Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who is in the country for the 50th anniversary of his book 'Weep Not Child' has been talking a lot about Gachamba. During his public lectures, Prof Ngugi has been asking his audiences whether they know anything about the man called Maurice Gachamba and his "Kenya One".
To his disappointment, few Kenyans seem to know anything about the Standard Two drop-out, the only local who has built and flown an aeroplane since independence. Some better educated Kenyans have tried to assemble one, but they barely managed to lift their contraptions off the ground. But Gachamba managed the fete way back in 1969 and named his aircraft, while it lasted, Kenya One.
We paid Gachamba a visit yesterday to learn more about his project and possibly understand why Ngugi has chosen to use him to tell Africans "Yes, we can".
Gachamba lives in his home-cum-garage at Blue Valley in Majengo, Nyeri town. We found him surrounded by mechanic trainees, who he was teaching how to repair a water pump.
The elderly man was more than happy to recount how he built and flew his aircraft.
He said he used an 850cc scooter engine and scrap metal to build the fixed-wing plane after observing his friend's aircraft.
The body of the aeroplane, which took three years to build, was made of canvas. After being convinced that his aircraft was good to go, he took it for a test flight.
"I was determined to fly...I towed the aircraft to Nyaribo airstrip using a motorcycle and I cruised well on the runway until the engine was ready to fly," he said yesterday.
Gachamba flew from the airstrip and crossed over the Kenya Police College in Kiganjo. His mission was to fly over Karatina town, but on reaching Marua, nine kilometres from his intended destination, he realised the engine was overheating.
"I managed to turn back towards Nyaribo (airstrip) after flying for about nine miles. It was a frightening ordeal and I was shaking. I was convinced I would die and even vowed never to repeat it again," said Gachamba.
While flying over the Kenya Police College on his return journey, Gachamba could hear, above the din of Kenya One's engine, police recruits shouting: "Ni ga choka, ni ga choka!" (It is flying back, it is flying back!). The joyful shouts rejuvenated his energy and hope of landing safely.
But his hope was short lived.
"As I approached the airstrip, I realised there were some tall trees, and between them a grove. I decided to fly through the section, but little did I know I would hit branches with one of the fixed wings, which caused the aircraft to lose balance and eventually crash."
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Gachamba found himself in hospital. Though he survived the crash, he has scars on his chest and limbs and walks with a limp.
"The wreckage was left in the bush and even the Central PC's Land Rover could not tow it out. After I was discharged, I decided to dismantle the plane and immediately started a vehicle-making project," he said.
At the entrance to his compound in the slum village is a vehicle, Registration Number KML 122, with the brand name UhuRuto 4.
The vehicle is made from a variety of parts; the engine is borrowed from a Datsun 1200, while the body is made of drums. The interior is decorated using formica.
From aircraft to automobiles
The five-passenger vehicle looks like a Volkswagen Beetle, although the roof is made of canvas.
"After the aeroplane project, I decided to make this vehicle. I started it in 1969, and I am now on the final stages. Very soon it will hit the road. I am appealing to President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto to help me present it in competitions," he said.
Apart from the vehicle, Gachamba said he has developed many innovations most of which he cannot remember. All of them were made under a huge avocado tree, which serves as his garage.
Among these are a hand-operated plough, a rodent trap and a cross-bar bow, which led to his arrest about five months ago.
"They claimed I was making a gun-like weapon but I was able to convince them that this is a bow like the ones used by actor Sylvester Stallone in his movie, Rambo," he said.
Before the Nyeri police crushed his dream of eking out a living from the weapon, Gachamba used to sell crossbows at Sh3,000. The rodent trap goes for Sh6,000.
The father of six was given a job by President Jomo Kenyatta at Wilson Airport in the aircraft electrical engineering department soon after he made his own plane. He said Kenyatta, who invited him to his Gatundu home, also gave him a plot of land in Nyeri where he currently resides.
Interestingly, Gachamba quit the job after short while. The reason? "They only allowed me to do wiring while I knew everything about making aircraft," he says.
That was not the only time he expressed impatience. When he was a boy, he quit school in a huff after his teacher beat and scolded him publicly when he failed to add 16 plus four.
"I could not grasp anything in class. One day, my Standard Two teacher called me in front of other pupils and started beating me up because I could not understand anything," he said.
The man, "who could not grasp anything in class", now says he understands the problem facing the Kenyan youth and has a cure for it. He wants to teach them mechanics to help them escape unemployment and the deadly trap of drugs.