How battle of the classes became tribal

By WAINAINA NDUNG’U

Few Kikuyu will admit to participating in the oathing in Gatundu in 1969, let alone disclose what they entailed.

One elderly Nyeri resident who at first confessed to having taken one oath developed cold feet when asked about the details. Like the oathing done during the Mau Mau era, the Gatundu rituals were not always conducted with willing participants. And, like the oathing two decades earlier, they faced strong opposition from Christian groups within the community and soon came to an end.

Jaramogi Odinga addresses a rally in Nakuru on Kenyatta Day celebrations of 1964. [PHOTOS: FILE/STANDARD]

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a Kikuyu said: "I’m going to Gatundu for a cup of tea," it often meant something else. Those seeking political or economic favour would marshal delegations to visit Gatundu and pledge their loyalty to the embattled President Kenyatta. There was talk that some of these delegations also took oaths to defend the ‘House of Mumbi’, the name given to the central Kenya community.

Kenyatta’s biographer Jeremy Murray Brown wrote: "Ridges of Kikuyu-land seethed with activity as lorry-load after lorry load made its way to Gatundu to ‘have tea’ with the president." Brown writes that the oathing quickly got out of hand. "Enthusiastic but crude sycophants targeted committed Christians, leading to a protest from the Church and a call for an end to the oathing from the president."

Simple oaths

The simple oaths, which had many variations, often involved biting some bitter leaves dipped in animal blood or biting, chewing and swallowing a piece of goat meat and pledging loyalty to the government of the day. This tribal exercise came after close to a decade of ethnic power struggles that finally boiled over with the 1969 assassination of Cabinet minister and Kanu Secretary-General Tom Mboya.

In the book, Church, State and Society in Kenya, Galia Sabar writes oathing ceremonies were imposed on the Kikuyu to foster unity and ensure Kenyatta and his ruling clique kept their grip on power. That grip had been badly shaken after the assassination of Mboya, a powerful Luo ally of the President, galvanised support for KPU, the Luo-dominated opposition party led by Oginga Odinga.

The gunman was believed to be Nahashon Njenga Njoroge, a Kanu member put to the task by an unknown munene (big man).


There has all long been talk Mboya was being groomed for bigger things. Many historians believe his killing was linked to his attempts – at Kenyatta’s request – to rid Kanu of corrupt politicians.

Bitter mistrust

Many of them were already envious of his high-profile role in fighting Odinga and the communist threat. The assassination divided not only the Luo and Kikuyu, but also the ‘House of Mumbi itself. A bitter mistrust developed between the Southern (Kiambu) and Northern Kikuyu (Nyeri) over who might be a credible central Kenya successor.

Josiah Mwangi ‘JM’ Kariuki and to some extent Finance minister Mwai Kibaki were fancied in the north, while the south had the more powerful and ambitious pretenders to the throne, including Mbiyu Koinange, Njoroge Mungai, and Attorney General Charles Njonjo.

Sabar writes, "As KPU’s vision of change took hold among sections of the population, existing conflicts within Kanu were sharpened; between Kikuyu and non-Kikuyu… and between Kiambu leaders and the more socialist-inclined Nyeri and Murang’a Kikuyu, from whom most Mau Mau fighters had come and who continued to suffer under Kenyatta’s regime."

The frustrations included the 1964 refusal to register the Kenya Freedom Fighters Union. In February 1969, two other ex-freedom fighters’ unions – the Kenya War Council and Waliolete Uhuru Union – were banned as "dangerous to the good government of the Republic".

The ban was linked to the connection of the ex-freedom fighters and their three most prominent political sympathisers: Odinga, Achieng’ Aneko and Bildad Kaggia, who had formed KPU after acrimoniously exiting Kenyatta’s government in 1966.

This relationship between KPU and the ex-freedom fighters arose from a shared view of how Kenya should have dealt with wealth distribution at Independence (see related story). The failure to recover land taken over by settlers or to redistribute wealth was an issue the land-starved ex-Mau Mau and the socialist-minded Kanu leaders agreed upon.

It arose directly from a compromise made during the Lancaster House conferences of 1960, 1962 and 1963 by the Kenyatta/Mboya group, securing independence, but conceding the right to protect settlers’ property. Odinga opposed this deal at Lancaster, favouring wealth distribution. But he lost the battle to Mboya when the latter brought in a respected American jurist who proposed a solution others involved in the negotiations accepted.

Odinga’s unhappiness with the deal was evident from the very early days after Kenya became independent.

A Time magazine article from June 1965 read the situation thus: "Ever since Kenya became independent two years ago, Jomo Kenyatta’s rallying cry has been harambee (Swahili for "all pull together"). Most Kenyans have been quite happy to put aside their tribal and political rivalries and give pulling together a try. The notable exception: Oginga Odinga, 54, Vice-President of the nation."


The US magazine, whose writers may have held anti-communist biases, wrote of Odinga travelling around the country "heaping red-tinged scorn on Kenyatta’s ties with the West".

The VP went as far as to tell a rally in Nyanza that Kenyatta was taking instructions from the UK and US, prompting five party leaders to sign a petition demanding his resignation. Kenyatta bided his time then dropped the VP from a delegation to the British Commonwealth conference.

Unnamed people

He then gave a speech criticising unnamed people who he said wanted to trade Kenya’s colonial masters for new ones.

"Some people deliberately try to exploit the colonial hangover for their own selfish purposes, or in order to serve some external force," the President said. "We must reject such people publicly. It is naive to think that there is no danger of imperialism from the East. In world power politics, the East has as many designs on us as the West.

This is why we reject Communism. To us, Communism is as bad as imperialism. What we want is Kenya nationalism. There is no place for leaders who hope to build a nation of slogans."


Nine months later, Odinga led a walkout from Kanu to the newly formed KPU. Kanu responded by amending Kenya’s constitution to force a ‘little general election’ in which KPU was only able to win parliamentary seats among the Luo in Nyanza province, whereas its candidates in then Kikuyu-dominated Central province were trounced. There followed three years of political harassment and detention of party leaders.

The final act for KPU was the confrontation over Mboya’s death in 1969 at the New Nyanza General Hospital (now the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital). Kenyatta and Odinga traded abuse at the opening of the Soviet-funded facility. As the president was leaving, his motorcade was stoned and at least a dozen people shot dead by the president’s bodyguards.

Not long after, KPU was banned and Odinga detained for two years.


Released in 1971, Odinga went into political limbo until Kenyatta’s death in 1978.

The decade saw the ailing Kenyatta and others close to him continue to feed their greed for land at the expense of the poor, particularly the Northern Kikuyu most closely connected to the forest Mau Mau of the early 1950s. Odinga would later say Kenyatta had degenerated from a statesman to a simple land grabber. The statement would cost him his post as chairman of the Cotton Lint and Seed Marketing Board, with Kenyatta’s successor promptly sacking him after angry reactions from then powerful Constitutional Affairs Minister Charles Njonjo and others.

Then President Daniel Arap Moi would later place Jaramogi under house arrest for agitating for multi-partyism. He died on January 20, 1994 aged 83.

Additional reporting by John

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Gatundu Kikuyu House of Mumbi’