On a visit to Kenya in 2005, I spent an extraordinary afternoon with Njoroge Mungai, MD, one of the country’s elder statesmen and a 1957 graduate of Stanford medical school. It was one of the most memorable experiences of that trip, so it was with bittersweet sentiment that I learned over the weekend that Mungai had passed on at the age of 88.
Mungai was one of the founders of modern Kenya and served the young East African country in many leadership capacities, including ministers of defense, foreign affairs, health and environment and natural resources. He helped establish the nation’s regional health care system, as well as its first medical school, which is based at the University of Nairobi.
I met Mungai on a trip to Kenya with my longtime friend and documentary photographer Karen Ande, in which we were interviewing families and children affected by AIDS. We had just spent several days with orphaned teens who were taking care of young siblings in a gritty slum neighborhood of Nairobi.
We then headed to the outskirts of the capital city to Mungai’s 45-acre estate, where he was growing roses for export. We were greeted in the expansive foyer by a stuffed lion as Mungai, a slim dapper man in a grey suit, arrived from a side door, his cane quietly tapping the floor.
We had expected perhaps an hour of his time for an interview for Stanford Medicine magazine, but it stretched well into the afternoon. After drinks on the patio, he invited us to a sumptuous buffet in a room peppered with photos of him with some of the world’s great leaders of the time.
With the air and caution of a diplomat, he told us stories of his life – from his humble beginnings as the son of a cook to his schooling in South Africa and the United States and his leadership in the revolution that led to the establishment of the Kenyan nation in 1963.
A cousin of the first Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta, Mungai was particularly proud of his role in helping Kenya maintain a neutral stance while the world powers were creating chaos in neighboring countries in their eagerness to carve out their positions in Africa. He was also proud of his work in bringing the United Nations Environment Program to Kenya, the only country outside the West where the world organization has a presence.
We left him in the fading light of day with four dozen beautiful roses, a gift from a very gracious man.
Photo by Karen Ande
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