‘A bullet reserved for the centre of your husband’s forehead’

Letter from New Delhi — 

Story of murder threat for Kenya journalist published after 30 years

“There is a bullet that has been reserved for the centre of his forehead. Take him away from Kenya, quickly, please get out quickly,” said a visitor to the office of Rufina Fernandes, the wife of Kenyan journalist Cyprian Fernandes.

This happened in 1974 when Fernandes was probing the land deals and corruption by powerful leaders and got caught in the crossfire of top Kenyan ministers vying to succeed President Jomo Kenyatta. He waited over 30 years to write his story – ‘Yesterday in Paradise 1950 – 1974’ (Balboa).

Let Cyprian describe the incident that torpedoed his life: “One day when I returned home and I found my wife in tears. She said that an insurance salesman had come to her office for a business meeting with her boss. The conversation went something like this:

“Good lady, how are you?”

“I am well, thank you.”

“What is your name, good madam?”

“Rufina Fernandes.”

“I have a very good and famous friend called Fernandes, also. What is your husband’s name?”

“Cyprian Fernandes.”

“My wife said then that she had never seen a black man go white in such a tiny flash of time. He was gripped in total fear. He ran to the door and made sure no one was within earshot and returned to her:

“That is also my friend,” he said, “But madam, madam, he is a dead man. There is a bullet that has been reserved for the centre of his forehead. Take him away from Kenya, quickly, please get out quickly.”

“Why? Who wants to kill him?”

“I cannot say anything. I might be killed also. But please, he is a good man, an honest man, you must get him out of Kenya.”

“When I came home that evening, my wife was shaking with fear and she was a mess. There was no way I would be able to change her mind.”

“When would you like to get out of Kenya? Tomorrow, or as soon as possible.”

“How about in one month’s time?”

“OK, but do it quickly. Let’s get out of this place. Otherwise you are going to make me a widow.”

“We were out of there in four weeks,” writes Fernandes.

Having worked with him in the top newspaper of East Africa, The Nation, from 1966 to 1974, I came to know him as a happy go lucky buddy who has a sharp nose for a hidden scoop and follows the trail until he gets the sensational story which he writes in a racy style.

Before he got married to Rufina, he brought her to the Nation newsroom and showed her his typewriter declaring, “This is my first wife.” But he had to relent for the safety of himself and his family and migrated to the UK and now lives in Australia. No wonder this book is dedicated to Rufina.

Here is a story of a go-getter who barged his way into journalism without any training, worked hard as a sports reporter and moved to news reporting and then grabbed headlines with his sensational exposes not only about Kenya but about Africa as well. As the Foreign Editor, he became a confidant of the Foreign Minister and got embroiled in the vicious politics of that time.

Revolving around Kenya’s miniscule Goan community of that era that provided top sportsmen and journalists, Fernandes has not lost the knack of digging up the scandals even after leaving Kenya. He sheds new light on the murder of Kenya’s first political assassination of the dynamic Goan leader Pio Gama Pinto and the unceremonious sacking of the distinguished editor-in-chief of The Nation, Joe Rodrigues. A former Vice President of Kenya Joe Murumbi who had Goan blood is highlighted along with an international hockey player, Egbert Fernandes. He exposes the Catholic paedophile Father Hanna, held in high regard. Single-handedly, he takes on the Catholic Church to launch a campaign against this dastardly act.

Although this tale is very community centric, it holds interest due to its colourful language, its drama, its fight against prejudice and, above all, its human interest.

Kul Bhushan worked as a newspaper Editor in Nairobi for over three decades and now lives in New Delhi

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