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Kenya: The spiral staircase, curved out of Acacia trees and accentuated by a polished brown wooden floor at Mutula Kilonzo’s Kwa Chyelu ranch can be mesmerizing.

But to Nduku Kilonzo, it evokes memories of April 27, 2013, watching as coroner personnel struggled to navigate the narrow labyrinth of wood to bring down her late husband’s body and transport it to the mortuary.

“Every time I stand next to the main door looking up, it brings back bad memories,” she says. “I recall watching those men struggling to navigate the narrow staircase to bring down Mutula’s body from upstairs.”

Nduku did not especially like going back to the 2,400-acre ranch after Mutula’s demise last year. The ranch named Valhalla, borrows its name from Norse mythology as “the resting place of heroes”.

Ironically, Mutula was laid to rest in his Mbooni farm, where the family has just put the final touches to a marble carved mausoleum.

Instead, Nduku preferred to spend time away to reflect on what had happened and how her life and that of her children had been changed forever.

Mysterious death

Mutula Kilonzo was one of Kenya’s prominent lawyers with a client list that read like who is who in the country. He was also a senior counsel who worked his way up the legal circles, starting from a dingy small office in downtown Nairobi to building one of the country’s largest and most successful legal practice.

His son, Mutula Kilonzo Junior and daughter Kethi Kilonzo both from Mutula’s first wife, followed in their father’s footsteps. His career includes a stint in politics rising from being a nominated Kanu MP in 2002 to a Cabinet Minister dealing with Justice.

It was during his tenure that country promulgated a new constitution under his watch in 2010. In April 27, last year Mutula, went to the ranch, named Valhalla, a mythical resting place for heroes for a weekend. He was found dead the following day by a farm worker who had gone to serve him breakfast.

The circumstance and cause of his death remain shrouded in mystery. Although an official autopsy report stated he suffered from massive internal bleeding, the family hired a UK pathologist Prof Ian Calder.

Last November, he refused to sign on the Government saying he felt tissues samples provided to him from Mutula’s body had been “possibly contaminated.”

He said he would be seen as “negligent” if he made any conclusions “without seeing all materials”. He found the case “quite unique” and told the family the case “had proved to be intellectually and pathologically very challenging”.

Nduku says she and her family are waiting to hear from the UK and the Government pathologists to get the final report that will hopefully bring closure to the family.

It took weeks to gather courage to walk into the room in which Mutula had retired to bed after a dinner of maize and peas and soda that Saturday night. It was on this bed that he had breathed his last and rested for eternity.

“For some reason I was afraid to open the door. I went in there and just sat in the room to reflect. Then I had the cleaners move in and remove the bedding and his clothes.”

She says she had his personal items washed and stored,” I have not slept there since (he died),” she says.

Tough year

It has not been an easy year moving on and adjusting to being called a widow. And it certainly has not been easy providing guidance as both the matriarch and patriarch of the Mutula family.

This week, she gathered the courage to travel to the ranch and allow The Standard on Sunday a front view seat of the expansive ranch as the days neared to Mutula Kilonzo’s anniversary.

“It has been a tough year,” Nduku admits, seated at the balcony of the mansion, where she would enjoy Mutula’s company over breakfast whenever they visited the ranch in Maanzoni.

“It is like waking up and finding yourself in the deep end.”

When the funeral was over and friends who had consoled her during the ordeal left, Nduku says she had to learn to adjust to a new life. The biggest challenge was to learn on the go how to navigate and run Mutula’s vast business empire of real estate and businesses scattered across the country.

“I have learnt to read business reports and financial reports. You need to be on top of everything,” she says after a brief thought. “Wait… it is end of the month already? I have to start thinking about salaries for the workers.”

That is emblematic of her new life. Nduku says it was a life she was not prepared for or used to, but she is coping.

She also picked up on Mutula’s charity work, which included paying schools fees for children from disadvantaged background across the country.

“Thankfully, I have had the counsel of a good manager who worked for him for 20 years and she has been able to transition and help me understand everything,” she says. “If it were not for my faith, I think I would have given up by now,” she adds.

Once Nduku had learnt to navigate the myriad businesses and developed a knack for balancing books, dealing with debts, creditors and employees, she has focused on holding her family together.

“No doubt the children miss him greatly. He was a loving and supporting father,” she says, adding: “Every evening is a challenge for me.”

July 2 was Mutula’s birthday. And how did Nduku spend last year’s birthday? “I retired to my room in Nairobi and just cried.”

Sweet memories

The year before, Nduku says Mutula had marked her birthday with a big birthday card and a brand new car.

But some habits about their amazing marriage life come to her in painful portions. The pain is tied to memories and an inner anguish, just wishing he was here.

She says: “When he arrived home every evening, I would meet him, pick his jacket and tie and take them upstairs. Every time I heard the doorbell, that was the routine for 30 years.”

Nowadays, the sound of the doorbell at home brings back anguish and sweet memories and a longing that somehow she could turn back the clock.

The bedroom where Mutula rested remains often locked and only Nduku enters the room occasionally. It remains in many ways exactly the way it was before, save for Mutula’s personal items. But a year after the tragedy, Nduku plans to spend more time at the ranch and in their special bedroom.

Valhalla has not changed much and remains true to its name, the resting place of a national hero who blazed the trail in legal circles. The imposing gate is guarded by a surveillance camera atop and embraced by acacia trees.

The house is a lesson in interior design, borrowing from everything natural, transforming the place into a wonder using the most basic natural resource — trees.

The wood from acacia has been used to make cabinets, chandeliers, spiral staircase, door handles and elaborate beds. The interior décor would find a place in the Home and Gardens magazine effortlessly. Most of the work is Nduku’s own creation and attests to her passion for interior design that she pursues to date.

“The house took five years to build and we took a break after the post election violence to complete it,” she reveals.

The balcony next to the bedroom offers a stupendous view of the Mua hills. On a chilly morning, Mutula would sit there and watch the sunrise.

Another balcony next to the upstairs lounge area offers a stunning view of the ranch and an appropriate vantage point to watch the sunset.

The swimming pool at the back was built in the shape of the map of Kenya. Mutula’s love for wildlife is amplified by three lions – Mutula, Nduku and Sis (named after Mutula’s sister). The trio gobble meat equivalent to a cow every week. The meat, Nduku says, is procured from the goats and cows on the farm. “But it has been a challenge.”

The cheetahs take their place nearby The Hague enclosure, adorning their names proudly — Mutula and Ocampo. Nduku says Ocampo personally toured the ranch during his visit to Kenya and Mutula had one of the cheetahs named after him.

She admits that adjusting to tending the wildlife initially had its challenges after he passed on.

She enlisted the KWS to come and check on the pride.

“They would tell us to increase the meat rations or reduce it depending on their weight.”

 Unique ranch

The task to take care of the lions, cheetahs, three buffaloes, a wild bird and tortoise has fallen on the shoulders of Joseph Mwendwa. Every day at 3pm he positions himself next to the cages loaded with chunks of meat to feed the lions and cheetahs. The carnivores include a Lammergeier. “The bird, the size of a goat, consumes meat and is secured within an expansive cage. Mutula brought it from Ethiopia,” Mwendwa recalls.

“It is the only one of its type in Kenya.”

The property has cabins and tourists now visit and spend the night at the ranch for “a small fee” then get the privilege to spend time with the wild game at the ranch at close range.

But it is not just tourists who are taking a liking to the unique ranch. Perhaps to honour the memory of their father, Mutula’s children have taken a liking to spending time there.

Nduku’s son, Mutune, took his girlfriend last December for a weekend and in the romantic setting proposed to her. Says Nduku: “We were in on the plot. We all knew he had bought a ring and… was planning to propose. He asked for keys to the ranch and he took her there.”

The girlfriend said yes and the two are planning a wedding sometime later this year.

The family has just completed a marble and granite carved Mausoleum at Mbooni farm where they plan to have a private ceremony to remember one of Kenya’s most prolific legal minds. “We are having a prayer memorial at Nairobi Baptist Church on Wednesday at 11am.”



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