For decades, Leonard Mambo Mbotela has been hosting, “Je huu ni ungwana?”, Kenya’s most famous and longest running radio program relayed on KBC’s Radio Taifa. Among Kenyan personalities, Mambo is in a class of his own. He’s also a TV host, writer, newsreader, sports commentator and musician but only one thing stands out. “Radio paired with my voice is my God-given talent,” he says as soon as I signal the start of what was intended to be a minor interview, but turned out to be bigger than I thought.
Despite his busy schedule, Mambo excitedly gave me an instant “Yes!” when I called for a chance to interview him. I asked him to provide me with some of his old photos, but he couldn’t get hold of any. That’s when I said to him, “Nitakupiga basi na camera yangu.” His reply,“Jameni ukinipiga si utaniumiza!” That warm sense humour isn’t the only thing natural about this man. “Broadcasting runs in my blood”, says the pied piper whose distinct husky voice, wit and eloquence in Swahili, has made fans across the country follow and adore him for years.
It’s a hot Friday, around midday, an hour to a recording of his TV show at the Norfolk hotel. We are right across the road seated at KBC’s restaurant having cold fruit cocktails. He literally shook hands with everyone as we walked down the corridors leading to the restaurant. Undoubtedly a man of the people, his viewpoint on age clashes with the ubiquitous mass celebration of it being “just a number!”
“When you’re young at heart, age is simply nothing. So I don’t talk about my age, “he says with a sneaky gleam. Smartly clad in a lesso-print shirt and perfectly ironed black trousers, he looks good too. As I ask questions, he seems very keen. Indeed, all his answers are straight forward.
Road to Radio
Born in Mombasa’s old Frere town, Mambo studied in Buxton Primary and Kitui High School. After which he immediately started working as a trainee at the East African Standard newspaper. However, his prowess in news reading is self-taught. “In high school, I would cut newspaper clippings, compile news and read them out to my classmates,” he recalls. Among his mentors were veteran broadcasters Steven Kikumu and Job Isaac Mwanto (I am probably too young to have heard of such people, he tells me–true and shameful).
Fuelled by a dream to be the voice behind the mic, Mambo approached the late Simeone Ndesanjo, who was head of radio at KBC (then Voice of Kenya, (VOK)), for a chance to be employed. As Simeone advised Mambo to start off as an announcer, he also made an observation that would later come into full circle, “I can see you have the potential of making a great broadcaster.” That was 1964. The same year Mambo started working at VOK as a freelance reporter.
In a short span of time he gained many fans, prompting VOK to offer him a permanent post as a program assistant. “I was so excited by the promotion. I couldn’t believe it. I even left my job without giving a resignation! Eventually, VOK had to compensate The East African Standard by means of payment for stealing me like that”, says Mambo with a reminiscent flash of that fateful day.
I hadn’t seen him this fired up since the start of the interview.
He then began hosting interactive radio programs, “Salamu za vijana”, “Uhalifu haulipi chochote” and “Nini maoni yako”. Through the shows he highlighted various societal issues while giving listeners a chance to air their grievances as well as share experiences. This would later turn out to be the foundation of a long-lasting “polygamous” marriage between three entities– Mambo, his fans and radio.
No etiquette & embarrassment creates ‘Je huu ni ungwana?’
In 1966, a casual visit to the Panafric hotel turned awful when Mambo and his friends stayed too long without being attended to. One of his friends lost it and started yelling for a waiter. As Mambo narrates the story, he re-lives the experience by also yelling and hitting the table. The man sitting across us at the restaurant flashes across a ‘STFU’ look. “Did you see that reaction?” probes Mambo. “Nobody likes such embarrassing behavior and especially at a prestigious hotel like Panafric. My friend could have just asked politely if not practice patience,” he asks?
That experience marked the inaugural year of “Je huu ni ungwana” and also served as the show’s debut topic. In 2009, 43 years down the line and the show’s ever growing popularity led to a TV show being conceptualized from it—of course with Mambo as the host.
With now close to celebrating fifty years on the airwaves, Black Roses sought the show’s top three recurring cases of etiquette deficiency:
1. Table manners
If you love multi tasking, don’t be caught talking and chewing food at once. Mambo also says that, ignoring side-plates by dumping the remains of food and bones all over the table is an insult to a waiter/host.
2. Disregard for personal space
Mambo shuns men who use queuing at banks/public places as pretence for touching or rubbing against ladies derrières.
“Move bitch get out the way!” Ludacris and many others have fallen prey to disturbing the peace. Shouting haphazardly in public places is crude. “There could be six Marys on the street at any one point, so when you are yelling for Mary, you confuse the other five you’re not calling. If and when you see a friend, just run across to them or call their phones”, he says.
Mambo adds, “I had to teach myself humility because I am a celebrity and a public figure. Everywhere I go people want to shake my hand. I let everyone, especially kids, run to me. Little do people know that God blesses the humble.”
Here Mambo’s thought process seems interrupted.
“Something very important, did you know that I was caught right in the middle of Kenya’s attempted coup?”
This is getting even more interesting.
While Tabu Ley played, my life nearly came to a stop.
After the coup, law and order was restored but Leonard still had to appear before court to outline his supposed involvement with the masterminds of the rebellion. He was acquitted. He still insists, “I had no prior knowledge of a plan to overthrow the government.”
The year was 1982, the day, August 1st. On returning home from seeing off his sister at the airport, Mambo heard gunshots at around 4.45 a.m.
He narrates the ordeal to Black Roses …
“At the time, I was head of Swahili/vernacular services at VOK. So, when I heard someone knock my bedroom window I thought it was a colleague who needed the station opened earlier than usual. On stepping out of the house I was met by rebels who asked me if I was ‘Mambo’. I obliged to everything they wanted.”
“They took me with them to VOK and we got there at 5 a.m. The station had been invaded by other rebels and some unruly students from the University of Nairobi. Amidst the chaos, the morning presenter had fled and left the studio unmanned. One of the rebels jotted a message on a piece of paper and then put a gun to my head asking me to read it out to Kenyans on National radio. It said, ‘From today, the government of Kenya has been overthrown. All prisoners are now free and all police officers are civilians…’ and it went on.”
“After that, followed more disorder that saw the rebels leave me in the studio alone. I decided to run as I felt a sinking feeling in my gut. But not before putting Tabu Ley’s album on replay, ‘Baby love me’ was the track playing when I fled to a different studio, where I hid under a table.”
“After several hours of praying, I leapt out from underneath the table. Walking along the corridors I had to jump over corpses. The Kenya Armed Forces led by General Mahmoud Mohammed, then deputy commander, had come to the rescue. My first instinct was to get back to the studio and on my way there I encountered an army officer who had a gun pointed at me.”
“He was nearly pulling the trigger, so I immediately raised my hands and shouted, ‘Don’t shoot, I am Mambo Mbotela!’ In shock, the officer quickly put down the gun. ‘I have never seen you in person Mambo. I would have killed my beloved radio personality without knowing. Please forgive me,’ he said.”
“Scared stiff and conflicted, I went back to the mic to revert my previous statement that the government had been overthrown. For Kenyans to believe me, I first had to reassure them that I was the same old Mambo. I am glad they heard my message and more so, trusted me. I stayed at VOK for three days, running the radio station solo. The GSU guards at KBC today were deployed following that incident.”
“The man who had put a gun to my head (to read the coup statement) was rebel leader Hezekiah Ochuka. He was later hanged for treason. I didn’t think I would survive through that day, radio saved my life.”
Contemporary Radio & Longevity
With a fresh and clean luster blind to present-day radio, “Jee huu ni ungwana’s” prolonged existence is one to reckon with. Its driving forces have been Mambo’s research and the bulk of feedback from listeners and viewers. “Modern-day radio is dominated by selfish individuals who only care for fame and money. This has made up personalities disinterested in making the society better,” he says.
“However, Caroline Mutoko is tough, outspoken and cares for edutainment. I like her a lot,” says Mambo who then asks, “How can a DJ from the disco be a radio presenter?”
His advice on the way forward for contemporary radio is simply, training. Something he says he’s willing to offer to interested persons. “Contentment and arrogance are the main ingredients to cooking immature careers,” he says. So, what’s the secret to longevity? “Be humble and prolific. If you have a show or job, don’t be satisfied there. Start another one.”
Freedom & Heroism
Mambo’s outstanding contribution to the Kenyan broadcasting industry has impacted many lives. “Among my most memorable moments was meeting a fan who changed from being a batterer after he heard me on radio shaming men who beat their wives,” he says.
1984-1990 saw Mambo join the Presidential Press Service under Former President Moi’s regime, a tenure he says gave him the chance to practice journalism extensively in Kenya and the world over.
Among countless accolades, he’s been granted the 1987 Head of State commendation (HSC) and in 1992, the Order of Grand Warrior of Kenya (OGW).
“During Kenyatta and Moi’s era, journalists had no freedom of expression. You must have heard of the torture chambers? You could never draw caricatures of the president like they do now. In terms of variety, for a long time Kenyans had no other choice apart from VOK. I am very happy with the new crop of media institutions and the current press freedom,” says Mambo.
In 2009, Mambo was among a handful of others named ‘Heroes’ by the Kenyan government. However, it is the same system that has left him feeling unappreciated because to him, just naming heroes is not enough.
“The government hasn’t honored me and many others like it should. We need land and jobs as most of us have the required expertise anyway. Joe Kadenge and James Siang’a are veteran footballers who made Kenyan football reach unimaginable heights yet they are now living in poverty. It must be greed on the government’s part. Otherwise, what’s the need of a Dedan Kimathi statue when his family is languishing in poverty?” he poses.
Road after Radio.
Mambo is married and blessed with three children, Jimmy, Aida and George Mbotela. “My kids are all grown up so I have more time and space to concentrate on my jobs,” he says. All work and no play makes Mambo a dull boy. Oh boy! I meant, man. Once every weekend, backed by a live band, he sings Kenyan oldies, better known as ‘Zilizopendwa’ at Vibro Club in Nairobi West area. “My lifestyle is not as tedious as it seems. I’ve been doing this a long time, so every part of it, is me,” he says.
Retirement is unlikely for such a young-spirited and gifted man. In fact, he’s currently planning to start a new show and authoring a new book, both on championing Kiswahili language. His inspiration for both ventures came from the modern disregard for grammatically correct Swahili. “Sheng’ is all over radio!” he exclaims.
It’s enthralling to hear him say that he’s been watching Grapevine (an entertainment show I host), without me asking. I am yet to coerce him into liking and reading my stuff. “You’re good. Soar higher but just don’t compromise yourself for anything, not even favors,” he advices me.
It was an honor to have a candid chat with the icon. I am thankful for that, and my long-finished-cocktail which he paid for. “I would want to start an institute of broadcast training and in my hometown Mombasa even a radio station, Inshallah. When I am gone, I want that to be my legacy,” says Mambo.
Mambo’s self authored book, “Je huu ni ungwana” is available in leading book stores. The radio/ TV show airs Saturdays at 12.45 pm and Wednesdays at 6.30pm respectively.