By Ferdinand Agu, MFR
File Number: 4645
Today, 50 years ago, I was one of 5 Nigerian youngsters that landed at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, to join the Starehian Brotherhood. Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, late Dr Okoi Aripko and the Nigerian High Commissioner to Kenya, Ambassador Ignatius Olisaemeka – who I still see occasionally – handed us over to the late Dr G.W. Griffin. In 1972, the commercial air link between our two countries was weak. We took off from Lagos, on 14th February, at dusk; and made stopovers in Accra, Ghana; Niamey in Niger Republic, Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Entebbe in Uganda before getting to Nairobi on the morning of 15th February, 1972. Today, Kenya Airways connects our countries directly in a flight of about four and half hours.
I use that fly about, that meandering 14-hour overnight journey in 1972, as a metaphor for the challenges of African unity; and the search by that generation for continental understanding. The fact that we can now do same the journey in four and half hours tells us how far we have come as a continent. Thanks to leaders like the Late Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, General Gowon and others, who pursued African unity and understanding in big, small and even symbolic ways – including having five Nigerian boys go over to Kenya, to school at Starehe. And, let us not understate the fact that Starehe was deemed worthy of a role in the dream of those giants. In fact, we must reflect anew, on the strength of vision of Dr Griffin, the phenomenal promise, early success and outstanding character of Starehe Boys’ Centre and School. Is it not amazing that barely 12 years after it was founded, in two tin huts under the Mugumo tree, Starehe would provide one of the most impactful, if not the most lasting outcome of the 1971 visit of the young soldier that ruled Nigeria to the revered statesman that presided over the affairs of Kenya.
President Jomo Kenyatta, till his death in 1978, maintained a paternal pride about Starehe. I see General Gowon every now and then. He is aging now- about 88 years old. He remains as graceful and humble in mien, godly and gentle in speech, firm of mind and concentration in thought, as he was way back in his heydays in power. The last attribute, that is concentration, was what Dr Griffin said in one of his Careers Talk in 1977, that he most admired about General Gowon and the late Tom Mboya. The General still asks about Starehe and its progress; and he deeply lamented the passage of Dr Griffin in 2005
I recalled that chilly, windy morning of 15th February 1972 every day of my stay in Starehe. Even now, it is as vivid as if it were only yesterday. The five of us, Nigerian boys as we were commonly called, came to Starehe with a charge from General Gowon, to be good ambassadors of our country. On arrival in Kenya – the people, the weather, the food, Starehe and all that – seemed strange. Yet, from the outset of our sojourn, everyone was pleasant. Everything was done for us to feel welcome. Dr Griffin was firm on one point: we were welcome but we were not special. We were just like other Starehe boys though we happen to come from Nigeria. Our government had approved a very generous amount of pocket money for us, Dr Griffin said a firm no to that. We would have to take far less; and learn how to be like any other pupils in the school. That was wisdom.
I think of Starehe every day since coming home to Nigeria in December 1977. Always there echoes in my mind the words of the other Charge, wherein Griffin sternly intones: “and remember that you carry with you, wherever you may go, the good name of Starehe”. I thank General Gowon, I thank Starehe and all the people of Kenya for enrolling us, the 5 Nigerian boys, in such a fine heritage. I am for ever a Starehian. I am a proud Nigerian who is also a Kenyan at heart. I am a child of two worlds: the land of my birth and the country that moulded me.
I regard Starehe, next only to the joys of my immediate family, as my life’s greatest experience. My memories of school life are filled mostly, with images of beauty and wonder. Each passing day brings nostalgia for the faces, cases and places that enriched our lives at school: the towering and Olympian figure of G.W. Griffin; the staff and teachers, with their variegated characters and affections – are too numerous to mention now, but they are deeply appreciated all the same. In my mind’s ears, I hear the anthem of the bugles – at morn and dusk – to the raising and lowering of the school flag. I recall the variety of food – and the making of pythons – from the awful tasteless of bulgur – which Dr Griffin claimed gave us “ngufu”; to the delicacy of oxtail and gizzard; and the sweetness of country cooking and Yorkshire puddings. We delighted in the thrills of victory – in academics, in sports, in drama or events within the school and between schools. We shared the agonies of defeat, when as was inevitable, our sides lost. The list of things that one remembers is endless – including youthful escapades.
In Starehe, we met some of our most unforgettable brothers. We made our most valued friends. There, we learnt at first hand the ideals that build great communities as well as the ideas that forge greatness in nations and persons. We learnt that unto to those to whom much is given, much shall be expected. Through years of vacation jobs, Starehe Young Volunteers etc. we learnt compassion, we learnt to share with and care for others. Yes, we imbibed the concepts of service, of dignity in labour and volunteerism – indeed, of selfless aspirations. These became our second nature. We matured with these as our guiding lights, as firmly held convictions about what constitute the good life.
Through things like the President’s Award Scheme, St. John’s Ambulance Cadet, Boys Scout Movement, Fire Fighting courses and countless expeditions we built character. We learned the courage to dare and the urge to try. In Baraza we acquired the attitude of mind and temperamental disposition that make for a truly democratic spirit in public service and engagements. I know Starehe has changed. Some of the things I write about now are but echoes of times long past. But changing times should not mean changing principles.
Also, the world outside school can be unkind. Desiderata, that famed script, talks of a world with “all its drudgery and broken dreams”. Men, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, are not meant for safe havens. Nobody is immune from hardship and disappointment. I admit that there are times, as individuals and as a group, that we have not meet our highest standards and hopes as Starehe Boys. It is for those moments that we fall short, in our standards and conducts, that the words of one of the hymns in the School Leaving Service are so apt:
“Though what I dream and what I do
In my weak days are always two,
Help me, oppressed by things undone,
O Thou whose deeds and dreams were one”
I thank you all, my Starehian brothers. I thank you all, on behalf of my other colleague: Manasseh Haruna; on behalf of the others – Friday Akai and Emmanuel Edoze – who had long gone to their rest. I thank you for letting us into your hearts and keeping us in your love. I thank you all for giving us the best days of our youth. Recall with me, please, another hymn in our School Leaving Service, it begins with the words “Dear Master in whose life I see”…..and in the second stanza, it has these words:
“For all the joys which thou hast deigned to share,
For all the pains that Thou hast helped to bear,
For all our friends in life and death the same,
We thank thee, Lord, and praise their glorious name”
I always pray for Starehe. It is my earnest hope that the pupils who are there now, and the generations to come, will find in the school and in their relationships with each other, their life’s anchor, their inspiration to excellence and strength in turbulent times. I pray that they will always prevail in life’s challenges and win acclaim for themselves and the school in their own times. I also pray for a long and eventful life for all of us. May God grant us the privilege of continuing to rejoice in him and in our brotherhood; so that when we cross the river, as one day we must all do, we shall spare a thought and praise for the time we shared in Starehe; and a prayer for all that come behind us. Once again, I thank you all.