On that Sunday morning on April 6, 1996, only two men could cross the ragging waters of Njoro River in Narok, Kenneth Erickkson of Finland and Jonathan Toroitich (JT), son of Kenya’s president Daniel Arap Moi, in one of the wettest editions of the Safari Rally.
Jonathan, who died on Saturday, was like a bull. With his childhood buddy Ibrahim Choge, not even the ragging waters of Njoro River could stop them.
They were racing against the best. They finished 10th overall. And a year later, they finished fifth!
The two made it. The rest of the rally drivers chickened out. More importantly, ‘JT’ made them believe that you work hard minus family baggage. Although I never enjoyed his largesse, I learnt a lot of lessons in life from ‘JT’.
In the face of the raging waters of Njoro River, Erickkson, in a Prodive Subaru Impreza, went sideways. He hit dry land. Jonathan, in a Kenya Airways -Toyota Celica GT4, ploughed head on. With Ibrahim Choge, they hit dry land.
Kenya won as a country, not time-wise but because Jonathan was sponsored by Kenya Airways.
We all applauded in victory at the end as they arrived at Kenyatta International Conference Centre in their battered Toyota Celica GT4 car, the sump guard making horrendous noise. Jonathan was no longer son of Daniel arap Moi, but a national hero.
One year later, Jonathan and Choge made the world to sit up and watch. They won the Kenya National Rally Championship. Jonathan was invited for the Concours Motor show at Ngong Race Course in Nairobi.
We got excited. He never drove the Toyota Celica GT4 car. We got high, extremely high. But the following day, work was as usual. I never met Jonathan again, but we spoke on phone.
Jonathan was a nice guy who would not mind sharing a glass of beer with friends, among them his ‘supposed rival’ Patrick Njiru who, according to Njiru’s wife Esther, they always enjoyed a cup of tea at his Njiru Caltex Petrol Station.
For Phineas Kimathi, the man tasked with returning the Safari Rally back to the World Rally Championship, Jonathan was “a peerless prince who made us believe.”
A nice guy, and able competitor, top teams reasoned. A works drive was in the offing. But at 44, he was done. Safari Rally was no longer appealing.
Jonathan was now his own man. And he reached out to Kenyans across the divide. He made his money in rally.
In death, I remember Jonathan as a shy man, never using his father’s resources but reaching out to ordinary people. For Jonathan represented something ‘mwanachi’.
His worst day was when death claimed his childhood friend and navigator Choge. In a bar in downtown Nairobi, word went round that Jonathan was not going to get the 1997 Motorsportsman of the Year Award after winning the Kenya National Championship. Reason? None.
Out of the blue, his teammate Wanja Kiano called me to confirm this. I had no idea. Just rumours, I said.
Finally, we sat down long to write Choge’s obituary. Jonathan’s mother was to follow later.