Mama Kayai cries out to Uhuru and Ruto over Mzee Ojwang’s ailment
Officially known as Benson Wanjau Karira, Ojwang Hatari was for decades an omnipresent television character who never disappointed in every Kenyan home lucky enough to own a television set.
Fame, fortune and recognition followed the TV character everywhere. But away from the bright lights, fate has conspired to reduce the old man to a shriveled, ailing soul whose shadows of bad times cannot even be shone off by the memories of an illustrious career.
Wanjau, popularly known as Mzee Ojwang, ensured Kenyans kept laughing, through his popular comedy show Vitimbi that aired weekly on the national broadcaster for over 30 years.
Many comedians have come and gone but Mzee Ojwang’s star seemed to be growing brighter each day. “Mwanzo najiona sasa ndio ni kama kijana. Mashabiki wangu watapenda (I feel youthful and I promise my fans will love it)” he told a local lifestyle magazine in 2011, when he was 73. “Artistes especially comedians don’t retire. They only step down when they can no longer wake up.”
That was the commentator’s curse. Last year, the Vitimbi show was taken off air from the national broadcaster. The Prime Time slot the actors had enjoyed for decades was no longer guaranteed.
“They chased us away after years of service… the KBC management told us we were too old and they had no use for us,” Mzee Ojwang’s screen wife and longtime friend Mama Kayai, whose real name is Mary Khavere, told The Standard on Sunday in a telephone interview. She says she has no problem with retiring. “But we have a problem with how the dismissals were done. There was no notice. Someone just woke up and decided that our time at the station was up.”
Gibson Mbugua, who played the character of a prosecutor in the comedic court drama, Vioja Mahakamani, on KBC, says they were treated unfairly. “The station sold our shows to a South African Pay TV channel and a Tanzanian station without our consent yet our contract stipulated that our shows were for KBC only,” he says.
“We were not being paid any extra monies and the Vioja Mahakamani crew decided to leave after our Vitimbi colleagues were unceremoniously shown the door.”
Expectedly, pulling the plug on Vitimbi and kicking the crew out of a place they called home for decades, did not go down with the cast and soon the effects of a reduced income combined with the vagaries of old age started taking their toll on Mzee Ojwang’.
His left eye became problematic. The mobility in his legs became a bit laboured but he could not afford the medical bills for routine procedures that would deal with the discomfort from these complications. The patriarch’s tribulations have been fodder for social media conversations. A section of Kenyans familiar with his work is sympathetic to his situation and other artistes whose conditions are eerily similar to Ojwang’s.
Now, the memories of a time when something as simple as a grunt from him would send audiences into rapturous applause seem distant. Currently, genuine cries of need, cries of want do not even elicit a sympathetic glance from formerly adoring fans. Fame may be fickle. But beyond the fame lies enduring memories and lifelong contributions that some, like Mama Kayai, believe deserve so much more.
“It is painful to see national icons such as Ojwang and many more who came before us and even after us getting nothing in return,” she says. “We do not want favours. We just want to be given what we are owed by our former employer.” Some Kenyans are sympathetic to Ojwang’s plight, but do not think it warrants special attention.
“They are owed zero by KBC. They served out their contracts and they were paid everything,” Fred Matiang’i, the Cabinet Secretary for Information, Communication and Technology, said. “I think it is time for us as Kenyans to begin developing a culture of individual responsibility where you also think about your retirement.”
Mr Mbugua says the CS is not listening to their grievances, and instead wants them to “tone down and not speak to the media”.
He says the fight is about their Intellectual property rights. “The former CS, Bitange Ndemo, used to listen to us. He wanted us to benefit and had asked KBC to digitise our shows so as to market them further and improve our terms.”
Mama Kayai remains adamant that they are owed and that only two people are in a position to sort out the apparent mess that the Vitimbi crew finds itself in.
“We just want to sit down with the President and his deputy and tell them what we are going through,” she said.
For now, Mzee Ojwang’ remains another footnote in the day’s news coverage of forgotten artistes in a country that rarely celebrates its genuine sons and daughters.