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Willy Mutunga’s rise as ‘social justice hero’


Book Review

Willy Mutunga’s rise as ‘social justice hero’

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Summary

  • The book weaves a load of Kenyan colonial and post-colonial history into Willy’s story. 
  • Willy is one of those accused and detained along with activists like Maina wa Kinyatti, Koigi wa Wamere, Alamin Mazrui, and following the failed coup attempt in August 1982, Raila Odinga.
  • Given that Mazrui is still writing for a youthful audience, she doesn’t go into detail about the torturous life in detention.

You can tell without even opening the book, Willy Munyoki Mutunga of Kenya: Our Hero of Justice that its author Elizabeth Orchardson-Mazrui is an academic.

Why? Because academics love to construct lengthy titles for their manuscripts. And the third line of her book title (after ‘Justice’) is ‘A Semi-Fictionalised Biography for Young People.’

You can also tell just by seeing the cover that the author is also an artist. That’s because she has filled it with alluring photographs and a colorful African design shaped as the cover’s border frame.

The artist Mazrui is also the illustrator of the book, making it engaging for the ‘young readers’ as she draws many of the young Willy’s amusing escapades which she also talks about in her book.

But it would be a mistake to assume that Mazrui’s book is just for children. The adults who might like a quick insight into the life and struggles of Kenya’s former Chief Justice can also get a useful overview of Dr Mutunga’s most memorable experiences from Mazrui’s book.

The book also weaves a load of Kenyan colonial and post-colonial history into Willy’s story. Backed up by a wide variety of archival photographs, particularly of people who made a significant impact on the Chief Justice’s life.

They include everyone from the Guyanese African historian Dr Walter Rodney who was his lecturer in law school at University of Dar es Salaam and Julius Nyerere whose Ujamaa theory and practice was admired by Mutunga to Yoweri Museveni who was his classmate and the Chairperson of the University Students African Revolutionary Front even then.

And while children may be enchanted by Mazrui’s vivid interpretation of Mutunga’s early years, especially the way his thought process evolves as he experiences new environments and learning institutions, it’s the political Willy that may be a greater interest to adults.

One point the author aims to underscore is that Dr Mutunga had been concerned about social justice from his early years which is why he went into law. He was also taught the importance of education. This led to not only his excelling in school and practicing law (often pro bono) and even teaching it for a while. But he also went for his Master’s degree and doctorate of jurisprudence in Canada.

Mazrui skirts over some of the most fascinating periods of Dr Mutunga’s life, like the years he headed the Kenya Human Rights Commission followed by his leading the social justice and human rights division of the Ford Foundation.

But for me, where the book gets really interesting is when Willy takes up a political role. He’s lecturing at the University of Nairobi and becomes the Secretary- General of the University Staff Union.

The union takes up the fight for the release of Ngugi wa Thiong’o from detention and his activism eventually makes him a marked man. This is a time when the government is getting increasingly repressive, banning literature and detaining people accused of aiming to ‘overthrow the government’.

Willy is one of those accused and detained along with activists like Maina wa Kinyatti, Koigi wa Wamere and Alamin Mazrui following the failed coup attempt in August 1982, Raila Odinga.

Given that Mazrui is still writing for a youthful audience, she doesn’t go into detail about the torturous life in detention. But we do gather Willy had to struggle to stay alive under deeply oppressive conditions. His will to stay alive is fueled by his love of family and his desire to “continue the fight for justice.”

Mazrui frames her book around the idea of Dr Mutunga being a ‘hero for justice’. It is an idea that the former CJ apparently aspired to from an early age, after his beloved grandmother prophesied he would be a hero. Whether that was the motivation that inspired him to excel and commit his life to the fight for social justice, one can only look at the man’s life to tell.

What Mazrui couldn’t tell us is what the former Chief Justice is planning to do in his retirement other than mentoring youth. That is a worthy cause, but perhaps her book will inspire him to write his own memoir and fill in the gaps.

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