It is hard to miss out Leonard Mambo Mbotela from a crowd. His distinguishing physical features coupled with an authoritative, distinct voice, set him apart. And it is his gifted voice that has seen him survive in the media for many years. ESTHER KIRAGU caught up with the 72-year-old veteran journalist.
Leonard Mambo Mbotela is popularly known for his show Je Huu ni Ungwana? The programme is the country’s longest running radio and TV programme relayed on Kenya Broadcasting Channel’s (KBC) Radio Taifa and KBC TV. He offers, “It began as a 15-minute programme but its popularity saw it increased to a 30-minute show. So successful is the programme that it has been running for 52 years.”
Unbelievably, the concept of the programme arose from a rather awkward situation while hanging out with some friends at Nairobi’s Panafric Hotel. He explains, “We had been waiting for a while to be attended to by the waiters when one of my friends lost his patience. In a bid to draw a waiter’s attention, he started yelling and banging the table. No one likes an embarrassing scene and the stares we got from customers at the restaurant told us as much. This experience marked the inaugural of Je Huu ni Ungwana? – a radio programme that seeks to educate audiences on basic mannerism, decorum and ethics. In 2009, after 43 years in running, the show’s ever-growing popularity led to a TV show being conceptualised from it and aired on KBC TV, which I host. I have also authored a book, Je huu ni ungwana? available in leading bookstores.”
The beginning of an illustrious career…
Mbotela’s five-decade career in media covers writing, TV hosting, news reading and sports commentating. He says his is a talent, as he didn’t go to any media school. Born in 1940 in Mombasa’s Frere Town, the first of eight siblings relives his childhood as a rather normal one surrounded by a large and happy family. “Sadly, I have lost three of my siblings; George, Pauline and Judy,” he says somberly.
He began his primary education at Frère Primary School and Buxton Intermediate School in Mombasa town before joining Kitui High School for his secondary education. His late dad was the first African education officer in Kitui and this saw Mbotela and his brother George join him in Kitui.
“It was here that my passion for media sprouted as I was inspired by some of the successful veteran journalists then such as Steven Kikumu and Job Isaac Mwamto among others. I would cut out some magazine clippings and compile news and read them out to my dorm mates amidst protests that I was interfering with their reading time. One of them, however, encouraged me saying I would one day make a great broadcaster,” he recalls.
Mbotela’s career was launched in Nakuru at the Kenya Weekly News as a trainee reporter. He also doubled up as a freelancer for the East Africa Standard newspaper in Nairobi before getting an offer a year later to join as a full-time Swahili reporter. At the same time, he used to present a one-hour programme on a part-time basis at the then Voice of Kenya (VOK) – now Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) – dubbed Salamu za Vijana. In 1964, he was made a full-time employee at VOK, as his interest was in broadcasting.
“I was so excited and keen at the offer of a programme assistant that I left my job at the East Africa Standard without giving a resignation letter! Eventually, VOK had to compensate The East African Standard for them to release me,” he says.
Apart from hosting Salamu za Vijana, Mbotela also introduced other interactive radio programmes such as Uhalifu Haulipi Chochote, which highlighted various societal issues while giving listeners a chance to share their experiences and air their grievances. His programmes have impacted many lives.
“Among my most memorable moments was meeting a fan who ceased being a wife batterer after he heard me on radio shaming men who beat their wives,” he explains.
He was also very interested in soccer commentating. “One time my seniors, Steven Kikumu and Simeon Desanjo, who were then the only sports commentators, asked me to accompany them for a football match between Kenya and Uganda at City Stadium. During the half-time break, Steven asked me to try a hand at commentating. He handed me the microphone and a clip with the players’ name. From that match, I came up with the popular Kadenge na mpira slogan,” he recounts.
Mbotela’s seniors were impressed at his natural flair for commentating given he had no prior rehearsal and since then, they let him commentate in football matches. Mbotela is grateful since sports commentating gave him a chance to travel far and wide.
At the height of Kenya’s 1982 coup…
The attempted Kenya coup on August 1, 1982, marks one of his lowest moments in journalism when he was caught right in the middle of it. He explains, “On the eve of the coup, I had seen off my late sister Pauline at the airport, as she was travelling to Canada. I then returned home at the Ngara government quarters only to be roused at about 4:30am by the sound of gunshots. I assumed it was the police chasing after thugs and I went back to sleep. However, the gunshots persisted.
Not long after, there was a knock at my door. At the time, I was head of Swahili/ vernacular services at VOK. So I thought it was a colleague who needed the station opened earlier than usual. On stepping out, I was met by a VOK driver, Mr Wainaina, who had been hijacked by the rebels and ordered to drive to my house.
The rebels took me with them to VOK’s station, which they had invaded together with some unruly students from the University of Nairobi. I had no prior knowledge of the coup. Amidst the chaos, the morning presenter at VOK had fled and left the studio unmanned. And so one of the rebels jotted a message on a piece of paper, put a gun to my head and ordered me to read out the message on national radio. I asked him why me and he said because I was a popular journalist and Kenyans would believe me.
The message read, “From today, the government of Kenya has been overthrown. All prisoners are now free and all police officers are civilians. You are ordered to stay at your homes and we will relay more information as time goes by.”
I was scared stiff. I stayed at the studio for an hour or so repeating the message on orders from the rebels. All of a sudden, one of the rebels came to the studio and informed his colleagues that the Kenya Army was attacking them. The rebels ran away leaving me in the studio alone. I decided to run to a different studio and hid under a table.
It was a very scary moment and I prayed that God would save my life. After about an hour, I leapt out from underneath the table. The Kenya Armed Forces led by General Mahmoud Mohammed, then deputy commander, had come to my rescue. Walking along the corridors, I had to jump over corpses of some of the rebels and students who had been gunned down.
My first instinct was to get back to the studio and on my way there, I encountered an army officer who had a gun pointed at me. He was just about to pull the trigger when I immediately raised my hands in surrender and shouted I am Mambo Mbotela! In shock, the officer quickly put down the gun and remorsefully apologised that he would have unknowingly killed his beloved radio personality. I escaped death by a whisker.
Under the orders of the deputy commander, I went back on air to revert my previous statement that the government had been overthrown. For the next three days, I stayed at VOK, running the radio station all by myself. I later learnt that the man who had put a gun to my head to read the coup statement was rebel leader Hezekiah Ochuka. He was later hanged for treason.”
For his courage during the 1982 coup, Mbotela was granted the Head of State commendation (HSC) and later the Order of Grand Warrior of Kenya (OGW). In 1984, VOK seconded Mbotela to join the then Presidential Press Service, now Presidential Strategic Communication Unit (PSCU), under retired President Moi’s regime, a tenure he says gave him the chance to practice journalism extensively in Kenya and worldwide as he got to travel everywhere the president went.
He served for one term before he returned to KBC where he was promoted to programmes controller in 1991 until his retirement in 1997. Mbotela still does commentating on national issues such as national public holidays and football matches among others.
In 2009, he was recognised as a hero by the Kenyan government. He is happy that the media has grown exponentially with the influx of various TV and radio channels in addition to digital technology, which has given many young people opportunities to venture into the industry.
Mbotela is married to Alice Mbotela, an entrepreneur. The couple has a close knit-family made up of three children: Ida, Jimmy and George, who are all grown up and have chosen different paths of life. Over the weekends, Mbotela sings zilizopendwa at Vibro Club in Nairobi West backed by a live band. He is also currently writing his autobiography with author Ken Walibora and hopes it will be out by mid this year.
His word of advice to young media professionals and those aspiring to join the media: “Work hard and be willing to learn from those who have gone ahead of you. Be disciplined because talent means nothing without discipline. Be humble and willing to accept correction at all times.”