we slept.” His father was a railway clerk who moved around quite a bit through various stations. If there were schools in the area, his children stayed with him. If not, they stayed in the village. It gave Tuju a somewhat balanced upbringing.
Curiously, he is not a polygamist. “I think that was a different generation,” he says. He and Mercy tease each other regularly about this. “I tell him he can have another wife, but he must build her a house just like this one somewhere else,” she says cheekily.
He was in the business of television and radio production under Ace Communications. Starting out as a newscaster, he recalls how difficult that time was for him. “I know what it’s like to be reading TV news wearing a nice jacket and tie and not so nice trousers, and then to go home in a matatu people think you shouldn’t be in. They can’t reconcile the glamorous public persona with the very humble life you are living. As a career, journalism is transient. People do it to move on to something else because it does not pay so well.
In addition it can be a very stressful profession with high levels of responsibility and high demands because of the constant deadlines – all this in the face of high expectations because of its public nature, but very little in terms of financial rewards to show for your efforts. However, look at people like Oprah Winfrey and Ronald Reagan who were broadcasters. Both rose not just to the pinnacle of their careers, but of life.”
He adds: “When I was buying my two-and-a-half acres of land in Karen, I lived in Buru Buru. But when some of my colleagues got money they went to the best pubs in town and the most significant discotheques of the time. Me? Whatever little I got, I put into real estate.”
She says, “He used to work in the studio until morning. Sometimes I would wake up and he would not be there. If he’d lived the same life as them, he’d have gone down the drain.” He says, “I built a reputation of being someone you could depend on. If it meant spending the night in the studio, I would. I think I got 80% of the jobs that I bid for. I never advertised but my reputation preceded me. I was competent but also disciplined. I did long hours. At one time my company was a 24-hour operation just to ensure we met deadlines.” Some of the accomplished journalists he worked with include Kwamchetsi Makokha, Caesar Handa, Rosemary Okello and Michael Onyango.
Here is what he did in a nutshell, and it is important to clarify this for a man who says his campaign is not funded by stolen public funds. First, he worked his butt off as an employee of Media Productions, now Family Media. Then he saved, painstaking shilling on top of another. Then he made one smart financial move, which was to buy land, followed by another smart move, which was to open a studio and equip it. This was one room in their two-bedroom house, which then moved to Wilson Airport, and later on to Karen, where he hired more people to help him do more work.
He did more documentary productions than all the other private production houses combined, embraced the latest technology and was soon selling his programmes in Japan, the US, where he became their biggest supplier, and Europe.
He also did consultancy work with the World Bank and DFID and was at one time the biggest consultant in Africa. He directs me to look over my shoulder. There, resting on a mantelpiece, is the very first African Emmy. He won it for the musical documentary, Say Yes to Children, which featured his daughters. Some of his documentaries remain relevant almost 20 years later, especially the ones on health and HIV.
At one point, he and his family moved to Maryland, Washington, for six years. Their staircase is, in fact, a replica of their Maryland home and half their furniture is from there as well. The rest of their home is a mish-mash of what they saw in SA and got from consultations with professionals.
It was while on holiday at home that he got the call about the Emmy. He did some work for Malawi, Cote d’lvoire, Botswana and Namibia after positioning himself in the US where it was easy to be competitive – one soon learns Tuju has mastered the art of strategic locations. Meanwhile, he was systematically buying tracts of land in Karen and selling off parcels of it at colossal profits. He sold his studios to the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture & Technology (JKUAT) at a competitive rate and shifted his attention to real estate and politics in 2002.
Tuju picked Rarieda because “I have roots in Nairobi. I grew up in Kamukunji. But we felt we could make a difference – if you dig a borehole in the rural area, it is for many people. If you dig one in Nairobi, it is usually for yourself.” He also built secondary schools and had a run that lasted until the disastrous 2007 elections.
Does he not feel like that was a kick in the teeth? “I am very grateful to the people of Rarieda for the opportunity to serve them and I will keep saying this. I am very content with the difference I made.” At which point the President asked Tuju to be his political advisor, a position from I which he resigned on August 28 in order to launch and develop his presidential campaign.
The question begs to be asked. Is he a beneficiary of President Kibaki’s largesse? “If anything, I have supported Kibaki financially. I gave money to PNU rather than the other way round and I can stand by that.”
Getting down to basics, does he really think he stands a chance? “I come to the political arena with very serious disadvantages. I don’t have a tribal vote so I can’t negotiate with other tribal kings. I am relying on Kenyans for financial support as I have not used a position in government to enrich myself and I don’t come from a political family.
Mine is not a political name Kenyans can identify with. So if money, tribe or family ties are going to determine who the next president of this country is, then no chances.
However, if Kenyans are ready to make a decision about a different kind of leadership; one that’s based on vision, integrity and principles, then I would say I have a good chance.”
Is there a strategy on FB and Twitter? “Connectivity is not as universal here as in other countries so I look at that kind of media as part of rather than the only media mix. I will use whatever medium can give me the highest number of potential voters.”
Tuju and Mercy travel a lot together. “We are apart very rarely and the fact that our children are grown makes it easier. I have enjoyed it all but nowhere can be as good as home,” says Mercy. The kids were young adults by the time Tuju entered the political arena. “We knew they would leave us one day so we spent lots of time together. We were lucky to be able to take them to Disneyland,” says Tuju.
“We opted not to send them to boarding school because we knew our time together would be short. When I was a minister, there were times when I would leave my office to have lunch with them; I’d buy pizza and turn up in school. I think I had the most fun when they were younger because we had dates with each of them. They would dress up and we would go to a restaurant where they got to choose whatever they wanted. We would spend hours just talking. I knew that my days with them were limited so I maximised. I look back with joy.” Mercy adds, “If you have that bond, they never really go away. They will always call you.” He says: “I don’t think a day passes without us talking to them.”
His campaign launches soon. Funding, he says, depends on a few friends making donations. They come for dinner and make pledges, and some will have to come from his own savings. Ultimately though, he is looking to Kenyans to fund him.
“Faith in God is the only reason I am where I am. How else can you explain it? And do not underestimate the power of education. I took mine very seriously. Finally, you must always have hope. You must never give up even when you fail. And when you do fail, start again. If I have ever succeeded it is because of the many times that I have failed.”
In his own words
What do you do for fun?
I am in love with nature. I garden. On a good day you will find me watering my flowers. I used to have a dog but I had to give it away because of all my travelling – it got lonely. I listen to music very loudly, so loudly that when my kids were teenagers, they complained about my loud music! In fact something recently fell from the wall. I don’t think Mercy knows this.
What kind of music do you like?
Instrumental music from the Indian sitar, classic, ethnic, country, South African, Congolese. If I can feel some thought has gone into it and it is a nice composition, it will be heard loudly in this home.
What do you read?
I am a very catholic reader. I love inspirational books and Christian literature. I find those quite inspiring. In my younger days Thomas Hardy was my favourite. Now I read magazines, newspapers, comics, biographies and I just finished The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs. I don’t discriminate. I read any material I find interesting, probably because of my background in communication.
Githeri, I developed a taste for it in Starehe
How do you stay young?
I think by working out, and I have a sense of humour. I laugh at everything. I am not too serious. It is one of the secrets of my relationships with people. And I don’t drink. I had my first drink at 40 when I became a minister; there were times I would attend events where there was toasting to this and that. It was more of a pressure thing. Occasionally I toast with wine but I don’t like the taste of alcohol. The rest of it is DNA because my parents look young for their age. I also watch what I eat.
How did you build your home?
I did not use a contractor. I lived across. Every morning I would come in and supervise, and I got a friend who was not paid to help watch over the whole thing. Contractors load about 30 – 40% of the cost of the house and charge you for some of the stuff they buy. I negotiated the lowest rates from suppliers. Everything is more about style than money. I like to remind myself that I will live only once, and so I am going to build a decent house for myself. It does not mean I am rich. I just built this for myself.
Are you sure you are not rich?
(Laughter) I am sure I am not. It is called being satisfied with what you have. I am not into the business of primitive
acquisitions. The secret to happiness is contentment because you can never have enough. And to enjoy good health, I mean the absence of disease, is already a lot. I am grateful for what I have. I do not hold on to it as if it is everything.
Where do you shop?
Mercy shops with me because she is very sensitive about the way I dress. I could be in a blanket for all I care. Griffin, my headmaster in Starehe, wore his green uniform on weekdays; weekends he had a white shirt and black trousers. We were
brought up to understate as much as possible. That is what informed a lot of my dressing in my younger days but for Mercy’s intervention. Left alone, I will debate about whether I need it or I want it. If I find something good locally or on my travels, I will buy it. I will only go for designer clothes if they are on sale. I am very price sensitive.
What is your favourite destination?
Within Kenya I like the South Coast – for a few days. Outside Kenya, Germany and Italy and that is because I have friends there. And the US does not feel like a strange place because we have friends and family who live there.
Words: Carol Odero; Photography: Osborne Macharia; Photographer’s Assistant: Victor Ogallo, Hair and Make Up: Shiro Wanyoike
Drum Magazine – October 2011