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Mango tree that was Kenyatta's rejuvenation spot still stands

A gigantic mango tree inside Jomo Kenyatta Primary School in Kwale County. [Robert Menza, Standard]

Everyone has their favourite places where they go to find peace and relaxation. It could be a spot within one’s own home or an outdoor location.

In the case of presidents, it could be one of the places designated as their official retreats, or, as in the case of Kenya’s founding President Jomo Kenyatta, it could be an off-the-beaten-track location — under a large mango tree in Kenya’s South Coast.

Kenyatta and his successor President Daniel Moi preferred staying in their private residences. However, both frequently stayed in the state houses in Mombasa and Nakuru.

Kenyatta’s visits to Mombasa, which were frequent, spawned a legend because they were never complete without his legendary trips to Msambweni in the South Coast.

He visited the area frequently, especially in August and December. He also never missed to drop by in the area during the Holy Month of Ramadhan when the majority Muslim residents of Msambweni fasted.

Kenyatta was so enchanted with Msambweni that his numerous visits generated legends that he had his roots in the local Digo community.

According to former area MP Kassim Mwamzandi, who was the first legislator to represent the area after Kenya’s independence, Kenyatta’s trips to the South Coast often led to and climaxed with a visit to Bomani village. He usually left the Mombasa State House at around 2pm for Waa Location, where he would share pleasantries with a teacher called Abdalla Bambaulo.

According to Mwamzandi, Bambaulo was an ardent supporter of Kanu, the ruling party then, led by Mzee Kenyatta. In the early days after independence, Kanu had limited following in the Coast region, where the rival Kadu was more popular.

The President would proceed to attend official functions such as harambees that were on his itinerary before being hosted to a lunch of coastal delicacies. The lunch was usually organised by the local leadership, including Mr Mwamzandi.

The presidential convoy would proceed south and stop at Bomani Primary Scoll. The President would head to his favorite sitting place under a big mango tree at the centre of the school, where Digo folk dance groups regaled him.

Mwamzandi, who was among those who would organise the groups, says the folk dances included Sengenya, Sikitsi, Marimba and Gonda. While some of the dances were traditionally performed by the Digo, some were common among the wider Mijikenda community.

Among notable members of the folk dancers was the father of former Cabinet Minister Chirau Ali Mwakwere. Mzee Ali Mwakwere was the leader of the main band that was Kenyatta’s favorite. The old folk dances have in recent years been replaced in popularity by new types of dances such as Kayamba and Mwanzele. “Kenyatta loved this place. He loved the traditional songs, dances and choirs. He used to visit in August and December and also during the month of Ramadan,” said the former MP.

He said Kenyatta would be happy, relaxed and peaceful while resting under the mango tree as he was entertained. 

Elected on a Kadu ticket initially, Mwamzandi was later to become a loyal Kanu MP following the merger of Kadu with the ruling party. In 1975, Kenyatta picked Mwamzandi to be Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs. As the area MP, he was always one of the people who welcomed Mzee Kenyatta to the Constituency.

“Kenyatta knew me in 1963 when I was elected and we became very close when he picked me as an Assistant minister in 1975,” said Mr Mwamzandi at his Bomani home. 

He said Kenyatta knew MPs well because he frequently called Parliamentary Group meetings where he interacted with them.

NO-NONSENSE VISITOR

Mwamzandi said Kenyatta always used the Parliamentary Group meetings to advise MPs on decorum expected of them as elected representatives of the people. “Kenyatta was respectful and never entertained gossip from any leader, not even from those senior ministers close to him,” said Mr Mwamzandi.

Following Kenyatta’s death, Bomani Primary School was renamed Jomo Kenyatta Primary School in his memory. The school was upgraded and the expanded infrastructure unveiled by President Moi in 1982. The mango tree that was Kenyatta’s favorite gate-away still stands tall and is accessible to the public.

Another group of performers who had a spellbinding effect on Kenyatta hailed from Mwakigwena Primary School in Ukunda, a few kilometers from Bomani, on the way back towards Mombasa.

Mr Mwamzandi says the Mwakigwena choir was equally one of the attractions that pulled Kenyatta to Msambweni, always getting a permanent slot in the entertainment programmes at all events presided over by the President. 

Members of the choir, now in their 60s, recall their performances as if they were yesterday. We met some of the members of the choir at their homes near Mwakigwena Primary School, where they did an impromptu performance of some of the songs they sang Kenyatta. 

Despite being in their 60s, the voices of Ms Siriyamoyo Athumani and Mr Mwanakame Juma Ndezi are still appealing and angelic. “When we sang for him, he was overcome with joy,” said Ms Siriyamoyo.

The group is immortalised by the famous patriotic songs such as “Kenya yetu Kenya ni nchi ya ajabu” and “Kenyatta alifungwa”.

LOCAL LEGENDS

In 2017, the surviving members of the choir had an opportunity to meet President Mr Uhuru Kenyatta. The former chairman of Mwakigwena PTA, Mr Mohamed Juma Vumbi, said Kenyatta’s frequent visits to the area generated legends that he could have been an ethnic Mijikenda.

Mr Vumbi, a retired hotelier, who is also the husband to Siriyamoyo, was also a pupil of Mwakwigena Primary when Kenyatta visited the area. He said the school’s association with Kenyatta remains an inspiration to the pupils.

When he was PTA chair, the school got support from Germans who paid for its upgrade and expansion.

Mr Vumbi says Kenyatta’s love for folk dances and choir is a story retold to every new generation locally. But he, like many, feels there is a bigger mystery behind Kenyatta’s attachment to Msambweni.

The first time Kenyatta visited Msambweni was before independence when he met leaders, including former Cabinet Minister Ronald Ngala, at Bomani. 

The mystery of his love for the place motivated many dignitaries to accompany Kenyatta to Msambweni. They included Malawi President Kamuzu Banda was among them.

Kenyatta died in Mombasa on August 22, 1978. Earlier that day, he had made one of his legendary trips to Msambweni, which culminated in a stopover in Bomani, complete with a repertoire of folk entertainment.

[Report courtesy of the Presidential Library and Museum, Kenya]