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Mzee Kenyatta’s sudden death and enduring memories

By | August 21st 2011

By Amos Kareithi  

 There was a flurry of activity as the hawk-eyed vanguards led government officials conversing in hushed tones past the heavily guarded gates.

Inside the maximum-security compound, a group of security agents whispered animatedly before melting into the enveloping darkness back to their guard stations.

And at around 3.30am, the gates of Mombasa State House admitted the man who would make the pronouncement that would shake the nation and alter the country’s political destiny.

“ I cannot recall what exactly transpired inside the State House but some of my men finally intimated to me that something seemed to be amiss.

A top doctor had come and the First Lady, Mama Ngina, had been spotted sobbing,” said Bernard Njinu.

On that inauspicious morning of Tuesday August 22, 1978, Njinu, then a senior superintendent of police, was the commandant of the presidential escort and was at State House, Mombasa.

Earlier in the day, the man he had been minding for the last 16 years had been at Diani where he had attended a public function before retiring to State House.


Flurry of activities

Njinu, who communicated with the Head of State regularly, recalls nothing out of the ordinary had happened during the day and was somewhat surprised later that night when there was a flurry of acvities at President Kenyatta’s State residence in Mombasa.

“He was not sick on that day. I remember he had been sick on a number of times, but he was attended to by his doctors. It was therefore a shock when the doctor, who came in at around 3.30 am, declared that Kenyatta was dead,” recalls Njinu.

From the moment this pronouncement was made, calm was shattered at the residence. President Kenyatta’s body was flown to Nairobi before the public could be informed of his death.

“A casket was fetched from Mombasa and an ambulance availed. Then in mid-morning, the presidential limousine, minus the flag, followed by the casket carrying ambulance and a lean motorcade cruised to the Mombasa International Airport in Mombasa. Some curious members of public just stared,” the retired former police commissioner recalls.

At the airport, the casket bearing Kenyatta’s remains was loaded onto a military aircraft and flown to Eastleigh Airbase and then transported to State House, Nairobi.

And it is only then that the numbing news was broken to a dazed nation, shortly before midday, that the founding president was dead.

At Kimunyu sub-location in Gatundu, where Kenyatta grew up and settled after becoming president, the news was received with disbelief.

“I was at Mutomo trading centre, just a short distance from Kenyatta’s Ichaweri home, drinking in an off-licence bar.

Then the radio announced that Kenyatta was dead. I grew weak in the knees and almost collapsed, the then area assistant chief Nicholas Kiminda recalls.

After gathering his wits, Kiminda whispered the shattering news to a neighbour, and soon the news spread even to those who had no  radios.

Mugure, 78, one of Kenyatta’s neighbours, vividly recalls how a boy passed past by her shop in Dandora loudly proclaiming that now there would no longer be free education and free medical services.  

At first, Mugure dismissed the boy as a lunatic but when another man parked his vehicle next to her shop and switched on his radio, her worst fears were confirmed.

Mugure’s mother, Kabura Kamau, claims that on that day, and long before Kenyatta’s death was announced, a  fog engulfed Gatundu.

Overnight prayers 

She, like another villager Kariuki Kang’ethe, who was a trainee teacher then, was too stunned to whisper the news to others. 

As the nation and the world mourned a distinguished statesman and politician, Gatundu was inconsolable.

 As Kiminda explains, the residents were too shocked to even remember to hold overnight prayers.

They, however, travelled to Nairobi in groups to pay their last respects to their son.

Thirty-three years since Kenyatta’s death, the villagers still retain some treasured memories of a man they loved.

Kiminda cherishes memories of Kenyatta, relaxing in a reed-thatched thingira, at location where his presidential home was constructed later, conversing animatedly with Mbiyu Koinange soon after his return to London in 1947.

Old Kabura chuckles as she recalls how one day she and a group of other women trooped to Kenyatta’s home when he was prime minister, carrying three gourds of muratina, a Kikuyu traditional liquor.

Frequent visists

As an amused Kenyatta presided over the libations, he light heartedly chided the leader of the village delegation, Kamau Kayu, whose mission was to demand dowry.

“Kenyatta’s first wife, Wahu, was Kamau’s sister. Tradition allowed Kamau to take Njohi to Kenyatta and politely remind him of his obligations as he had not settled the dowry.”

But the wiry old man wriggled out of the spot by telling his in-laws: “Kamau, Uthoni mukuru ndutindaga ugichirirwo (You cannot demand dowry or case over marriage, which has been consummated).

With that proclamation, the matter was settled.

Kiminda recalls how he made frequent visit to Kenyatta’s compound most evenings in the company of school children who used to entertain him when he was around.

“It was a ritual for school children to be taken to Kenyatta to sing for him. It was the duty of the chief and the assistant chief to make sure the children reported at around seven every evening. After the singing, I would ensure all the children were safely back to their parents,” Kiminda adds.

Pressing national issues

When the villagers had a local issue, they would wait for him on Mondays, when he used to attend to local issues. The retired administrator reminisces: “We once had a problem with water.

The sub-location chose 20 elders to take up the issue with Kenyatta. One day as he inspected his pet project, the construction of Gatundu hospital, we broached the subject.”

He said he would address the issue but apparently forgot about it owing to more pressing national issues as the locals waited in vain.

During the official opening of Mang’u High School after its relocation to its current site along Thika Road, Kenyatta revisited the issue and directed experts to address the issue, which was expeditiously done.

Njinu recalls how Kenyatta personally recruited him from intelligence service into his escort and later appointed him to head the unit.

He never had an opportunity to go on leave for 16 years.

Njinu reveals: “Once, I requested him to allow me go on leave but he retorted that he too had never been on leave. After all, he argued, I too slept in my home just like he spent his nights at Ichaweri.”

“In 1962, I was fetched from Isiolo and told I was required at Kenyatta’s office. He was  Prime Minister then. He personally grilled me and later I started working for him,” Njinu adds.

For a man who was fearless, Kenyatta’s Achilles heel was his phobia for flying, which intensified, as he grew older culminating in his refusal to board planes.

 “The last time Kenyatta boarded a plane, we were travelling to Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, in July 1964 for three days. From Nairobi, we used an East African Commission commercial flight, but on return we boarded a smaller Police Air wing plane,” explains Njinu.

While en route from Zanzibar, the skies became turbulent and Kenyatta clung to his seat, sweating and wearing a worried look.


Train journey

When the plane finally touched down at Moi International Airport in Mombasa, he called Njinu and his personal driver, Wanyoike wa Thungu, and declared: “Irai kamundu kau gegukuwa nyina (Tell that pilot that he will not fly me again. He is free to fly his mother), an agitated Kenyatta thundered as he walked away.

He called the then Coast PC, Eliud Mahihu, and was later whisked off to Oceanic Hotel where he relaxed for the day.

True to his word, Kenyatta refused to be flown to Nairobi, instead opting for a train, a journey that took him the whole night.

 He travelled in the posh former governor’s carriage.

The only other times Njinu can remember Kenyatta flying was when he went to visit his friend Haile Selassie in Addis Ababa and during two other trips – one to Tanzania and another to Uganda.

Ironically, for a man who hated flying, his last journey from his Ichaweri home was quite spectacular, as military choppers hovered over the village air space, making panicky mothers and children to hide in Thiririka valley.

“I have never seen anything like it. The choppers were so low that they blew off the grass thatch on some houses. The banana stems were broken. I took off to the valley with my two children out of fear” Mugure recalls.

It was a befitting sendoff, Kiminda explains, for Kenyatta whose body had been brought to Gatundu from State House Nairobi a day before the burial, causing the longest traffic jam ever witnessed in the area.

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