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Ngala prides in institutions he founded as powerful minister

Eliud Ngala Mwendwa was the son of Senior Chief Mwendwa Kitavi’s third wife. (Photo:Courtesy)

By JOE OMBUOR

Kenya: The land on which sits what today is Githurai 45, a densely inhabited Nairobi estate along Thika Superhighway, was the property of one Mr Smith, a white farmer who reared lots of chicken and cattle.

That was before 1965 when the land measuring 948 acres and the big farmhouse on it changed hands from a mzungu to a black man, Eliud Ngala Mwendwa.

Who is this Eliud Ngala Mwendwa? He is not related to Ronald Gideon Ngala whose name is eternalized on a major street in Nairobi. Son to Mwendwa Kitavi, a prominent colonial Kamba chief in Kitui, Ngala Mwendwa served briefly in the pre-independence multiparty Cabinet under Ronald Ngala of Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) and was part of the 15 member first independence Cabinet at independence in 1963 under President Jomo Kenyatta.

Now aged 92 and peering into the evening of his days from the halcyon environment of a rural home in Ithookwe, Kitui County, a tottery but mentally alert Ngala recalls that the land in Nairobi and all that it held, including bush and permanently flowing streams cost him only Sh330, 000.

Wait before you laugh off the money as paltry. Ngala as a Cabinet minister at the time could not raise the money without a struggle. The Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC) and the Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC) advanced him loans that he paid back after three years.

Yes, a lot has changed since. The Ngala loan is but a fraction of what Cabinet Secretaries earn today and cannot buy even a quarter acre of land in Nairobi.

Curiosity gets the better of me and I ask Ngala how much he and other cabinet colleagues of the time earned. The old man flashes a wry grin, seemingly amused by my question and I see a dental formula that is nearly intact despite the years, save for a few breaches.

 “My salary? Cabinet ministers earned Sh8,000 per month. It was not little where average salary was a few hundred shillings. Allowances helped us pay loans. I had overshot repayment by Sh27,000 by the time I was through with mine.

Invokes memories  

What did he do with the land? Another smile greets my question.

“I maintained the status quo for some time-farming, selling eggs and milk. But that had to change as the bulging Nairobi population spread eastwards, forcing me to sell most of it to people hankering for land. I am today left with barely 33 acres. I have a house there where I take retreats from time to time for a change from rural life,” he says.

He takes a rather long pause, closing his eyes as though in a trance. The impression on his face invokes memories of his recent talk of having died and come back to life. What did he mean? He shrugs off my question. But his next revelation is equally stunning. It is on the car he first drove.

“My first car was a Mercedes Benz that I bought in 1967 for Sh63,000. It marked an immense transformation in my life from a simple primary school teacher moving around on a bicycle before I went into politics. Surprised? The economy was robust and our shilling pregnant with value. So, that was a lot of money!” he says with a laugh.

But what jostles his memory most about his days as minister in the Kenyatta Cabinet?

The old man fidgets on his chair, searching his mind for an answer. He starts by defending Kenyatta against widely hawked claims that Mzee often went physical with his walking stick on his ministers whenever they raised his hackles. He shakes his head to eman “no.” “But he never entertained discourtesy. I remember an explosive Cabinet meeting where Mzee took on Jaramogi Odinga physically and I intervened to separate them. He told Jaramogi in a fit of anger never to imagine that Kenya belonged to him or any individual,” he continues.

 “Mzee was otherwise gentle, but firm. He did not strike me as a tribalist, as did Mbiyu Koinange who seemed opposed to anything that did not seem to favour the Kikuyu community. Tom Mboya was a nationalist, very intelligent and hard working. James Gichuru loved his bottle, but was committed to his job as minister for finance when the Kenya shilling was at its strongest, exchanging at Sh20 to the British pound sterling,”

Ngala boasts to have been the brain behind the formation of National Social Security Fund (NSSF), the National Youth Service (NYS) and the Industrial Court.

“All these institutions came up during my time as minister for Labour,” he says.

 In a voice tinged with regret he says: “It is a pity NSSF has been turned into a cash cow by oligarchs in successive regimes instead of its original purpose to enable the poor save. Such was my vision. Economic security for the poor in old-age. Ironically, I was never considered for a pension,” he says.

He adds: “But I am pleased that the Industrial Court has lived up to its bidding of arbiter between workers and employers. As minister for Labour, I thought it prudent that workers have something different from the regular courts to seek justice when they feel oppressed or aggrieved. The NYS has done a lot in improving the employability of the youth by arming them with practical skills. I surge with pride that I started an organ like that.”

Ngala claims he was rigged out to create room for then blue eyed Daniel Musyoka Mutinda, a lawyer as MP for Kitui Central during the 1974 General Election.  “A District Officer confessed to me that the provincial administration in Kitui at the time was warned that they would be in trouble if I emerged the winner,” he says.

Ngala’s political life started in 1961 during that year’s pre-independence multiparty elections between Kanu and Kadu. He and Fred Mati were elected MPs representing Kitui on a Kanu ticket. Mati was appointed minister for Health and Housing.

Secret dalliance

“Lady Luck deserted Mati and embraced me when his secret dalliance with Paul Ngei’s Akamba People’s Party (APP) was discovered.

Recalls Ngala: “I was travelling with Kenyatta and Mboya to a Kanu rally in Mutomo when we met with Mati returning after campaigning for APP. From that day in 1961, I became the minister for Health and Housing.

“I was elected the first MP for Kitui Central, in 1963 and appointed minister for Labour, a portfolio I held for 11 years until 1974 when I was rigged out on allegations that I was a Mboya man, five years after his assassination. Mati on the other hand was elected the first MP for Kitui North in 1963. He became the first black African speaker of the National Assembly, taking over from Humphrey Slade,” he concludes.