James Mukuru was President Uhuru Kenyatta’s area chief in Ichaweri, the village where the First Family hails from in Gatundu, Kiambu County. That was in the early 1990s, when Mukuru was a cut above other chiefs.
Among other duties, Mukuru ensured no tulevis gate-crashed into the Kenyatta’s palatial pad during functions.
Indeed, being area chief for the First Family placed enormous responsibilities beyond dealing with chicken thieves, domestic tiffs and land disputes. Ichaweri was where former First Lady Mama Ngina Kenyatta sometimes stayed when she was not in Mombasa or her Muthaiga home. It is also where Uhuru went to cool his head.
When Mukuru (pictured) was a chief in the 1990s, Uhuru had just returned from Amherst College in the USA in 1985. He was still a happy-go-lucky bachelor and they became friends. Uhuru had not joined politics then.
Mukuru’s home on 11 acres is just opposite the Kenyattas’ and he recalls that despite being a scion of Kenya’s equivalent of the royal family, Uhuru was a generous man who freely interacted with villagers.
“We have been great friends for a long time. When he was vying for the MP’s seat for the first time, I was the area chief,’’ says Mukuru, adding that whenever they were in village meetings, Uhuru often referred to him as “shifo wakwa” (my chief) and that Mukuru needed no introduction as he had known Uhuru since childhood.
Mukuru’s rise to the chief of Ichaweri surprised him as “I was a teacher at Gachoka Primary School in Gatundu. My stellar performance saw me get a departmental transfer as the chief of Kimunyu sub-location. I was surprised when I received the appointment letter because I had not shown interest in that position. I was told that it was an order from above”.
The now 72-year-old recalls how they would drink the finest muratina, the traditional Kikuyu brew, inside a mud house next to the Kenyattas’ home whenever there was a function.
“We had a good relationship and he trusted me a lot, not only because I was the area chief and a neighbour. When Uhuru was the area MP, we used to drink muratina and eat githeri together inside a mud house when he was around. He would order his bodyguards to walk me home just a few steps and help me cross the road when I got high. He made sure that I arrived home safely.”
It was not uncommon for Uhuru to call him from behind a tent when he was area MP, leaving senior officials wondering at their bond which included hiking a lift in his official car after functions.
“President Uhuru knows me inside and out and most of the times, he would breach protocol whenever he spotted me. He once called me behind the tent for small talk and gave me Sh50,000. The PC and other senior government officials wondered who I was,” recalls Mukuru, adding that, “When his son was marrying, I was among the people slaughtering goats for guests. Our friendship has not changed to date.”
Mukuru says Uhuru’s compassion goes way before he joined politics and he was the chair of the area self-help group. “
He loved helping people even though he was not in politics. He would call us for a meeting and afterwards, he would tap my back and tell me to accompany him outside to take something,” he laughs at the memories.
There was another of Uhuru’s visits to Ichaweri as president and “when he saw me in the midst crowd, he called out my name. But as I approached, I was shoved aside by his security detail. We lost eye contact because there were many people.”
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The former chief is anxiously waiting to welcome his longtime friend Uhuru to the village when he retires.
“I wish him well and I’m happy that he became the president because even before he occupied a political office he was always concerned about the welfare of the people.”
Being neighbours also saw the Kenyattas helping raise money to rebuild his father’s house after it was gutted down by a fire.
Mukuru says even Mama Ngina “knows me very well and whenever something happens in this village she must ask me where the problem is.’’
Mukuru retired as area chief in 2005 after 13 years and does mixed farming, growing avocados, Napier grass and subsistence crops.