One of the lasting questions I was asked when I was interviewing for a job with Radio Citizen was to mention the familiar voices I knew at the station.
In the panel were then Transmission Controller Joyce Gituro and Royal Media Services Human Resource Director.
The panelists were of course testing my knowledge of the trade and the station as well moreso the sports department where I was to be placed if successful.
I started, “Mohammed Juma Njuguna…” The radioman I was mentioning was not just a presenter but the faceless face of football commentary not just at the RMS stable but Kenya at large.
Little did I know that an exciting journey of discovery and endless fun with the ‘Mzee Digitali’ was just beginning. At first I was his script writer for Sports bulletins Jukwaa la Michezo then graduated to his content producer for football commentary before morphing into a co-commentator. What a milestone? I said to myself!
At the nascent days of this journey, I worked hard to suppress the feeling, keeping the excitement that was burning within me. I was too happy to be working with a legend, a voice I had grown following on radio, but here I was sitting next to him, learning the ropes and having fun as well.
The feeling would at times distract me as I would end up celebrating him instead of commentating and most importantly, learning.
Most importantly, what I remembered about him was his commentary of the 2002 World Cup finals jointly held in South Korea and Japan. During that year, I was glued on radio with my two sisters as I followed his commentary of the match between Senegal and Sweden. He was the main man and I hang onto his every word as he did his thing while current Taita Taveta Governor Granton Samboja and Willy Mwangi did the mid-match analysis.
It was not until years later when our paths crossed at RMS that I told him of the story over a cup of tea at the office cafeteria. I reminded him how he made us feel owning Senegal in his commentary so much so that as a Kenyan, I felt Senegal was my own team. I was not far off though as the Lions of Teranga represented Africa with guile and bravery, reaching the quarter-finals of the showpiece, beating France, then Cup holders in their opening game.
I particularly remember how he described super talented but arrogant El Hadji Diuof, not forgetting the Henry Camara’s ear stud.
“Huku Japani kuna joto joto, kwa hivyo wacha ninywe maji baridi tukutane kipindi cha pili…” (It’s quite hot here in Japan, let me take cold water we meet in the second half…).
His colleagues enhanced the sweet lie told to millions of Kenyans who’d tuned-in from various corners of the country, many believing that he was indeed live from Japan. Yes, they did it in a captivating language that he giggled when I narrated it to him.
Samboja said: “Willy Mwangi, Willy Mwangi, Willy Mwangi, katika dakika ya 11 Afrika nzima ilinyamaza…”
Quickly, he remembered that goal by Sweden’s talisman Henrick Larsson and he broke to his favourite words of describing beautiful football, saying: “That was a tantalizing match.”
That was in 2014. Later I gathered that Mohammed was even bigger than I thought, a walking encyclopedia, a man of large network from the elite to the hoi polloi. Rarely would you need and lack a connection from him.
In my interactions with him, I discovered he had rich information of the country from the colonial era to early post-independence era, and to the Kenya today.
In fact when I was called by my Sports Editor to pen this tribute, I was disturbed, asking how much I could write about a man my own mother was fan of, as early as the 70s.
Revered veteran sports journalist Roy Gachuhi had captured Mohammed in his article in the Daily Nation of October 14, 2017, titled “Yesteryear Swahili football commentary was as beautiful as the game.”
He listed Mohammed Juma alongside Stephen Kikumu, Salim Juma, Leonard Mambo, and Ali Salim Mmanga among the finest football commentators Kenya has ever produced.
He categorically wrote, “Kikumu, the 1950s and the early 60s radioman, is the father of this genre” (Swahili football commentary).
Poignantly, Mohammed would then be the father of the now part and parcel of Kenyan FM radio stations’ football commentary especially the English Premier League (EPL) and the UEFA Champions League.
Solely did he start it at Radio Citizen in early 2000s, later partnering with other talents such as Torome Tirike, Odeyo Sirare, Kaka Zema, Geoffrey Mwamburi and yours truly.
Personally, he introduced me to the art in the most unexpected of ways, funny for that matter. It was an English Premier match, Everton versus Liverpool, and at the 78th minute, from nowhere, he said, “Hayaaa, Jacob Icia, na huyu sio yule wa Bibilia, huyu ni modern
Jacob…take over.” Unbeknown to me, I was taking over for eternity, as few weeks later he could not do football commentary, due to illness and that was his last time on air as a football commentator. Looking back I must be proud that I’m the last talent he handed over the baton to essentially asking me to continue the work he had started and made him that made him the household name.
At times I would just provoke him to sing his favourite songs. To him, singing while commentating was a way of relaxing the tension of the game moreso to the fanatics whose teams were losing.
Among the many songs his fans knew him for were “I loved Fundi Konde’s Jambo Sigara and another one I never got to know the author, Kanga za Manjano.
Towards his sunset, Mohamed had learnt I loved the Jambo Sigara song (not because of anything else but how he used to sing it), thus he would see me and just burst into it. That was Moha for you.
It was rare to get Mohammed off-guard with a question. If he had no answer, he made sure whatever he told you would leave you laughing.
I recall an episode in 2018 at a meeting where new colleagues were being introduced to Radio Citizen on air team. He was asked by the Head of Radio to give brief remarks and what he does.
He did not disappoint. In typical Mohamed style, he said:“I’m Mohammed Juma Njuguna, HSC, about what I do, I’m a roving ambassador at RMS.” The entire boardroom broke into laughter, as the new staff gazed in amusement.
But there is the other side of Moha, which in death many have not talked about. Perhaps shy to point it out. He was an extremely outgoing man who loved his drink and merry-making.
In 2011 while covering the Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup with him in Dar es Salaam, I saw the other side of Moha. It was like a pilgrimage .Moha would ensure that before and after the mic, he would gulp his favourite drink, of course accompanied by some warm and delicious samaki (tilapia for that matter) or kuku choma.
On the evening drives back to the hotel, he would never fail to call back home to check on his family.In that, being a young unmarried man, I learnt the value and importance of family.
He was also temperamental and would be quick to admonish you. The unlucky few who crossed his path have lived to rue the day.
I recall an episode not long ago, perhaps two months or so before he was taken ill.
Moha, my editorial supervisor Isaac Swila and I were at the main entrance of the Royal Media Services having a brief chat.
Suddenly, a colleague, a radio reporter whom I’ll protect his identity for now showed up and exchanged pleasantries with Swila, ignoring the rest of us. (I believe it was not by design).
Before he knew it, Moha in his typical fashion gave him a tongue lash. Not in the impeccable of ways that is. To say that he got a full dose of Moha’s volcanic temper would be an understatement.
The poor colleague apologized profusely as we burst into a fit of laughter. Though we sympathized with him, the manner in which he was subdued made laughter unavoidable.
In all honesty, he was a grand-master in what he did. And from day one we connected through work. Our souls became close and I was his confidant, his son and a brother.
Many are the days he would just summon me to Q-Lounge Restaurant to have tea with him and this would extend to long talks.
He was also an extremely easy man. Every time he checked in at work he would spare a few minutes to chat with the security guys at the gate. In the radio newsroom, veteran news anchor Christine Ojiambo was his bosom friend. He would crack jokes while taking a dig Ojiambo, at times leaving the newsroom in stitches.
The final chapter
In 2016, Mohammed was admitted at the Nairobi Hospital. His frail body was failing him. I went to visit him and found only his wife sitting by the bedside. In agony he said, “Oh God, do not let me suffer on this bed more, and to cause trauma to my wife. If my time has come to rest, rest me God, if it not, heal me.”
Seeing him speak in pain broke my heart and I fought to hold back tears unsuccessfully. Although he did not notice, the wife reported to him what unfolded upon his discharge.
Later he came and said to me: “Jacob, I know you sincerely love me. Mamake Khalid (the mother of his son) told me you cried for me, and God answered my prayer. That’s why I’m here,” he serenely said. His statement made me sad again.
His humility touched me. He would confide in me about his personal family issues. I always hesitated to comment, insisting I was too young to advise him on any matter. But he would never budge. The age-gap between us swept away, perhaps in a similar manner the ruthless swirling winds sweep anything in vicinity and dump it to the blue waters of the ocean. This would open our hearts to talk to each other. I would draw satisfaction whenever he reported back on how he took my words and how worthy they were.
Following Mohammed’s demise on Saturday, I read short tributes by men of all walks of life, including President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto. I was reminded of Matthew 27:54, “When the centurion and those with him guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified and exclaimed, “Surely He was the Son of God!”
I remembered the scripture, reflecting on the man I had worked with, laughed with and learned from, yet he was a heavyweight of the broadcast trade that brought us together. Yes, a heavyweight, who trod the path of broadcast journalism from the era of typewriters and tapes, to the current very digital times.
To his family, workmates, friends and fans, I condole with you for the departure of a great man, who besides many other things knew to make us smile.
When I resume duty as I’m still on leave by the time of typing this account, I will honour Mohammed’s resting soul with his loved Jambo Sigarasong.
Traces of his infectious phrases will not fade soon, in Radio Citizen’s Karakana Ya Soka and indeed at the entire Royal Media Services. To his loved ones, Mama Khalid and children find peace.
Tribute by Jacob Icia and Isaac Swila
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