An insider sneak peek into Jomo’s private life

Mzee Jomo Kenyatta acknowledges cheers from traditional dancers at the State House, Nakuru, in May 1976. [File, Standard]
Lulu happily trotted on the manicured lawns ahead of its bearded master, who was majestically following, unaware the discomfort its presence was causing. The host, another bearded man who was in his 70s could hardly contain himself as he watched the little dog in hisgarden.

The host was tempted to swing his bakora (walking stick) and whack some sense into the little canine, which had in a way desecrated his harrowed private world. However, the host’s great respect and admiration for Emperor Haile Selassie, the supreme ruler of Ethiopia, calmed him a bit.

As this unfolded, the head gardener, James Mwaura, watched bemused. He knew the State House flower garden was Jomo Kenyatta’s private world where only the closest of his friends were allowed in. For the time he had been working there, only Charles Njonjo, the Attorney General, dared to stroll the gardens and admire its bewitching beauty.

Whenever he felt sleepy, tired or stressed, Jomo liked strolling in the garden where he asked questions about some flowers. The excursions were therapeutic and he always emerged more energised and refreshed, says Mwaura.

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On this particular day in June 1964, Jomo was carrying his walking stick as he conducted the Ethiopian Head of State in his tour. This is the same bakora he normally wielded as he walked barefoot along the beach in Mombasa.

On a number of occasions he had told his social secretary Elizabeth Mumbi that he carried the bakora to deal with any stray dog that attempted to cross his way.

He hated dogs, thanks to his days in Europe where he said he had had more than enough of the stray mongrels in his life. At State House, he barely tolerated Lulu, the little dog accompanying Emperor Selassie because he was a friend, otherwise it would have been banned from ‘desecrating’ the roses.

There were times he could not walk, especially when hiseczema took its toll, leaving one of his legs inflamed and in excruciating pain.

Curiously for a man whose personal doctor, Dr Njoroge Mungai, was the Minister for Health, and as a President was entitled to the best healthcare money could get, when eczema struck, Jomo resorted to unconventional methods to dilute the pain.

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“Every time we went to Mombasa, he would ask me to apply mud from the ocean on his skin. I would also mix it with sea water to cool the skin,” says Mumbi. Dr Mungai was never consulted about this affliction.

Wherever the President went, there were two nurses on the ready and there was a functional clinic at State House in case the old man needed any medication.

The garden at State House had a special meaning for Kenyatta. Every day, six of the most beautiful rose buds were picked. They were then taken to him by the social secretary so that he could choose one for his lapel. A rose was a mandatory embellishment for his suits.

During his days as the head gardener at State House, Mwaura, who is now a canon with the ACK recalls: 

“Every day, I would select six of the very best rose buds and put them in a glass of water. Mumbi would bring them to Mzee so he could select his favourite for the day for his coat lapel (boutonniere). Even when Mzee was travelling I would treat some (roses) so that they would stay fresh.”

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When he visited Coast, Mzee enjoyed walking along the beach in shorts, and a shirt Mama Ngina had bought him, and sandals but at times he removed them and hisminders would carry them behind him as he swung hisbakora, barefoot.

Loved herbs

The Head of State’s love for plants was infectious. He loved herbs so much that if while driving he saw a plant he thought had medicinal value, he would abruptly stop the motorcade, walk out of his limousine and minutely scrutinise it, explaining its attributes to those present. Then Kenyatta would direct one of his guards to slash its branches or uproot it and carry it to State House. Here, it would be mixed with broth from goat meat and served to the commander in chief to share with his guests.

This side of Kenya’s first president’s life is chronicled by Mumbi in her memoirs, Miss Uhuru 1963: Working for Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, which illuminates some of the old man’s foibles.

Although Mama Ngina was the official First Lady, Kenyatta never forsook his past wives and at times they would meet at State House or in Gatundu where the first couple retreated to every evening, leaving their school going children, Nyokabi, Uhuru and Muhoho under the care of a nanny, Wambui Njage, at Caledonia House, which shared fences with State House.

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When Grace Wahu wanted to see Kenyatta, she would at times simply hike a lift from Mumbi, who had been assigned an official vehicle, and travel to Gatundu where she would spend the day, especially on Mondays, and return to her abode in Dagoretti in the evening.

Once in a while, the President too visited Wahu in her home. Whenever the President went calling he did so discreetly, shedding off some of his security detail. Rahab Mwathi, the house keeper at State House, would pack groceries in Mzee’s car as well as cooking fat (Kimbo), unga and detergent (Omo), which would be delivered to Wahu.

There was some protocol hitch one time when Edna Clarke, the woman Kenyatta had married while in Britain, came to visit him in Nairobi. During one of the two visits she made in 1964 and 1971, she was booked in Hilton Hotel and was provided with a presidential vehicle. This presented a problem because the security team thought it was risky to use the official car and insisted that she be allocated a vehicle with ordinary number plates.

During the visit, many people went to see her and she too visited Mama Ngina in Gatundu and State House in Mombasa, where she was serenaded with traditional dances as Mzee cheered on and carved for her the choicest pieces of roast meat.

“While at the table, Mzee would cut the juiciest part of the meat and give it to his wife (Edna) as a sign of loveto her. Kenyatta carved the meat with expertise and handed it over to Edna with such gentleness,” Mumbi recalls.

Englishman’s mannerism

Indeed owing to his stay in Europe for more than 10 years, Kenyatta had developed some mannerism of an Englishman and loved their food and a special liking for cheese, which he took after a meal.

He always carried it as snack while travelling and his car had enough supplies.

In the early days after, Kenyatta kept alcohol in his car, especially Vat69. This greatly tickled Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, who used to tease him about VAT69 when he came to visit.

He would jokingly ask Mzee to bring the special drink but was disappointed as his friend had stopped taking alcohol.

Most of the time, the President would put water or soda in his special, tall glass which he said was easy to handle. It had to be carried whenever he went for he could not accept to use a replacement.

His meals began with a cream of tomato soup as a starter, followed with fish and the main dish was often sirloin steak, which he liked cooked medium, accompanied by English potatoes, vegetables and Yorkshire pudding with gravy. Apparently he loathed githeri (beans and maize) as well as pork and sukuma wiki (kales).

On one Christmas occasion in Nakuru, inspired by a group of children who sang carols beautifully, the President called out on his children to do the same. He was disappointed when they could not and the day was saved by the children of his nephew Ngengi Muigai.

This earned Nyokabi, Uhuru and Muhoho a mandatory place at All Saints Cathedral for Sunday school.

The Sunday school lessons at the ACK cathedral were cut short after Mama Ngina’s brother, George Muhoho, who was a Catholic priest at the time, intervened and the children started going to the Catholic Church. This is how the children ended up attending Catholic schools.

At one time the First Lady was at a loss because her official driver was not around, but she insisted on being driven to Njiru to check on the President. Mumbi describes how terrified she was with idea of driving Mama Ngina. Her biggest concern was what she would tell the Head of State in the event anything happened along the way.

Luckily just as she was driving out of Ichaweri, word came that Kenyatta was on his way back from Njiru.

Jomo KenyattaHaile SelassieCharles NjonjoElizabeth Mumbi