I learned the meaning of “déjà vu” when I was thirteen years old, thanks to Uncle James. With striking clarity and detail, before his car appeared, tires rolling on the jacaranda-strewn gravel driveway, I knew that he was coming to visit: every, single, time.

My father would have picked him as brother, if we could choose relatives. He settled for Best Friend: and their souls married into the spiritual and intellectual strivings of their day. One fed the other in endless conversations driven by an intense urge to survive stagnating aspects of neo-colonial Kenya. They were concerned about culture and life in Africa, about reviving indigenous forms of East African art.

My father Elimo Njau, an educator-artist, Uncle James Kangwana, a communications guru who began his career with the British Broadcasting Corporation in the 1960s. The two were co-founders of Paa Ya Paa in 1965, along with Sarah Kangwana, Rebeka Njau, Terry Hirst, Jonathan Kariara, Pheroze Nowjoree, Primila Lewis and Hilary Ngweno.

When all of them congregated in our sitting room there was certain buoyancy in the Present they were unfolding.

I was a careful eavesdropper back then: children were not allowed to remain with the adults in the sitting room. When guests arrived, you showed up to curtsy and say Shikamoh, and then dutifully retreated to a bedroom, to the gallery area, or to the garden. I am so thankful, that as an adult, I can tap into the bits and pieces I monitored in my youth.

I felt intelligent around Uncle James Kangwana. The force of his gaze was like a torch, shining out the darker recesses of my heart. I felt like an evolving young one, already vital enough to carry the baton. The way he’d say, “Vizuri sana, Hana,” [good job, Hana], commending my efforts as tour guide of the gallery, as sweeper of the crushed jacaranda leaves…

His voice is etched into my consciousness; like coconut water, clear and fluid, it quenches in baritone eloquent, melodious utterances intonated in Kiswahili.

I retrieve those memories with gratitude, to have been so closely linked to him, his family and with sadness because:
"Veteran broadcaster and former Kenya Broadcasting Corporation's (KBC) Board of Directors Chairman James Kangwana, died Tuesday night, May 18, 2010, at the age of 75…" The Daily Nation.
And I am here, living in America, not having had the opportunity to sit and talk to Uncle James and Auntie Sarah in the past two decades; my visits home controlled by stringent Paid Time Off (PTO) hours in corporate America; I selfishly guarded the time for my parents.

But with his passing, the promise of tomorrow emerges. I telephoned Auntie Sarah in Nairobi this week and offered my condolences. I reconnected with my 'cousins' Flora and Candy. We will reinforce our reconnection in the by and by, close the gaps, flesh out the truths in our history.

May His Soul Rest In Peace.

aka Mama Shujaa.


  1. Hello Mama Shujaa,

    Its sad to hear of the death of a man who had such an influence on the young you. He made it to 75, so the life that he lived should be celebrated.

    Incidentally, on the morning of Tuesday 18 May, 2010, the same day that Mr Kangwana died, my dearly beloved older sister passed on, quite suddenly and without warning. Only last week, she and I were on the phone and there was no reason to suspect that my life was about to be turned upside down. I mentioned it on my blog too..

  2. Pole sana Mama. Mungu ailaze roho yake pahali pema peponi.

  3. May he rest in peace. 75 is far too young.

  4. Yes, may he rest in peace and God bless his soul.

  5. You had a magical childhood and fabulous extended family. I can see the budding writer in your description of eavesdropping. I’m sorry to hear of your loss, but this is a lovely tribute to your Uncle James.

  6. This is a wonderful tribute, and you conjure the essence of the man so beautifully and without angst. He would no doubt be honoured.

  7. pole sana, mama, pole sounds like James lived a long life, enriching the world as he went along. that is a life well lived, i say. sometimes you must really hate the distance between you and seems so very far away. sending much love, jamani. xxx j

  8. Lovely tribute, you have a way with words that paints vivid pictures. May God give peace to Aunty Sarah,Flora and Candy. RIP James.

  9. Thank you all so much for your kind words.

  10. just seen this. i miss uncle James Terribly. Hope uncle elimo and Aunt Felda are well.


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