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Krystall: Man who drove the social reforms agenda

Dr. Eric Krystall (left). FILE PHOTO | NMG

Dr. Eric Krystall (left). FILE PHOTO | NMG

In my last column I wrote about the first part of the rich and varied life of my dear friend Eric Krystall, from his birth in South Africa to his years in the UK and in America until his arrival in Kenya in 1971. Today I want to continue sharing his journey up to his death earlier this year, just two weeks before what would have been his 92nd birthday.

In his autobiography Swimming through Life he wrote about his first impressions of Nairobi, including mentioning its then tallest building, Bruce House – where my office was located from 1977, when I first arrived in Kenya.

Eric and his team immediately got down to planning their pioneering population education programme in the then new Longonot Place, and this was at a time when the country was experiencing a population explosion that easily exceeded the ability of the economy to cope with the fast increasing number of people.

With its sky-high fertility rates, Kenya had already become the first African country to adopt a population policy – under the leadership of Tom Mboya, the Minister for Economic Planning and Development. When Eric arrived, while the policy was already in place it was yet to reach the implementation stage.

Indeed the whole concept of “development” was new, he explained in his autobiography, not just in Kenya but all over the Third World. Eric & Co were greeted with open arms by the enthusiastic professionals in the Kenya government, and not least by his fellow-student from their time together at the London School of Economics, Mwai Kibaki – now the Minister for Finance and Planning.

Eric’s “Programmes for Better Family Living” took advantage of all his earlier practical American experience in implementing high impact social initiatives, and his great leadership style, based on training, sharing and teamwork, together with his ability to integrate in all environments, led to it progressing smoothly.

But ups and downs inevitably followed, both in Kenya and other countries where Eric became active with the programme. A major personal incident saw his 1980 ending on an explosive note – literally. For Eric and his wife were enjoying their new-year’s eve dinner at the Norfolk Hotel when the terrorist bomb exploded there.

In 1983, after a stint in Rome, the opportunity arose to start the USAID-funded “Family Planning Private Sector Programme”, which was again a great success, supporting private sector company clinics to add mother and child health and family planning to their services. One of its high impact and enduring features became the use of puppet shows as a communications tool, following a great example Eric came across in South Africa.

He arranged for over 500 Kenyans to be trained as puppeteers, and all over the country shows were put on dealing not only with family planning but with other topics that were otherwise too sensitive or embarrassing to discuss openly. “Puppets against AIDS” followed, and also productions to combat topics such as female genital mutilation, early marriage, corruption and conservation.

In 1984 I introduced Eric to my Rotary Club, which became a further avenue through which he was able to work on social issues – not least Aids and including beyond Kenya. A few years later I also persuaded him to become our president, where he was again able to apply his great leadership skills.

Meanwhile Eric and Abigail had separated, and in 1991 he married Nani Croze of Kitengela Glass fame. Since then he has been enjoying life out there in Kitengela, overlooking the Nairobi Game Park. A great swimming enthusiast, he built a pool on the compound, and there as well as by the ocean in Watamu where they own a property, Eric was able to contemplate his life’s journey, one that both started and ended in Africa.

There is much more I could have told you about my friend, but for now let me just end by saying how honoured I feel to have known him as I did. For those of you who would like to learn more about his life you can access his autobiography on Amazon. I strongly recommend that you do. And if you want to contribute to the Puppetry Hub, go to https://secure.changa.co.ke/myweb/share/38278