- In the spacious reception area, which would have served as a sitting room had Prof Mutua not changed his mind, the portraits of Mandela and other freedom icons stare down on the visitor.
- And just outside the conference room, Che Guevera and Fidel Castro conspire silently.
In the beginning, Prof Makau Mutua — the intellectual known for his hard-hitting newspaper columns — only wanted to build a private home for himself and his family. But that was in the beginning. Somewhere along the way, he decided to change course, converting the home into a hotel and a guest house. Now everyone is welcome to Kitui Villa, also called Ubuntu Village, in Kitui County.
The boutique hotel in the outskirts of Kitui town, is not just another establishment where a weary guest can spend a night, or enjoy a drink by the shallow pool at the edge of the open-plan bar. It is more like a museum, with portraits of revolutionaries, human rights defenders and freedom lovers of a bygone era staring down on the visitors.
Indeed, the 11 rooms at the hotel are named after freedom heroes; Nelson Mandela, Me Katilili wa Menza, Dedan Kimathi, Patrice Lumumba, Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jnr, Julius Nyerere, Syokimau, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga … You get the drift.
Their portraits adorn the walls, all painted by Kang’ara Wanjaabi, who also painted the portraits at the Jaramogi Mausoleum in Bondo.
The heroes represented at the villa have one thing in common — they left a mark in transforming society, not just in their respective countries but across the world through political activism, which led to some being assassinated or imprisoned for long spells in the pursuit of higher ideals.
In the spacious reception area, which would have served as a sitting room had Prof Mutua not changed his mind, the portraits of Mandela and other freedom icons stare down on the visitor. And just outside the conference room, Che Guevera and Fidel Castro conspire silently.
Not too long ago, these two were the silent listeners as the Kitui County Cabinet, chaired by Governor Charity Ngilu, held its session in the adjacent conference room, away from the chaos, hustle and bustle of Kitui Town, where the county government has its seat, which is still under construction. During the meeting, a newly-appointed county minister, Mr Ben Katungi, was sworn into office.
Prof Makau Mutua does not only pay homage to the larger-than-life revolutionaries, artists, writers and political leaders of African descent who shaped discourse on freedom, race relations and the place of Africa in the grand scheme of things. He also has a local touch, albeit a personal one.
As one makes his way into the hotel, built on family land, one is greeted by the soft music of a wind chime on Musyoka’s Way, named after his brother, who used to supervise the construction work before he passed on. This is the walkway that former Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, Ms Ngilu and other dignitaries took when they went to officially open the hotel last month. And Kenyans will remember the image of Mr Odinga, standing behind the bar counter, serving a tot of Singleton to Ms Ngilu as Prof Mutua looked on, bemused.
None of these was done by accident. The establishment was designed by Davinder Lamba, who is known to Kenyans as the founder of the human rights lobby group, Operation Firimbi. For years, Davinder was a familiar face in street protests to demand the expansion of democratic space, release of political prisoners and respect for political freedoms during the Moi administration. Davinder is a professional architect.
This is a space defined by men and women who were radical in their thinking. Even the current manager, Mr Vincent Musebe, started off working at the Kenya Human Rights Commission, alongside Prof Mutua, who was one of the founders of the institution, before moving to Kitui to run the show at Ubuntu Village.
Incidentally, the name Ubuntu invokes the idea of “humanity”. The word has its roots in the Bantu language family, especially the Nguni Bantu of South Africa. At its core is the belief that “I am because we are”.
Prof Mutua said the hotel is inspired by the concept of Ubuntu, or humanness or humanity.
“People who want to think great thoughts and help change our world are welcome here. It is very quiet and far away from the noise and pollution of the city,” he told theSaturday Nation.