The father of 11, aged 73, is nostalgic of his heydays despite his business collapsing and wants to pass his 55-years of skills to the younger generation
In 1962, Francis Muia had hit rock bottom after looking for a mechanics job on the streets of Nairobi to no avail.
Just as he was about to give up, lady luck smiled at him, according him what he thought was the big-break in life – an opportunity to service Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s official vehicles.
Muia says he landed the job by pure chance after being introduced to a white settler by one of his brothers in 1962. His brother was employed by the white man, who worked for DT Dobie, in his Kileleshwa home.
His passion for vehicles saw the mzungu take Muia under his apprenticeship at the car dealer in 1969 to hone his skills. At that time, DT Dobie was the leading car dealer in Kenya. Besides supplying top of the range vehicles for State officials, the firm also serviced them.
Because he could read and write, Muia had a head start over other Africans at the firm, which is how he got the exclusive right to service Kenyatta’s official vehicles and those of other top Government officials, including Cabinet Ministers.
So valued were his skills that he was put in charge of opening the day’s job sheet to track work progress on the former President’s vehicles.
“Whites could not sign and certify that they have made and test-driven Kenyatta’s vehicles. Every time we were done working on the vehicles and told them to certify it fit for Presidential service, they would refuse,” recalls Muia.
He explains that the foreigners were afraid that any malfunction on President’s car would be interpreted as an attempt on Kenyatta’s life.
In 1972, Kenyatta came for official opening of DT Dobie offices at Lusaka Road after the firm moved its offices from Bamburi Road.
The occasion accorded him a rare opportunity for a one-on-one meeting with the Head of State, a moment he treasures to date.
“He was jovial. He loved to hear that it was young Africans servicing the vehicle he was driven in. He promised to reward us,” said Muia proudly displaying the photo to mark the occasion.
That would, however, be the last time he met Mzee. He says he had been to State House many times to pick vehicles for servicing, but Kenyatta’s handlers always kept him from seeing him. During presidential tours, he would be included in the travelling party along with two other mechanics who rode in separate vehicles in case Mzee’s vehicle developed mechanical problems.
But some 55 years later, “Muia wa Mercedes” as he became to be known is stuck in a rut, with the rest of the world having moved on. He still struggles to see off his sunset.
When Financial Standard caught up with him in Nairobi’s Industrial Area, at Chepkono Road, off Lusaka Road, Muia, now 73, cuts the image of a man who has fallen from grace to grass, with memories of his heydays as the blue-eyed boy entrusted with servicing Kenya’s founding father’s vehicles at DT Dobie becoming ever faint.
Born in 1942 in Eastern Kenya, the father of 11 children has seen the city transform from a colonial outpost to a concrete jungle of skyscrapers, high-end hotels, night clubs, modern highways and millionaires with money to ‘burn.’
For him however, he has a thousand and one ways to describe the colour of poverty.
After 14 years at DT-Dobie, Muia was given a send-off package of Sh32,000, which he invested in his own enterprise that he ran for only five years.
By that time, Muia he had made a name for himself among his peers, earning the moniker “Muia wa Mercedes” because of his specialisation in servicing Mercedes cars.
“I served DT Dobie between 1969 and 1983 with a first salary of Sh290. I was given Sh32,000 in 1982 as retirement package. That time, a Volkswagen and a Morris Minor were going for about Sh3,000 or Sh2,400 . I bought a Volkswagen as status symbol,” he recalls.
He had set up his own garage in Machakos town in 1983, a decision, he said was informed by the growing opulence among retirees who were quickly setting up businesses in their rural homes.
“So many people were coming home driving Mercedes cars and I saw it as an opportunity to set up a garage. There were more than 70 Mercedes vehicles in Machakos town and that gave me a lot of business,” says Muia.
His good fortune, however, was short-lived as many retirees could not sustain the demand of running the vehicles as their businesses collapsed due to mismanagement, having entrusted them mostly to their children.
“The allure to come Nairobi saw many young men abandon their fathers’ businesses, sell the assets, including the very vehicles that were my source of business,” says Muia.
By 1995, his business fortunes were waning. In 2003, he had to take the painful decision of closing the shop he had held on dearly for two decades.
Chocked by family responsibilities, the old man had to come back to the city. He says that unlike before when little education was enough to secure a job, he has found the going tough as have his children who are all unemployed.
His old good days at DT Dobie, including meeting both Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Moi on different occasions, still bring a smile to his face, albeit fleetingly.
Despite old age, he says he has never given up on his dream of reopening his garage. “If I met the President Uhuru Kenyatta, I wouldn’t ask him for money. I just want a well-equipped working station. I don’t want to die without having passed this skill to the younger generation. That would be mean,” he says.
At the moment, Mr Muia ekes out a living in Industrial Area where he canvasses for jobs at an open air space with other mechanics.
“This being a parking bay, customers bring the cars for service and it is us who meet the Sh300 parking fees,” said Muia, adding that the fee eats into his little earning.
Because he works from the streets without a designated work station, his 55 years of experience do not count for much, with most of his clientele being low-end Mercedes owners. While he may fetch up to Sh5,000 from servicing a given default on a car, well-established garages in the area charge between Sh15,000 and Sh20,000.
His lack of modern diagnostic machines, Muia explains, has made his work difficult, especially with new models being churned out of production lines in Germany every year. “People would walk up to me and give me a pat on the back for my good work. I also inspired many young people who wanted to follow in my footsteps,” he says with nostalgia.
He says if he could rewind the clock, he would probably choose another career path as the one he took to becoming a mechanic for the high and mighty did not land him to riches and fame as he had hoped.