OBITUARY: Robin – radio legend, gentle-giant and friend gone too soon
Isaac Swilain Nairobi
“The greatest tragedy in life is not death, but a life without a purpose,” Myles Munroe, the Bahamian televangelist who died in a private plane crash on 9 November 2014, once said.
Miles could have been right depending on the side you sit on and how you choose to look at it. However, when the cruel hand of death visits your homestead and picks one cherished flower, we all question the wisdom of those words.
This is because human life is precious and it hurts most when those taken away from us are people we cherish.
Simply put, since Monday night at around 2315hrs when news filtered through that my boss and friend, Royal Media Services Radio Managing Editor Robin Njogu had succumbed to Covid-19 after a brave battle spanning four weeks, my heart sank. I was crushed to the bone marrow. The news was devastating. It is terrible. It hurts.
I sat alone at the dining table, late into the night, trying to come to terms with the degree of my loss, the loss to Njogu’s family, and the loss my employer RMS had suffered in Njogu’s demise.
His death shocked us all – the RMS management and we – the team he led in the radio editorial department.
In the natural scheme of things, people lose hope whenever their loved ones are admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) wings of hospitals. However, for Njogu, we held our collective hope that he would recover and join us at work, to do what he loved most – fact-checking, breaking news and sending news alerts. And there was every hint that he would win the war. To me, his battle with Covid-19 was just but a passing storm.
The pain gets even more pronounced when I roll back the clock four weeks ago when he first broke the news to us (radio editors) that he’d been unwell and that his doctor had recommended a Covid-19 test.
Three or so days later, on the same platform (the radio editors WhatsApp group), he confirmed that he’d tested positive and that he was under treatment. As usual, we wished him well, urging him on. I didn’t panic and I can’t think any of my colleagues did. This is because several RMS staff had tested positive for the virus since the first case was reported in the country in March last year and they’d defeated the virus.
Most importantly, we got encouragement whenever we paid him a visit at the Aga Khan University Hospital where he was admitted.
I particularly recall on my first visit, some three weeks ago, which we made together with news editors Young Muthomi, Lincoln Njogu and newsreader Fred Ng’etich.
On that visit, there was no much engagement with him as he lay on his hospital bed, with his face down and on a ventilator. However, his sense of presence and ability to twist his arms to acknowledge our presence gave us assurance.
His spouse, now widow Carol, was particularly upbeat telling us he was getting better each day. In fact, Carol said Njogu would be in better mood whenever his colleagues from work paid him a visit. This gave us the strength and determination. Muthomi particularly made it a personal duty, visiting him at the hospital nearly every single day, and keeping close contact with Carol and in turn keeping us all informed with the latest development.
The second visit happened exactly two weeks ago, on March 3, which happened to be Njogu’s 45th birthday. The team together with the HR department decided that since it was his special day, there was need to make it memorable for him, his hospitalisation notwithstanding. To achieve this, the team rallied, raising cash. The response was thick and fast, showing the love the team had for Njogu. Again, together with Muthomi, RMS HR Manager Philip Owenga and Njeri Ngugi, we drove to the hospital to present the gifts, on behalf of the team, and to wish him a speedy recovery.
We ordered a cake baked, with a microphone-shaped design on the face of it. This is because Njogu, throughout his professional career spanning over two decades, had dedicated his life serving as a radio journalist. The team also bought a small digital radio. The plan was to have the radio switched on, in his hospital room, and have an anchor in studio wish him a happy birthday, live on air.
At the hospital, we found our boss, HR Director Rose Wanjohi patiently waiting for us, together with Carol and a few friends.
Carol, his spouse, had become so much acquainted with the hospital staff, thanks to the long period Njogu had been indisposed.
On this day, we found Njogu seated, not on his bed but on a chair with the ventilator on. The hospital crew was very cooperative and supportive too. We sang him ‘Happy Birthday’ and showed him, from the safety of the glass wall, the presents we’d brought him. Though he couldn’t talk since he was on ventilator, he looked strong and acknowledged our choral, by stretching his right arm across his chest – a gesture of gratitude.
Carol, a humble and appreciative soul, was moved to tears, thanking us and RMS over and over again. Rose later led us in a word of prayer and we left the hospital happy and upbeat that our warrior, the towering yet gentle soul, would soon be out.
If hope, goodwill and unwavering support heals, then Njogu would have made it out of the hospital. Throughout his sickness, I witnessed first-hand the love and outpouring of goodwill he got from RMS leadership and his fellow colleagues.
Days after his birthday, he continued to get better, so we believed, as he continuously engaged us on WhatsApp, helping give story suggestions and angles, from his hospital bed. He was also particularly thrilled by a certain video that trended online saying “it helps some of us heal faster’’, to which we responded with banter.
We knew our leader, our warrior, the force behind our newsgathering would soon be out, only to be ambushed with devastating news of his demise on Monday, when all indications had pointed to the contrary, the death coming just days after that of his beloved mum.
His death is a personal loss – not just because he was my immediate boss but because of the bond we shared in the three-and-a-half years that I worked under him.
Njogu, like me, had worked at the Nation Media Group. He joined the company in late 2012 while I joined two months later, in January 2013. His exit, like his arrival, came ahead of mine as he bowed out in 2015 to join RMS. I would later exit in January 2017 to join him at RMS.
At Nation, we never worked closely. While he led the news segment on the radio department on fifth floor at Nation Centre, I was domiciled in the print section, as a Daily Nation sports reporter, on third floor.
But it is at RMS that we hit it off, the chemistry greased by our work-ethic. He was a stickler for thoroughness. He did not entertain mediocrity, was organised and a professional per excellence, virtues which I cherish too. Above all he was a workaholic. If you needed to reach at 11pm, he would always be available, online.
I particularly remember the day I auditioned for the Radio Sports Editor job, and the grilling he threw my way. There were three panelists – Rose the HR Director, Mutwiri Mutuota who happens to be my predecessor (and was on his way out) and himself. Of the trio, Njogu was unflinching in the interview. He was thorough, just to ensure that whoever he was picking was the right fit for the job.
Upon joining RMS, there is no dark maze of doubt that we did tremendous things together – online and in radio – across the 13 stations.
He would tell me, “I don’t know sports but I know I have a strong person to manage that segment. I don’t have to worry about it, but where there are challenges, keep me in the loop.”
But that was not entirely true, for he loved sports, golf being his number one love.
Upon his demise, tributes have poured in thick and fast, his peers hailing him for his work-ethic and professionalism, something that I witnessed every day.
In fact, in my career now stretching 10 years I have had some amazing bosses but Njogu ranks top of the pile. In managing the sports docket, he gave me a freehand and I can’t recall even a single day that he questioned the editorial or management decisions I made. His mantra was simple: “Be professional and do the right thing.” Whenever there were grievances, the laid down procedure had to be followed.
But it is not just the cordial work relationship that we enjoyed. Our friendship extended beyond the work place. I earned his trust and became his Mr Fix It.
Often, he would throw my way duties that were actually his, aware that they were in good hands. I never complained and neither am I, but I took it as a compliment. I particularly remember in 2019 when he’d been invited to give a motivational talk to journalism students at the Technical University of Kenya. Since he was held up with other duties, he delegated it to me (but for other factors it never materialised).
Months later, he tasked me to represent him at the Kenya Editors Guild forum in Mombasa. In short, Njogu had full faith in me. Whether it was an editorial policy paper he was drafting, he would seek my input or throw it my way, a testament to the bond we had.
We also had numerous lunch dates. I particularly remember one we had in February 2020, just before coronavirus pandemic struck Kenya.
The venue of our lunch meeting was Java, Lenana Road. We compared notes and discussed lots of things under the sun, moreso the virus. I remember him saying that if the virus was to be confirmed in Kenya, he would move his family from Nairobi to deep, deep in the village, and he would take a sabbatical from work.
Hardly a month after our lunch date, Kenya would record her first case of coronavirus in March 12 2020. Njogu, being the ardent news gatherer, didn’t make good his pledge to flee Nairobi but became frontline warrior in leading the gathering and dissemination of news on the pandemic to the radio listeners. For some reason I didn’t remind him of his threat to take a sabbatical.
In retrospect, he helped fight the virus with distinction, dedication and brutal commitment through rich, accurate and factual information to radio listeners through the news bulletins, earning himself a State commendation award.
Sadly, it is the very virus that he worked so hard to fight and campaigned against that claimed his life.
He was a good man, a gentle-giant, a soul who loved fine things. Mbuzi choma was one of his favourites. He loved humanity too. Had a clean heart and a desire to nurture young talents which became more of an addiction.
His last words to me, on Wednesday last week, when I called to check on him, but we couldn’t talk much as he was running short of breath were: “Thanks Swila. Help Lincoln take charge of the team. You have my full support.” The words were in a text message in reference to the absence of news editor Muthoni who had also been indisposed, having contracted the virus.
In penning this piece, late into the night, when every member of my household has retired to bed, I mourn a man who was not just my boss, but a friend.
In venting this out through the pen I hope to eliminate the pain, anguish and boiling anger, and to find solace and strength to face the future.
Lastly, to borrow a football analogy, footballers fight and play for their coaches. At RMS, I fought for Njogu and I hope to continue doing so even as his towering shadow, which has cast a dark spell among the squad he’s left behind, remains in my mind. I hope that we and his young family which has been torn by his demise, and that of his mother last week, find solace and strength and that the good Lord will comfort them.
To the good Lord I say thank you for the opportunity of having known and worked with a gentle soul. Fare Thee well brother.