Mzee’s rise from carpenter to a revolutionary

ALBERTO LENY  @PeopleDailyKe

From his birth in 1889 where he was named Kamau wa Ngengi (later baptised Johnstone), he went through an evolution such that when he died in 1978, Jomo Kenyatta had become an enigma.

Those familiar with the tumultuous period of colonial rule, the advent of independence, the heady early days of self-rule and after can recall the enduring “Kenyatta effect” in Kenya.

Born in Ng’enda in present day Kiambu county, his father Muigai died when he was a small boy. His mother, Wambui, married Muigai’s younger brother Ngengi, from whom he got his name, in line with Kikuyu traditions.

Young Kenyatta left Ng’enda village in November 1909 to join the Church of Scotland Mission at Thogoto, where he became an apprentice carpenter in 1912. He was baptised Johnstone in August 1914. He left Thogoto that year and went to Thika, where he worked as a messenger for John Cook, a Briton who ran an engineering firm.

Like many of his Kikuyu kinsmen, he refused to fight on the side of the British in War World I, and instead went to live with his aunt who had married a Maasai chief. He adopted many Maasai customs and adornments, including a beaded belt known in Gikuyu as kinyata, from which he derived his name Kenyatta.

He moved to Narok in 1917, where he was involved in transporting livestock to Nairobi as a ranch hand/clerk. He relocated to Nairobi and worked in a store as he took evening classes at Thogoto. He moved to Dagoretti in 1919 and worked for Chief Kioi.

Kenyatta married his first wife Grace Wahu in 1922 after she had borne him a son, Peter Muigai, in 1920. He then worked as a stores clerk and meter reader for Cook, who had been appointed water superintendent for the Nairobi Municipal Council.

The position gave him financial clout. He lived in Kilimani and built a second home in Dagoretti.

At the time, African and Indian communities were beginning to resist the oppressive and exploitative laws imposed on them by colonial authorities.

Kenyatta being led by guards to the courtroom during his trial in Kapenguria, northern Kenya.

Africans were enduring the worst forms of subjugation under colonialism which relegated them to third-class citizens in their own country, requiring them to carry a kipande (metal identification) at all times.

The white settlers had forcibly taken away huge swathes of their prime land, displacing them. As anti-imperialist sentiment rose, political upheavals ensued after the end of World War 1, giving rise to the East African Association of Harry Thuku that saw the massacre of 21 protesters in 1922 around the present day Norfolk Hotel.

Kenyatta’s interest in politics emanated from his friendship with James Beautah, a prominent figure in the political movement, the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA). Beautah in 1926 declined an offer to travel to represent KCA in London and instead recommended Kenyatta, who became the movement’s secretary.

By 1928, Kenyatta was deeply involved in KCA activities, chief among them opposition to the Land Boards introduced by the British Governor Edward Grigg before the Kenyan Legislative Council.

In May KCA launched a Kikuyu language newspaper, Muigwithania, to raise funds for its activities and a subtle campaign against colonial rule. The governor eventually shut down the newspaper.

By February 1929, KCA had raised enough funds to enable Kenyatta sail to Britain from Mombasa. In London Kenyatta made contacts with radicals of the Labour Party, including several communists, and also travelled to Moscow via Berlin.

He wrote articles for the British Communist party’s newspapers in which he criticised British imperialism. Kenyatta returned to Kenya in September 1930, with his status enhanced by his stay in Europe.

After almost three years later in May 1931, Kenyatta returned to the UK to represent KCA before a parliamentary committee on the future of East Africa.

From 1935 to 1937, Kenyatta was employed as a linguistic informant at University College, London and took a course in social anthropology under Bronislaw Malinowski at the London School of Economics. Their association saw Kenyatta write Facing Mount Kenya in 1938, challenging colonialism. He published the book under the name “Jomo Kenyatta”, the first time he had done so.

When World War II started in 1939, Kenyatta left London for Sussex, staying there throughout the duration of the war, settling into a rural farm life. He entered into a relationship with a British woman Edna Grace Clarke, with whom they had a son, born on August 11, 1943.

In 1945 he and other African activists including Kwame Nkrumah organised the fifth Pan-African Congress, which asserted that although it desired a peaceful transition to African rule, “as a last resort may have to appeal to force in the effort to achieve freedom”.

Kenyatta returned to Kenya in September 1946 after Britain’s victory in the war. He met the new Governor Philip Mitchell and accepted a post on an African Lands Settlement Board in 1947.

He also met the man who would later become his closest confidante, Mbiyu Koinange, with whom they started a teachers’ college in Githunguri. Koinange made him vice-principal. Koinange then left the school in Kenyatta’s hands and moved to England. Kenyatta made friends with Mbiyu’s father, Senior Chief Koinange, who gave him one of his daughters, Grace Wanjiku, as his third wife. She, however, died while giving birth to their only child Jane “Jeni” Wambui Gecaga.

In 1951 Kenyatta married his fourth wife Mama Ngina, a student at the Githunguri college, who gave birth to a daughter Christina Wambui (now Kristina Pratt), Anna Nyokabi Muthama and sons Uhuru and Muhoho.

Kenyatta’s biographer Jeremy Murray-Brown describes him as “a flamboyant character with an extroverted personality who liked to be at the centre of life and was always at a rebel at heart who enjoyed earthly pleasures.”

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