Roy stresses a point during the interview in his home
Inside the world of Roy Gachuhi, the master of Kenya’s sports journalism
By Jeff Kinyanjui | Mon 14 Nov, 2016 16:30

The crop of today’s young sports journalists who look up to the old master of the trade refer to him as “the great Roy Gachuhi.” He is too modest to acknowledge his greatness but his writing style can undoubtedly do justice to English novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s words centuries ago that the pen is mightier than the sword. 

His first published article was in AfricaSports, Kenya’s premier sports magazine of the day in 1975 when he was a 16 year old student at the Nairobi Technical High School. That is 41 years ago and it makes him by far the longest serving still active sports journalist in the country, a living legend. His first major international assignment was in 1982, that is, 34 years ago. It was covering the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Australia.

But he is still going strong and showing no signs of letting up. As of this writing, he is preparing his travelling bags for Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic Games. A post in www.contenthousekenya.org, the non-profit organization for which he writes and produces documentary films, is telling about his greatness. It reads:

“Content House’s senior writer and producer, Roy Gachuhi, covered this year’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, for us. Roy was a writer-in-residence with Agência Pública, a non-profit investigative journalism agency which operates the Casa Publica centre in the Botafogo neighbourhood of Rio.

“In April this year, Casa Publica sent out a world-wide invitation to foreign journalists to compete for five vacancies in its residency programme. Casa received 177 applications from 42 countries in all five continents. Some of the countries which submitted the highest number of applicants were Argentina with 30, Colombia with 20, Spain with 19 and Mexico with 13. 

“In the end, five journalists were selected - one each from France, Italy, Chile, Ecuador and Roy Gachuhi from Kenya, the only African.  

“Roy is the producer of the widely-acclaimed epic documentary, The Last Fight, which he took to Egypt for screenings in March this year during the 5th Luxor African Film Festival. The documentary, a sometimes gut-wrenching depiction of the life of boxing hopefuls in the tough slums of Nairobi and Nakuru, was given rave reviews. Apart from his work at The Content House, Roy is also a sports columnist and Special Projects writer with the Nation Media Group.

“Some of Roy’s most remembered stories in his prolific output include the triumph and tragedy of Robert Wangila, to date Africa’s only Olympic gold medalist and the dying in abject poverty of some of Kenya’s most acclaimed football stars.”

Extra ordinary achievement

One of five in the whole world! If that is not extra-ordinary achievement, what is? Gachuhi first won the Sports Journalist of the Year Award in Kenya in 1979 – and that was at the age of 20. He won it again in 1984 but it was the citation of his Features Writer of the Year Award in 2000 that makes us better understand why he finds nothing unusual in being one of five winners out of 177 competitors from around the world.

It read: “Awarded for an outstanding nose for captivating stories, superb writing flair, research skills, suspense and colour, and ability to paint pictures with words.” These are the attributes that make Roy Gachuhi truly great and which set him apart from other sports journalists. They are what makes him inspirational to the new crop of writers who not only express admiration for this craftsman’s skills, but a wish to be like him one day.

But this is not a man given to blowing his own trumpet. Soka Magazine chased him for several months in an effort to write his story and we guess we only succeeded after overwhelming him with our persistence. But it was worth the wait and we never noticed the time pass once inside his comfortable house in the Ngumo area of Nairobi. We found the place to be an obsessed writer’s world, with a multiplicity of flowers and flower trees and ornamental fish in a long pond, a spacious study and most revealing, a gym where he told us he “boxes away his stress”. 

Gachuhi is completely at home in his house, which doubles up as his private office. He explained this to us: “Nairobi is an awfully wasteful, disorderly and unsafe city. I cannot recognize the city I grew up in. It has become normal to take one hour to drive two kilometres. I have to figure out a way of saving time, my most precious commodity. That is why I leave this place only if I absolutely must. I can work and do my recreation, eat and sleep all within a few metres of each other. It is a 24-7 operation.”

He added: “I was once jogging along Uhuru Highway at about 7 p.m. I was mugged and barely escaped with my life. It scared me stiff. When I recovered from the trauma, I said that was it; I swore never again to compete for space with muggers and matatus driving on pedestrian pavements and boda bodas weaving between them. But I love fitness and yet the nearest gym could be up to four hours away from me because of traffic jams. The chaos is unbearable. That is why I installed a gym in my house.”

With Gachuhi, it is common to open your email and find that he sent you something at 3 or 4 a.m. For him, that is good working hour. He could also be soundly asleep at 2 or 3 p.m.

“What is your hobby?” we asked him.

“Flower gardening,” he replied, “and using spaces well. I don’t waste even an inch of space if I can help it.”

And he desperately loves music and literature. He has amassed an impressive library of albums and books which span all kinds of tastes. The ones that have pride of place in his study are dozens of old vinyl long play and single discs. And a type writer and cassette tape recorder, too. He drew our laughter when he told us that he was going to send us twits and WhatsApp messages from the typewriter which had been his tool of trade in the 1980s.

Gachuhi describes himself as “catholic in my music tastes and depending on mood and circumstance I enjoy virtually any type of music, save for rap which I don’t think is music.”

EA School of Journalism 

In the year 2000, he founded a journalism training school, the East Africa School of Journalism, and sold it after running it for nine years. It had a good reputation and produced many students who are in the media industry today. Boniface Mwangi, the well-known – some say notorious – photographer-turned-activist, is one of his old students.

“Go and ask him about me,” he challenged us. Gachuhi sold the school after suffering an acute homesickness about his profession, journalism, which he says he was born to practice.

“Operating a journalism training school is running a business, not practicing journalism,” he said. “And I had to make a U-turn when I realized this. It was a particularly difficult period of my life.”

When talking to him, there is a clear teacher of young students in the tone of the master who can get quite agitated when discussing young people for whom he evidently has a soft spot in his heart.

He told us: “I never get tired telling the youth that the most valuable material thing they have available to them is time and on no account should it be wasted. Time is lost in the beginning, not in the end. Every person above the age of 50 who regrets his or her circumstances must have lost time decades ago. Unfortunately, very few young people realize this – until it is too late.”

The remarkable thing with this genius with words is that he never trained to become a journalist. He does not even have a university degree. Alright, in 2013, he gained admittance to the prestigious Cardiff University in Wales for a Master’s degree programme based on the outstanding work he had done in his career but decided to pass up the chance “until later, much later, perhaps when am 70 going 80. Lack of a degree hasn’t stopped me from being needed by the consumers of my work. If anything, the opposite is true; I have difficulty keeping up with demand.”

After leaving Technical High School, he had to cut short further studies to support his younger siblings after his father retired from the then East African Railways and Harbours.

Of his father, he says: “He was obsessed with me pursuing the sciences, which I was very poor in. This frayed our relationship to a point of total breakdown and this filled me with great sadness because I would have liked us to be not just father and son, but friends as well. My take home lesson from that was never to force my children into doing what I want them to do. My role is to guide them because it’s their life, not mine.”

He has two children, both daughters. The first, Lydia Wangari is pursuing film scripting and the younger one, Charity Wangui, is working in Doha, Qatar, as a chef specializing in French cuisine. It is a tight knit family.

Family man 

We asked his wife, Irene Gachuhi to tell us the most remarkable thing about her husband. She told us: “He can be summarized in just two words – family man.  I guess you won’t believe it when I tell you he started dropping and picking his daughters from school from nursery up to when they finished college! He is always there for his family. He is also very passionate about his work and that explains why he is good at what he does.”  

For more than four decades, Kenya’s newspaper readers have been familiar with the great Roy Gachuhi’s stories in the sports pages. Recently, they started watching his documentary films. Now stand by for his latest offerings – the books are coming. Watch this space!

This article originally appeared on the third edition of the Soka Magazine 

Jeff Kinyanjui

Twitter: @Nyash88

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