Why Harry Thuku’s legacy faded out


By Maina Muiruri

On the 46th Madaraka Day, yesterday, we surveyed the remnants of a chapter of Kenya’s pre independence history that may have faded. But it had begun with a force that is credited as one of the initial stones cast in the liberation struggle.

Harry Thuku, remembered by few Kenyans, apart from history seekers and those who see the memento road board bearing his name opposite the Central Police station, Nairobi, is hardly ever recognised when accolades of heroes of the independence struggle are mentioned.

Harry Thuku’s mansion built in 1934.

Harry Thuku (seated) and his wife Tabitha Wanjiku during their wedding in the 1940s.

Visitors at Harry Thuku’s and his wife Tabitha’s mausoleum at the family farm in Githunguri District. [PHOTO: JONAH ONYANGO/STANDARD]

Yesterday, his family was not among the long list of invited State guests to the Madaraka Day fete which normally includes families of Kenyans who contributed to the country’s history in various ways.

In a serene corner of his family’s expansive farm at Kambui village, in new Githunguri District, Thuku’s resting place is shrouded in silence, with only a marble tombstone bearing testimony to who the man was and what he did for the country.

Words he uttered in 1921, and for which he was arrested and jailed, becoming one of the first Kenyans to suffer physical harm for this country, are engraved on his mausoleum, like a testimony to his early resolve.

The epitaph reads: ‘We demand repeal of natives registration, ordinance, compulsory taking of girls and married women for plantation work and increase in hut tax.’

Sharp contrast

The bold statement appears to be in sharp contrast to the fact that he never became a national figure after independence.

Written material about the man who put his life on the line in 1921 reveals why his legacy may have derailed from the path he had embarked on and ended up as a footnote in the freedom struggle history when he died in 1970.

Nowhere else is the impact of Thuku felt than at the magnificent home he built for his family in 1934.

His two sons, George Ngotho and Harry Thuku Junior live on the farm with their families.

Thuku remained active in politics and activism until 1944 when he devoted himself to full time farming.

Those, including Jomo Kenyatta, who were then bitterly opposed to any co-operation with the white colonialists may have seen Thuku’s move as collaboration with the oppressors.

The fact that he was allowed to plant coffee when few other native Kenyans had the privilege was seen as a reward for stopping his agitation for liberation.

Political scientist John Lonsdale writes that in 1959 Thuku was the first African board member of the Kenya Planters Coffee Union (KPCU).

With those perks added to his clout, Thuku openly fell out with pro-independence leaders.

Not surpringly, he started opposing the fiery Mau Mau movement’s violent style in the struggle.

Broadcast speeches

He was actively opposed to the Mau Mau and attacked it in broadcast speeches.

On December 12, 1952 Thuku was given a slot at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation to air his views. Concidentally, KBC is today located on Harry Thuku Road.

Lonsdale records his words on radio: "Today we, the Kikuyu, stand ashamed and looked upon as hopeless people in the eyes of other races and before the government. Why? Because of the crimes perpetrated by Mau Mau and because the Kikuyu have made themselves Mau Mau."

On January 28, 1954 Thuku joined 22 Kikuyu leaders at Kabete in Kiambu in appealing to the people to denounce the Mau Mau.

That was during the heady days of the State of Emergency when Kenyatta and five others were in jail accused of perpetrating terrorism through the Mau Mau and other means.

Increasingly unpopular

Others writers say Thuku became increasingly unpopular, with his new image obliterating his earlier legacy as a freedom fighter.

After independence, only a street in Nairobi was named after him. But the Kenyatta government largely ignored him until he died in 1970. Thuku was born in 1895 at Kambui in Kiambu.

In 1921, Thuku founded the East African Association, the first multi-ethnic political organisation in the East African region.

He campaigned against the ‘kipande’ system of pass controls, and forced labour for women and girls.

Thuku’s interest in the oppression of women earned him popularity among women and he was able to involve a large number in his organisation.

Thuku was arrested in connection with his political activities on March 14, 1922.

Demonstrations to protest his arrest rocked Nairobi, in the area near today’s Central Police Station, where he was held.

Public prayer

The first demonstration, on March 15, passed off peacefully, dispersing after a public prayer.

But, the following day, a crowd estimated at close to 10,000, mainly women, gathered near the police station and demanded his release.

In Kenya’s first recorded police shooting of demonstrators, white officers opened fire, killing at least 25. Whites settlers lounging at the nearby Norfolk hotel were reported to have joined in the shooting, killing some protesters .

Thuku was exiled, without trial, to the then Northern Frontier Province.

He remained there until 1931 when he was allowed to return to Kiambu. He remained politically active in the 1930s and 1940s, founding both the Kikuyu Provincial Association in 1935, and the Kenya Study Union, the precursor of Kenya African Union, in 1944.

And that was when, the man who would have been great, relented and let his hands off the struggle.

Historians see his turning point as the path that led to his name missing from the country’s great pages.