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Inside stories by the wazee: Cyprian Fernandes (Nation 17)


I owe The Nation – everyone who worked in editorial, photographic, proofreading, the compositors, advertising, Karo and Peter the drivers – and everyone else at Nation House the greatest debt of my life. Thanks for giving me a journalistic life that has spanned nearly 60 years and like Johnny Walker still keeps on walking … for the moment at least.
While in Primary School, a visiting priest had given me a copy each of The Times and the Sydney Morning Herald. He had been impressed, he said, with my essays and my attention to detail. So why not, he asked, have a look at these and maybe one day you will write for a newspaper. I looked at the two papers and I thought they were pretty ugly things. Lots of words, black words, and very few pictures.
I was already an addicted reader, sometimes gobbling up two and three books a day (especially during the school hols). Although I did understand much of what I was reading in the papers, the priests’ words were to stick in my mind for the rest of my life. I decided very early in my life that if I was not going to be a journalist, then I was certainly going be a criminal lawyer or an investigator.
One day I was in complete shock. I was forced to leave school (I was wrongly accused of stealing altar wine and the headmaster wanted me to drop my pants he could cane my butt… many decades later he was exposed as a paedophile… so he chased me around the sofa, my mother watched with tears almost drowning her face, which was buried in her hands and held up by her upraised knees… so I said I am not guilty (“my father never asked me to drop my pants and I am not going to for you either), grabbed my mother’s arm and walked her out of school”). I was not quite 13. A job in a bank, in a warehouse, the Probation and Remand Service, later… I was standing in front of the mother of all reception dragons… Marina, at Nation House in Victoria Street, around the corner from the Khoja Mosque and the greatest samosa and bhaji café in the world, Ismailia Hotel. Anyway, after winning over Marina, somewhat, and winning a smile of sorts from the redhead who was John Bierman’s secretary, I was standing in front of the man himself. His hands were latched on the top crossbars of the partitioning.
Here’s how the “interview” went:
JB: So, you spoke to me on the phone and I told you to come for an interview?
CF: No.
JB: What was all that about with the two ladies?
CF: I lied.
JB: What do you mean?
CF: I am talking with you, aren’t I?
JB: You little… what do you want?
CF: I want to become a journalist.
JB: In what area?
CF: Police, Crime, Parliament, Politics, Courts, Council… I blurted more than I can ever remember. I was saved from collapsing to the floor by…
JB: Sorry I have nothing there.
CF: What have you got?
JB: I might have something in sport…
CF: I will take it…
JB: Just a minute, come with me.
He took me to see Tom Clarke the Sports Editor.
JB: Tom, I have got you the biggest conman I have met or a great future reporter.
The rest, as they say, is history. John Bierman never spoke to me again. He just watched and listened. I became a real pain in the butt because I was always asking Bill Harris and a pile of others more questions, and more questions. Harris actually took me under his wing for a short while before he left for the UK.
Tom Clarke: If God could have sent me a present for all the Christmases and birthdays to come and any other occasion all packed into one person, then it would have to have been Tom Clarke. Before I had no interaction socially or otherwise with too many white folks and I had never really known the difference between settler whites and blow-ins. Of course, like everybody black or brown I had been brainwashed by all that I heard growing up and it was not much good. And then to meet a bloke like TC and for him to be my teacher, well they ain’t ever invented a heaven like that.
While Tom really got me through the basics, to believe in myself and my skills, and do the risk assessments for every story (who said what, is it fair, is it true, who said, is backed up, is balanced, was I being true and fair and lot more, watch the match or race with the proverbial dozen eyes and make notes as you go along, don’t rely on your memory) but he was not there long enough for me to earn my first by-line. Tom had found love and was taking Meg home to the UK.


Tom Clarke, Boaz Omori and Seraphino Antao, the Perth Commonwealth Games double sprint gold medallist, three very important people in my life!

The by-line came after Brian Marsden had trained me like he was preparing a racehorse and when my big race came, I was raring to go: an Ethiopian (Luciano, I think) had broken his leg in an international match against Kenya and photographer Akhtar Hussein had the picture, with the leg clearly in two parts. Luciano did not speak much English but others in the team did and they helped me with the translation. Got it!
Thanks to Brian’s guidance I chased the Kenya Football Association and found that there was quite a lot of evidence that a lot of people were getting rich pretty quickly and not too honestly. The KFA banned me and I reported football from the stands. I also did analytical commentary for the Voice of Kenya in Swahili.
Most importantly, Brian helped me make my name in Hockey, Cricket, Athletics and I also reported on Golf, Boxing, Rugby and anything else that made a good few inches. Brian really made me into a reasonable investigative journalist.
Any time I went to Europe, I spent most of my time in Cologne, Germany, working at Deutsche Welle. Came in handy in the 1972 Munich Olympics. I was not even supposed to be there. The Olympic stadium was the finishing point of German government junket. Once I got there, no way was I going without watching the games. At first, the Chief Press Officer told me I did not have a chance in hell of getting a media pass. Later that afternoon, he watched me ask some probing questions at two press conferences at the end of which he stuck his arm around my shoulder and said something that went like this: Comenze wiz me and led me to the media registration where I had my photo taken and my pass handed to me for a whole bunch of sports.
Of course, all this was ripped to shreds and reduced to ashes, as the terrorists took hostages and then killed so many Israeli athletes and were then themselves killed in a bloody mess at Munich airport.
Well, I did earn a gold star during those 16 days or so: I became the first journalist in the world to gain access to the starting and finish track in the main stadium. I was able to interview all the winners, some of the fancied losers, and have everyone on my tape recorder … working for Deutsche Welle.
However, all the time I was in Sports, I yearned for the other side. While in Sport, I met people like Oginga Odinga, Tom Mboya, Jeremiah Nyagah, Daniel arap Moi (who was a teacher in the Rift Valley, a great supporter of athletics – he attended various athletics training courses conducted by Archie Evans at Jeanes School Kabete -- in their schools and Vice Chairman of the African and Arab Sports Association), Isaac Lugonzo, James Gichuru, Ngala Mwendwa, Ronald Ngala and many others I met around sports fields and at political meetings in and around Nairobi.
The first time I went across to News, David Barnett was the News Editor and a chap called Stack (I think) the Editor. They sacked me because I apparently got a caption wrong: Ford Consul Cortina (it should have been Consul Cortina, even though Ford made it). Henry Reuter took me on for his weekly publication but a few days later Brian Marsden came and took me back to The Nation.
The next time I went to News, Mike Chester was News Editor. He told me after a week or so that I was a renegade but his “best shotgun rider on any story.” I blossomed under his guidance and I matured when Boaz Omori took the helm.
All this time, though, Joe Rodrigues kept watching from the sidelines. We never discussed me, even during the regular evening beer after the first edition had been put to bed. It was to remain a ritual at the Lobster Pot while I was there until later 1974.
Allen Armstrong was another godsend. A delightful person, friend for life, I enjoyed being a journalist with him as Chief Sub-Editor. As I walked past him, I would hear quite audibly: 10 pars Skip, 12 pars Skip, couple of side pieces, or a couple of longish quotes. He never had any problems with my copy, never any rewrites, I am not suggesting the copy was perfect, just that he was a great sub.
With Chester and later Henry Gathigira I was fearless. The first murder house I visited was in Nairobi West where an Ismaili family, parents and two children, had been murdered. I was not afraid. During the Mau era, I had seen bodies hanging from the tall honeysuckle trees in Eastleigh. So, it was nothing to nick a white coat and wear into a mortuary, count the corpses and note their injuries, the number of bullet holes etc.
Next, I did a stint with the Sunday Nation where Jim Glencross and John Gardner let me write later edition stories, a frivolous column for the SN magazine and learn all about layout. We would review the night’s work at the Starlight Club with a couple of glasses of the amber stuff and in the company of that great host Robbie Armstrong. Miss that.
Before I left, I moved into Features and when I showed my first four-page effort to my chief critic Joe Rodrigues, he laughed a bit and said:” Wonders will never cease.”
In 1972, when I flew home from the Commonwealth Heads of Government in Singapore in the company of the former Uganda Prime Minister, Dr Milton Obote I was flying home with a world scoop, Joe said: “I will take that wonders comment back. You are a lucky bastard.” Compliment? Maybe! I had heard whispers but could not tie anything down firmly from Singapore. While I was in Hong Kong I learned of the coup and managed to get on the plane that was making a right turn to pick up the fallen president and his team.
Boaz Omori told me I was his roving correspondent, but he would never put it in writing. It was a unique set up. I briefed him on the stories I want to chase outside of Kenya and go the go ahead. I also “sold” the stories to the Jim Glencross of the Sunday Nation, Trevor Grundy of the Daily Nation and talked about stories with Joe Rodrigues at our regular evening beer at the Lobster Pot. I travelled the world. For a start, I was in Addis Ababa regularly to cover the Organisation for African Unity where I met most of the Foreign Ministers and some heads of state and other wannabe’s like the extremely quiet and gentle
Robert Mugabe … many doors to African states were open to me.
George Githii spoilt all that. Before I left for Canada, Features Editor Trevor Grundy and I drew up a brief on understanding the country that the Aga Khan was urging his Ismaili flock to leave for. Few Asians, if any, had thought of Canada for a new home. For a start there was all that ice and snow!! The information would also be important for other Asians heading in that direction as part of the mass exodus from Kenya, victims of Africanisation and Kenyanisation. When I came back and published the story, he told me I would never again write any story that he did not sanction. I knew that there was little future for me there because he had already offered the “foreign” jobs to Chege Mbitiru. Joe Kadhi tried to talk me out of it in front of Githii who reluctantly mumbled “he can stay.” Forget it. Trevor and I quit. His kind of dictatorship was unacceptable. For me there were other reasons why I needed to get myself and my family out of Kenya: someone had gone to my wife and told her that “there is a bullet with his name on it.”
 We left in four weeks.

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