From classroom to Cabinet

Sunday July 3 2016

Minister for Water and Environment Sam Mangusho Cheptoris (centre)

Minister for Water and Environment Sam Mangusho Cheptoris (centre) at his thanksgiving ceremony in Kapchorwa District last weekend. PHOTO BY JOYCE CHEMITAI 

By Allan Chekwech

Academician, businessman, politician, leader. Sam Mangusho Cheptoris combines all those attributes. However, brutal but honest are the three words that best describe the Kapchorwa Municipality MP and also minister for Water and Environment. And at his thanksgiving last weekend, Fr Godfrey Okello described him as resilient, determined and candid.

Born on December 12, 1949, in present day Kapchorwa District, the towering and imposing man has an equally towering story; one cobbled by sheer hard work and ambition from grass to grace.

Little is said about his early childhood, which was characterised by struggles faced by a typical African child. The larger part of Cheptoris’ story starts from the moment he graduated from the University of Nairobi with a degree in Literature.

Climbed up the ladder from scratch
The Nabumali High School and Nairobi University educated academician-cum-politician has climbed up the ladder, according to his elder brother and former minister of Animal Husbandry and Fisheries in the 1987 National Resistance Council Prof Sheme Chemangey Masaba.

“I am 10 years older than him. So I saw him grow up and know his story very well…” he said at the thanksgiving ceremony last weekend.

Cheptoris’ career stretches back to 1975 when after Nairobi University, he started to teach Literature and English Language at Sebei College, Tegeres. Two years later, he went to Makerere University for a postgraduate diploma in Education. This saw him rise to deputy head teacher when he returned to Sebei College, where he served until 1981.

In 1982, he was appointed acting head teacher, but only served for one year before going back to Makerere University to pursue a master’s degree in Education. While still at school, he was transferred to Comboni College in Lira as deputy head teacher.

In 1986, the call came; he was needed back home in Gamatui Girls Secondary School as head teacher.
A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step, the saying goes. The posting came with its blessings and hurdles brought about by the poor roads and bad terrain to the school.

At Gamatui, Joyce Chemitai, a journalist who studied there under his regime says, Cheptoris endeared students by calling them “My Girls”.

“He would, while addressing the assembly, ask what his girls wanted to have for the weekend. Whether they wanted to eat beef, dance or whatever sort of entertainment they so wished to have,” she says.

At the recent invitation for the thanksgiving, he stressed that My Girls have to attend the function, much to the chagrin of naysayers who expected the minister to say ‘my daughters’. Very few knew where the My Girls phrase was coming from.

However, the carrot would only end at that. On a Monday, his colours changed. He barely wore a smile when it came to matters of academics.

At his village in Kapteret, the new job soon got him the name headmaster. He would ride his motorcycle at weekends to the local drinking joints, share stories with the locals before taking the long tedious ride to Gamatui.

“He bought a motorcycle while head teacher. He would tie his briefcase on the carrier and ride through the rough terrain to Gamatui. We would see him every week ride past our school Sebei College,” an employee of Kapchorwa local government says.

Meanwhile, his business abilities began to manifest. He started trading in timber in a bid to boost his income. The eucalyptus trees in his sub-county fell, but he also planted them in plenty, emphasising the tree-planting drive among students even in his next posting in Sebei College.
He served in Gamatui until 1998 when bigger things came knocking. His students had been excelling, after all.

“When I realised that Gamatui was a smaller place for you (Cheptoris), I lobbied that you are transferred to Sebei College. I knew you were going to do great work,” Kapchorwa RDC Jane Frances Kuka said of the minister last weekend.
The transfer to Sebei College would mark an illustrious and defining 12-year career. He inherited a shambled regime; with the school literarily rotting away and being weighed down by rampant strikes.

“When I came here (in 1998) this school was rotten. You couldn’t walk in the school compound without seeing faeces. The field was full of such waste and there was no fence, the feeding was poor and strikes were common,” Mr Cheptoris told students during an assembly in 2001, while reminding them of the journey they had travelled in sanitising the school.

Stick and carrot approach
It is at Sebei College that his star shone. His stick and carrot approach to management earned him respect, fear and love in equal measure.

His attention to discipline and academics was one remarkable attribute, but he struck a balance for this when at weekends he allowed students have worthwhile entertainment; punctuating the offer with dances, drama, movie nights and even football.

Cheptoris also rewarded excellence. Whichever house won an athletic, cleaning or music competition walked away with a bull. He soon got the name bull, a name his former students use to date.

The man, whom Justice Barishaki Cheborion in a casual chat with this newspaper two years ago said he was proud of because of his integrity and academic life, was not short of humour. In 2003, he bragged to his students how he was going to sit on a plane for several hours on his maiden trip to Accra, Ghana. But the laughter ended at that. At 5am, he would be at school, helping the teacher on duty wake up students and supervise morning chores. He lashed and laughed at equal measure.

The greatest highlight of his tenure in school, however, is spotting the young talent in athletics and offering them scholarships at the sub-region’s best secondary school. Among the many beneficiaries are the world and Olympic gold medallist Stephen Kiprotich.

Upon landing at Entebbe International Airport, Kiprotich after winning the 2012 London Olympics marathon gold medal thanked, in particular, Mr Cheptoris for giving him the platform to express his talent.

After retiring in 2009, he in 2011 vied for the Kapchorwa District LC5 position on the NRM ticket and won. The traces for his love for modern life were evident while in this office. He furnished his office with phone and laptop battery chargers, woollen carpet and nice furniture.

“My brother changes cars like shirts. For the one car I have owned for 10 years, he has bought 10 cars. He has burnt his money that is why I am richer than him,” Prof Masaba joked, sending the crowd into laughter. Mr Cheptoris is also the proprietor of Kapchrowa Standard Academy and Cheminy Standard Academy; both secondary schools in Kapchorwa and Kween districts. Many electorate view him as a wealthy politician.

After one term as LC5, he had his ambitions higher. His aim was to go for the Tingey County seat, but the creation of Kapchorwa Municipality placed him in a new constituency. He vied for it with Maj Leonard Chemonges and Andrew Timothy Mangusho.

In a WhatsApp chat group – Kootaap Sapiiny – Mr Cheptoris told members, largely drawn from the Sebei sub-region, that he was ready to take on the new task.

What has endeared him to many electorate is his character. He is a man you would love to hate. When you enter his office, he will tell you off even before you sit. And the next minute he will be sharing banter and doing serious business – professionally.

So, even his strong criticism of beggars could have gone with the wind at his thanksgiving ceremony, for the next day, it is said people who trooped to his home in quest of handouts walked out of the gate smiling – both in the mouths and in the pockets.

His junior minister for Environment, Dr Gorretti Kitutu, said he had known Mr Cheptoris for less than two weeks but they had already struck a good working relationship.

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