Allah says: “Innalilahi wa inna ilayhi rajioon” To Allah we belong and to Him we shall return.” (Quran Surat Al Baqarah 2:156)
And also: “Every soul shall have a taste of death, then to us you will be ultimately returned.” (Quran Surat Al Ankaboot 29:57)
The demise of my friend, brother, mentor and former colleague at KTN Ahmed Darwesh has personified those words and reminded me- and it should remind you- on whose borrowed time we are living.
Television audiences and radio listeners knew and developed a relationship with humble, smiling man with an astute command of the Kiswahili language. It was a steadfast, unwavering relationship that lasted more than a decade and which ended on Monday night, December 14th, 2015.
Perhaps working closely and relating with him daily made us take his legendary status for granted. For his TV audience, it was an impersonal relationship. For some of us who knew him more, it was more personal.
But his death is just one of the many victories he has scored over me in the last decade.
He was almost the last person I met at KTN’s I&M building offices when, like a frightened duck walking into a lion’s den, I took my first step into the KTN newsroom, one fine morning in October 2005.
And it wasn’t a ceremonious encounter- he was in fact rushing to edit his story and whilst rushing to the 15th floor, he shoved me off the way.
He would later apologize and explain that he was in a hurry. And to laugh it off, my good friend and boss Wazir Khamsin was also there. So we had a little chat and introduction. Then a word that would define our greetings for the next decade- “Ustadh wa Mochongoi”
Such words as Bingwa, Kigogo, Marondo would also be used interchangeably in our casual conversations. There was no guarantee he would use any of these words in that order. He has his way with the language.
When I joined KTN back then, the newsroom was full of bachelors and spinsters, mostly freshly out of college. But Ahmed Darwesh and Wazir Khamsin broke the deadlock amongst the youthful workdforce, led the way and got married.
The pressure started there.
The KTN newsroom emptied to Mombasa when he married his wife Hawa. Reading KTN Leo Michezo news that night, I couldn’t help but admire the beauty of the wedding. He would galvanize the entire newsroom when Lulu Hassan got married in Mombasa and many other people, whose wedding he would personally attend or donate his vehicles.
He had shown the way at an early stage. His conviction was unwavering.
Anchoring KTN Leo bulletin with him at a time was everyone’s dream. KTN was a strong brand. Number one station in Kenya. If Farida Karoney and Katua Nzile allowed you a mid cure or a sign off, let alone anchoring news, then you had the “it” factor.
Having lived under the shadow of Swaleh Mdoe, Ahmed Darwesh led a revolution of young and ambitious news readers, keen to chart their own path. He implored that unless we found our own feet, we would be only discussed in relation to others.
He was given a lowly rated Mbiu ya KTN and worked his way through the influence. Fast and furiosly that soon, together with Mwanaisha Chidzuga, they earned their rightful place on air.
This sufferer was meanwhile, left to scramble for the leftovers of time, perpetually made to say hi and bye due to time constraints. I thought of quitting many times, but having seen how other had worked their way up, I chanced again. And again. I had good company to look up to.
If it was not new programs, Darwesh would stir thoughts that revived otherwise forgotten programs. He was a creative genius- alongside Kizito Namulanda and other team members- were crucial in formulating Kiswahili names for the features that aired daily on KTN Leo. We used to call him “Bwana Kamusi”.
While some lazy reporters would disappear for hours during lunch time, Darwesh would sit on this desk and translate stories for Mbiu ya KTN from KTN News at One.
Folks who would wait for him to tire are still growing cobwebs. He was the backbone of the newsroom and the pillar of the team.
In my formative years at KTN, I used to make long trips from my house in Ruiru into Nairobi CBD daily. One rainy night, after reading KTN Leo and stranded outside the Season’s restaurant on Banda Street, I couldn’t walk to the number 145 stage somewhere in River Road. Darwesh, having just bought a Totoya Premio, offered to confront the chaotic traffic and dropped me off in Ngara, from where I connected. It would be one of the many volunteered lifts he would offer to me and many other people.
He would still, months later, offer to drop me home in Ngumo and Jamuhuri estate and he would make his way home afterwards.
When I bought my first car, I gave it to him to “test”.
Naturally, I had been influenced by his car. I had planned to buy it from him, but he politely declined. So I ended up buying “Muchongoi” my first car. Eight years later, I still have that old contraption. But no sooner had I bought the car than he sold his and upgraded to a Toyota Avensis.
He had beaten me again.
Then one time, he asked me, after the birth of his first daughter, whilst eating pilau at California’s Mpambe dishes joint ( which he introduced many of us to) :
“Ustadh wa Mochongoi, tunakula pilau lini? It was a leading question. Almost interrogative, but awakening. He meant, when would I get married?
Ambushed, I laughed it off.
Only for a few months. I then tied the knot. And since he was on duty that day, he couldn’t attend my wedding. But I was lucky to have the guidance and support of my other brother, Wazir Khamsin.
I felt in good hands. And guess who joked about Ustadh wa Muchongoi “kupata jiko na kukweka kibaridi cha kusababisha kigugumizi”later on in evening on KTN Leo broadcast?
There was something about the holy months of Ramadhan in the KTN newsrooms. One man would rally all Muslim and non Muslim colleagues to commit to the Ramadhan Iftar program.
Darwesh worked with many people , including Jamia Mosque, to ensure that breaking the fast in the KTN newsroom was a ceremony. Often, we were late to the broadcast because of this.
And speaking of broadcast.
One evening, the auto-cue prompter in the KTN studios failed just before the start of the bulletin. Whilst the news director was shouting herself coarse, Ahmed Darwesh took charge and read the entire 35 minutes news broadcast without the script.
He had earned himself the name “King of Adlib”. I learnt from him and for the most part of my time in KTN, we were challenged by him to be news anchors- not news readers.
It would take a significant importance when one time in 2007, I decided to “shadow” Ahmed Darwesh, Ali Mtenzi and Wazir Khamsin at Nyayo stadium during one of the many live commentaries that were broadcast from the venue.
No script. No time to waste. Just years of polished command of the language and content. One time, when Ali Manzu joined us, the broadcast was so flawless that it is rumored the news director fell asleep in the OB van whilst we were on air.
When a few years, work environment pressure and cut-throat competition engulfed KTN newsroom, necessitating departure of key talents, Ahmed Darwesh remained steadfast. He avoided controversies. He was overlooked many times by KTN during promotions , but he took it in his stride. And if there was an icebreaker during the editorial meetings with the revered former Standard Group Boss, Paul Melly, then Darwesh was the undisputed King. The Paul Melly equalizer.
One morning in 2012, Paul Melly called for almost dawn editorial meeting that was mandatory for all news anchors. His demeanor was telling, his mood was foul and his opening words were almost predictable.
Step forward Ahmed Darwesh.
“Bwana Mwenyekiti, leo hata nzi wakitua kwenye koti lako, lililopigwa pasi na kunyooka mithili ya upanga wa jemedari mwandamizi…..”
That is all that it took for the rest of us to breathe.
Paul Melly thundered with laughter, not at the language, but in sheer confusion at what Ahmed Darwesh just said. We shuddered to attend meetings involving Paul Melly without the physical presence of Ahmed Darwesh.
When a few years I contemplated purchasing another car, I looked around and considered a few options.
Having seen the dependability and tasted the generosity of spirit offered to me by Darwesh Ahmed long after I purchased my first car, I ended up in a familiar environment.
My pay at KTN couldn’t allow me to own a Mercedez Benz that Ahmed Darwesh drove. (Pst, there was almost a competition in the Mombasa Road Media House. It was almost difficult to keep tab with folks who had either upgraded or bought new cars that littered the compound).
I couldn’t afford nor maintain the 2.4 L Totoya Kluger that he owned either. So I looked back and settled on what he had previously owned and driven. Of course he recommended it.
I have not regretted the move, three years later.
Ahmed Darwesh was a man of faith. He would safely tuck his praying mat under his desk and always kept a copy of Quran next to his desk and in his car. His trip to Mecca for the Hajj was the hallmark of his spiritual life.
I felt beaten again in this front.
Sometimes, working in the media environment makes you think you are bigger than life, better than your viewers and gives you a false sense of personal importance. It is something that comes with the job- a still-birth celebrity syndrome.
A brief acquaintance with Darwesh would deflate all that ego. He was one of the very few people who remained humble, down to earth and a people’s person-despite his reputation preceding him. He suffered no reputation crisis and would be pleased to introduce himself without prompt.
Like many people, I struggle in a place that Darwesh slid over like a slipperry surface.
Writing about Ahmed Darwesh’s influence in my life could take the length of my own life.
Both my wife and family have been immensely encouraged and benefited from his ways of life and selfless disposition.
His Uswazi Uswahilini restaurant at South B’s Plains view road is a popular place for many of us. There is nothing special about the place, to be honest. It is another roadside eatery.
But it isn’t about the premises, it was about how we felt, how we were treated and made to feel at home. Both his wife and himself personally ensured their patrons left with relishing satisfaction.
This past July, Ahmed Darwesh assembled a group of current and former KTN colleagues for Eid Ul Fitri lunch at his place. I was on my way to work when I passed by his restaurant for a quick bite, but was welcomed to his South B house. Laughter, reminisce, food, warmth….mingled freely as we washed down memories of the good times with a bitter Swahili juice- “Ukwaju”- which he loved too much.
But he took me outside and opened the boot of his SUV and showed me fruits that he had harvested in his northern coastal house. He had taken to farming and showed me fresh kale plantations growing in his backyard.
Health, health, he intoned and emphasized. He was full of health despite his struggle with a debilitating condition.
Now a farmer? I felt beaten again.
Two Fridays ago, whilst rushing about town before my trip to West Africa, I saw him driving on Likoni Road towards Mombasa road. Light traffic day, there was no one on either side of the road. I swerved into his lane and made as if to stop him on his tracks.
“Wewe Ustadh wa Mochongoi, rally driver, nakuona utundu bado hajakwisha. Rudi mashindanoni na kina Carl Tundo”
Then his signature, almost comical laughter…. Hi hi hi hih hi….
That was our last meeting.
Ahmed Darwesh has gone back to his Maker. He came from his Maker. We all did. Allah has recalled a beautiful soul back home. His leaf has fallen to the ground, and the angel of death has had to comply with Allah’s command.
We shall never question Allah’s decision. Allah knows best. All the time. He has . Always. And forever will.
Ahmed Darwesh, you beat me to death.
You have done another first before me. As you have always done.
As sure as the sun rises, me and many others people are just behind you. Just like you would appear on KTN Leo bulletin reading main news and I would join you later for KTN Leo Michezo, I know I am on the way. I know that for a fact. For sure. 100%. All of us are on the way. We are just behind you. Perharps held back by some divine traffic jam, which will shortly clear. You have tasted death and seen what many us have not, and will only experience individually, devoid of our fame, name, material, wealth and reputation.
I , nay, we are pleased to have known , worked and shared this life with you.
My friend, my Muslim brother, my mentor, my former boss.
May Allah be pleased with you. May he forgive your sins. May Allah have mercy on your soul and mine. May he be pleased with us too when our time comes. May he forgive our sins too and guide to the path that pleases Him and take us out of the path to damnation.
If you could look back, you may see another beautiful soul coming you way. It could be any of us. Now. Tomorrow or the hours to come.
We are all sojourners.
We just do not have an iota of an idea about the time, manner and place.
“And to Allah belongs the inheritance of the heavens and the earth…..” (Surah Aal-Imraan: 3:180)