Playing it Safe on the Back of a Tiger: A Review

Title: Riding on a Tiger

Author: Moody Awori

ISBN: 9789966349910

Publisher: Moran Publishers

I was in Standard Three at Busia Airstrip Primary School when I first heard of Moody Awori. He had just joined the campaigns for political office in the 1983 snap elections. Moody, later to be known as Uncle Moody, won the elections and became the Member of Parliament for Busia Central. He beat Dr. Julia Ojiambo, then probably the most educated female politician in Kenya and a very established member of the ruling elite. Moody would go on to become a political giant in Kenya, deputizing president Kibaki until 2007.

Moody’s memoirs, Riding on a Tiger tells the story of this colorful, ever smiling and ageless Kenyan, whose life parallels much of Kenya’s modern history. Although this is the story of Moody’s life, it is also the story of a very successful Kenyan family, which has extended roots in Uganda. From his grandparents, Osinya and Awori Khatamonga (a very renowned hunter of big game), his parents, Mariam Olubo and Canon Jeremiah Musungu Awori (a pioneer Anglican missionary in Western Kenya), his own family and those of his many siblings, this is a book that takes you on a journey from the border town of Busia to many parts of the world. From Butere, where he was born on 5th December 1927, Moody has been there and seen it all, as the cliché goes.

Riding on a Tiger has bits and pieces for different types of readers. For the politician, there are enough intrigues and adventures offering lessons in how to win against the odds, survive in a tumultuous and treacherous political environment, and cultivate and keep friends in different political camps, at different times. Here is the man who beat Julia Ojiambo when she was thought of as politically invincible. His time in KANU wasn’t the best but he made the best out of it. He survived the intrigues in the party, at a time when his relationship with Museveni and the fact of his brother being a national politician in Uganda (would have) made him the subject of state suspicion.

Moody knows how to play it safe politically, which explains how he easily transited from the single party KANU times into the multiparty era, even playing a most significant part in the defeat of KANU in 2002. Even when the Memorandum of Understanding that put NARC into power was betrayed before the celebrations for the electoral victory were over, Moody took the less confrontational option, being in the camp of those who kept hope that good would still come out of the NARC government. Definitely there are some politicians and Kenyans who will think that he betrayed them by sticking with the selfish clique in NARC who arrogated power to themselves. But if you read his book, you get the feeling that Moody best understands the maxim that politics is simply a game.

For the businessman, especially the aspiring ones, here is the story of a man who rose from humble beginnings and built a business empire with roots in many sectors of the Kenyan economy. Moody was selling life assurance to Africans in the 1950s, at a time when it must have been near impossible to convince an African to think about his or her death in future and why he or she should save money for payout to the family in case of death. Later Moody ventured into building houses, became part of the early mortgage selling business in Kenya and worked at the East Africa Industries. But probably the most publicly known family business associated with Moody is Mareba Enterprises Limited, makers of roofing tiles. There is a lot to learn about patience in business, venturing and networking in Riding on a Tiger. The modesty of the story camouflages the fact that this is a man whose name is in many registers of boards of companies in this country. In fact, the business story is probably the most fascinating part of the book after the story of Moody’s work with the Association for the Physically Disabled of Kenya (APDK).

Moody has been involved with APDK, in various capacities, since 1958. He says that while growing up there were three men with distinctive features living with the family. There was a blind man, but who had a gift for music. Then there was a deaf fellow, who helped around the home with work. Lastly there was a cousin to his father, who suffered from an illness that affected his right leg from the hip. Later Moody would see a lot of disabled people begging on the streets of Nairobi. It is the suffering of these individuals, many who could not be gainfully employed, that made him sign up as among the first members of APDK. He would serve the organization with dedication, helping it host the 1992 Rehabilitation International Congress despite the initial reluctance by the government to support APDK’s application.

It is not surprising, therefore, that when Moody was the Vice-President and Minister for Home Affairs, he initiated major reforms in the prison services in Kenya, seeking to reform rather than punish jailed offenders. He introduced changes in the social activities in prisons by supplying television sets to several jails. He allowed prisoners to engage in open forums with the prisons officers on how to make prison life more productive, among other changes. Indeed, if Kenyans were to remember Moody’s public service in future, his prison reforms will always remain his strongest point.

Riding on a Tiger is a book of many stories, all of which will definitely touch the life of different people. For a man whose wife was driven to their wedding by Tom Mboya, a man who had European friends at a time when few Kenyans could count whites as friends, a man whose extended family straddles all sectors of this country’s life, from religion, education, politics, teaching, law, banking, medicine, environmental conservation, sports etc, Moody is quite gentle when telling his life story. He doesn’t seem to exaggerate his achievements. In fact one senses a lot of modesty in the story, unlike a number of recent memoirs by politicians, who mainly sing praises to themselves.

Finally, it is just nice to know that Moody is a corruption of his real name, Mudei (that’s in Chapter One). On the downside are the usual editing mistakes (including that title!) but not too many. Also, beware: Moody often doesn’t seem to finish telling a tale before he begins another!

– Written by Tom Odhiambo who teaches literature at the University of Nairobi.

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