Distinguished Kenyan journalist Chege Mbitiru, whose career included work in North America and Kenya, has died at 77 of cardiac arrest.
Mbitiru was influential in Kenya as many people read his weekly column in Kenya’s largest circulation newspaper, The Sunday Nation.
He worked at The Associated Press as an East Africa correspondent from 1985 until 2001. At AP he helped cover the spread of extremist violence in Somalia, the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath, and the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Mbitiru was born in Kijabe on the edge of the Great Rift Valley, about 30 miles northwest of Nairobi, that had been founded in 1903 by American missionaries of the Africa Inland Mission.
When Mbitiru finished high school he went to the U.S. to attend the World Youth Forum. He studied in the U.S. and after graduating from Ohio University he worked for the Sandusky Register in Ohio and the Saginaw News in Michigan.
Returning to Kenya he worked for the Kenya News Agency and later for the Daily Nation newspaper as foreign editor and then managing editor before joining the AP.
During his time at AP he is remembered for his humor and friendly way of sharing his deep knowledge of East Africa and the continent.
“Chege was a good friend and colleague who, with a wry sense of humor, taught the rest of us about Africa. We worked closely together during the intervention in Somalia and the genocide in Rwanda. His calm demeanor and charm was always an anchor in trying times,” said Terry Leonard, who was an AP correspondent in Nairobi from 1994 to 1996.
“He would always mix his smart, many times sarcastic, comments about the news with a chat that would connect the extraordinary events that raged across Africa in the mid-90s with conflicts in Latin America,” said Ricardo Mazalan, the East Africa chief photographer in the mid-1990s. “Some of the best books on my Africa bookshelf were recommended by him.”
Mbitiru was an invaluable member of AP’s Nairobi team, said Reid G. Miller, former East African bureau chief. “He was the go-to guy for background information about Kenya, its politics, history, customs and more,” said Miller. “More than that, he was one of the sweetest, most tolerant men I have ever known.”
Andrew Selsky, who had worked on AP’s international desk and later was Africa Editor, said that Mbitiru had kindly sent him a Swahili-English dictionary. “That gesture showed what a truly nice man he was,” said Selsky.
AP’s chief correspondent at the United Nations, Edith Lederer, recalls flying to Nairobi from London immediately after the U.S. Embassy bombing on August 7, 1998 and arriving the following morning, just before Mbitiru came in from the bombed-out site where survivors and victims were being pulled from the debris.
It was a very emotional time, but Lederer said Mbitiru “was a reporter first and foremost — describing the scene vividly, with great quotes and color.”
Lederer said she worked with Mbitiru that week to put together a story on the timeline of how the bombing unfolded. “It was a story I know we were both proud of,” said Lederer. “It showed not only Chege’s talents as a reporter and writer but his great love for his country and the pain its people were suffering.”
Mbitiru leaves behind a widow, Wanja and two sons, Njihia and Nyaga.