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What new book on Mboya says about the Kenya that he wanted

Tom Mboya shares a hearty moment with students at Mangu High School in November 1963. [File, Standard]

An important book by an important author is in the bookshops. It is a biography of Tom Mboya by B.A. Ogot. 

Prof Ogot was a close friend of Tom Mboya and a key part of his personal political team. Most importantly, he shared an equal vision for Kenya.

Mboya was born in 1930 in Ukambani, where his father was a plantation worker. This gave him a Kenyan outlook and a major political advantage. Mboya could speak several languages – Dholuo, Gikuyu, Kikamba, Kiswahili and English.

Mboya’s entry into politics was early. Within a few months of the Declaration of the Emergency on October 20, 1952, Mboya, was already an official of the Kenya African Union (KAU.) and collecting funds for the defence of Kenyatta and the other Kapenguria defendants.

WWW Awori, Joseph Murumbi, and Mboya were in touch with the Indian diplomatic mission in Nairobi which was supporting KAU. He was only 22 years old. The following years, from 1952 to 1962 were busy with national, international and particularly pan-African trade union activities.

By 1960, at the age of 30, he was on TIME magazine’s cover (March 3, 1960). Known internationally, and politically strong on the national scene, it is not now widely understood that in the making of the Independence Cabinet, half the Cabinet was to be chosen by Kenyatta and half by Mboya.

The week of the TIME issue, he had invited my wife Villoo and myself to his home in Eastlands in Nairobi. He was an extremely early riser, and by six, he had read the day’s newspapers, completed his correspondence for the day and was ready for the political work of the day. We arrived at his place at 7am. 

Among other issues, we talked at length about the friends we shared with him among the Kenyan students in India at universities in Mumbai (then Bombay), Kolkata (then Calcutta) and Delhi. We discussed the cover story on him. Mboya asked us what our plans for further studies were and we discussed these with encouragement from him.

Mboya’s political leadership of the 1957-58 African Elected Members Organisation was a masterpiece. In this confrontation he defeated the White Settler moves of the Lyttleton Constitution (1954), the March 1957 first elections for African Elected Members, and the 1958 Lennox-Boyd Constitution.

These were all manufactured by the British to install a ‘multi-racial’ future under the ‘leadership’ of the white settlers. The settlers saw a serious chance of bringing in white settler self-rule and Dominion Status on the Rhodesian model, with Blundell as the first Prime Minister.

Mboya anticipated this very real danger. Through strategic boycotts and the astute marshalling of national and international opposition, Mboya blocked these moves. His leadership and political foresight protected Kenya from going down the route of the Rhodesian UDI, civil wars and delayed independence. 
 
A purely personal assessment of Mboya, showing us what Mboya means by defusing the obvious extraordinary stresses from his multiple roles, or what books lay on his bedside table would have been valuable. Mboya was a very fine dancer, what music did he listen to?

Ogot deals extensively with one of Mboya’s and Kenya’s great achievements – the beautiful Kenyan Student Airlifts to the USA. There was not one Airlift. There were THREE airlifts. The First Airlift of 81 students was in 1959. “They were selected on merit and came from all parts of the country,” says Ogot.

The Second Student Airlift was in 1960. This time, 288 students were sent, including 33 from Tanganyika, nine from Uganda, and one each from Zambia, and Malawi. Fifty-three women were in this batch including Wangari Maathai, Priscilla Njeri, Josephine Kamau and Lucy Kago. The Third Students Airlift took place in 1961 and took over 300 students, 16 per cent of whom were women.

The most important meaning of Tom Mboya’s work which still holds great validity for us, though he was assassinated 54 years ago, is of a Kenyan Kenya. Not of a tribal Kenya.

Look at his work: in KAU, in the trade unions, in the international trade unions, in pan-African institutions, in Addis-Ababa, in the Nairobi People’s Convention Party, in LEGCO, in Kanu, in the Air Lifts, in the Scholarships, at Lancaster House, at his ministries. There is no taint of tribal bias anywhere.

All his actions exemplified the Kenyan Kenya we all sought. Prof Ogot emphasises this with his quiet call to us to return to that achievable ideal.

- The writer is senior counsel

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