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The life and times of founding father Jomo Kenyatta

By Peter Nguli | June 12th 2013

By Peter Nguli

Kenya: As Kenya turns 50 and celebrates her Jubilee year in 2013, it’s important to remember those who fought so hard for this cause.

Many were tortured, maimed and others killed while fighting for independence (in fact about 90,000 of them) so that you and me can enjoy the freedoms we have today.

By then, life was hard and the freedom fighters used crude home-made weapons against a British army well armed with modern weapons at that time.

Against this background, it’s quite interesting to note that the Sh2 billion compensation and subsequent near apology from the British government’s Foreign Secretary William Hague in the House of Commons this week ideally coincides with our 50 years of Jubilee celebrations of our independence.

It’s also interesting that the British government has promised to help build a monument to commemorate the Mau Mau characters they so referred to as ‘terrorists’.

One of the most notable figures in the struggle for independence was the founder of our nation, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. Let us look at him step by step beginning with his early life.

Kenyatta’s early life

 According to very rare records from the British Museums, Jomo Kenyatta was born in the evening of October 20,1893 at Gatundu village, Central Kenya at exactly 8pm.

Jomo Kenyatta was born Kamau wa Ngengi to parents Ngengi wa Muigai and Wambui in the village of Gatundu, in British East African Colony (now Kenya), a member of the Kikuyu tribe.  He is also the father of Kenya’s 4th and current President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta.

Kenyatta would later on become a well-educated intellectual who authored several books later on in his life, and is fondly remembered as a great Pan-Africanist-like father like his son Uhuru Kenyatta, the current Pan-Africanist president of Kenya.

However, Kenyatta’s real date of birth, sometime in the early to mid-1890s, is unclear, and was unclear even to him, as his parents were almost certainly not literate and no formal birth records of native Africans were kept in Kenya and Britain either at that time. His father died while Kamau was very young, after which, as was the custom, he was adopted by his uncle Ngengi, who also inherited his mother, to become Kamau wa Ngengi.

When his mother died during childbirth, young Kamau moved from Ng’enda to Muthiga to live with his medicine man grandfather Magana, to whom he became very close. And then, the story began.

Kenyatta then left home to become a resident pupil at the Church of Scotland Mission (CSM) at Thogoto, close to Kikuyu Town, about 12 miles north-west of Nairobi.

He studied among other subjects: the Bible, English, mathematics and carpentry. He paid school fees by working as a houseboy and cook for a white settler living nearby.

In 1912, having completed his mission school education, he became an apprentice carpenter. The following year he underwent initiation ceremonies, including circumcision, to become a member of the kihiu-mwiri age group. In 1914, he converted to Christianity, assuming the name John Peter, which he then changed to Johnstone Kamau.

In a highly charged typical Kikuyu traditional life, the practise of circumcision was highly regarded and just as the renowned West African Writer Chinua Achebe would say, circumcision among the Kikuyu was a highly regarded norm and formed the palm wine (or Muratina in this case) from which words were eaten. Kenyatta first worked as an apprentice carpenter on a sisal farm in Thika, under the tutelage of John Cook, who had been in charge of the building programme at Thogoto.

Death threats

The Kikuyu were forced into work by the British authorities. To avoid this, Kenyatta lived with Maasai relatives in Narok, where he worked as a clerk for an Asian contractor.

In 1919 he married Grace Wahu, under Kikuyu customs. On November 20, 1920 Kamau’s first son Peter Muigai, was born. Kamau served as an interpreter in the Nairobi High Court, and ran a store out of his Dagoretti home during this period. He eventually married Grace Wahu in a civil ceremony in 1922. Grace Wahu lived in the Dagoretti home until her death in April 2007 at the age of around 100.

In 1922 Kamau began working, as a store clerk and water-meter reader for the Nairobi Municipal Council Public Works Department, once again under John Cook who was the Water Superintendent. Meter reading helped him meet many Kenyan-Asians at their homes who would become important allies later on in his struggle for independence.

In 1928 he launched a monthly Kikuyu language newspaper called Muigwithania (Reconciler), which aimed at uniting all sections of the Kikuyu. In 1929 the KCA (Kikuyu Central Association) sent Kenyatta to London to lobby on its behalf with regards to Kikuyu tribal land affairs. He returned to Kenya on September 24, 1930.   He returned to London in 1931 and enrolled in Woodbrooke Quaker College in Birmingham.

In 1934, Kenyatta enrolled at University College London and from 1935 studied social anthropology under Bronis?aw Malinowski at the London School of Economics. In 1938 he attained a new name, Jomo Kenyatta. The name “Jomo” is translated in English to “Burning Spear”, while the name “Kenyatta” was said to be a reference to the beaded Maasai belt he wore, and later to “the Light of Kenya”.

In 1942, Kenyatta married an Englishwoman, Edna Clarke. Edna gave birth to their son, Peter Magana in 1943. In 1945, with other prominent African nationalist figures, such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Kenyatta helped organise the fifth Pan-African Congress held in Britain. He left Edna Clarke behind in Britain when he returned to Kenya in 1946.

Kenyatta returned to Kenya in 1946, after almost 15 years abroad. He married for the fourth time to Grace Wanjiku, Senior Chief Koinange’s daughter and sister to Mbiyu Koinange. Kenyatta then went into teaching, becoming principal of Kenya Teachers College Githunguri. In  1947, he was elected president of the Kenya African Union (KAU). He began to receive death threats from white settlers after his election. This is where the Mau Mau story begins. 

The Kenyatta factor in Mau Mau

The story of Kenyatta cannot be told without touching Mau Mau because he was later arrested, charged and imprisoned for this cause. In 1952 violence broke out in the British colony of Kenya, setting in motion what would be arguably the first of the modern African liberation struggles. The characteristics of the Mau Mau Rebellion were very different from later manifestations of the African liberation movement.

Nationalist militancy in Africa began more or less after WWII. The leading factors that coincided at this time were, in the first instance, the emergence of the first generation of university educated blacks who were able to embrace western style politics in the modern context and who could picture a progressive majority ruled state under a pan-African umbrella as hitherto explained. This was distinct from many earlier rebellions that had sought in some way to eject European rule in favour of a return to a utopian past.

In the second instance the demobilisation of large numbers of black ex-servicemen who had served in many foreign theatres – south-east Asia being not least of these – where the mood of liberation had been very strong. The independence of India, granted in 1948, was a huge stimulus for a combination of the disenfranchised masses and a strong, educated and articulate political leadership.

British intelligence at the time, although small, tended to be highly effective, linked as it was to the district and provincial native administration and in the case of Kenya, certainly was one step ahead of the development of a militant movement in the colony.

Civil war

A widespread system of oathing as a method of mass politicisation had been on going for some time and when the first fighters took refuge in the forests of Mount Kenya and the Aberdare Range it was largely as a consequence of local security force pressure ahead of the development of a mass movement.

The Mau Mau Rebellion did not at any time achieve the status of a civil war, being treated throughout by the imperial authorities as a civil disturbance and dealt with by the normal process of law, amplified considerably by stringent emergency regulations.

British military units were introduced, but they operated purely in support of the civil power and did so under tight limitations. The official response, therefore, was regarded as a police action.

The Mau Mau movement itself tended to be disunited in character with large numbers of individually led groups operating independently of one another and without central leadership. There were a handful of substantive leaders – Dedan Kimathi is perhaps the most well known of these – but on the whole the signature weakness of the movement was its inability to combine and act in concert according to a clearly defined political manifesto.

The death blow of the Mau Mau movement was struck in early 1954 in what was known as Operation Anvil. This was in essence a massive cordon and screening exercise, again conducted by the police with military support, in which almost the entire Kikuyu population of Nairobi was rounded up and detained. Intense screening and detention then effectively decapitated the Mau Mau movement by selectively removing and isolating its leadership.

 This was followed by comprehensive ground coverage and further screening throughout the Kikuyu reserves that bordered Mount Kenya and the Aberdares, more or less isolating the active Mau Mau core in the forests.

 From that point it simply became a matter of hunting down and capturing or killing a dwindling hard-core element. By June 1, 1964 Parliament had amended the Constitution to make Kenya a republic.

The office of prime minister was replaced by a president with wide executive and legislative powers. Elected by the National Assembly, Jomo Kenyatta was head of State, head of Government and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Under the provisions of the amendment, Kenyatta automatically became the first president of the Republic of Kenya.

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