Tom Mboya: Inside mausoleum where the politician Kenya will never forget is buried

Former trade unionist Tom Mboya’s mausoleum at Kamasengre Village, Rusinga Island in Homa Bay County. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

“Thomas Joseph Mboya

August 15, 1930-July 5, 1969

“Go and fight like this man who fought for mankind’s cause, who died because he fought, whose battles are still unwon.”

These are the words that have been inscribed on slain former Cabinet Minister Tom Mboya’s grave in his mausoleum in Rusinga Island, Homa Bay County.

The writings signify Mboya’s fight against illiteracy, corruption and other social ills. Mboya was also known to have fought for better healthcare that remains a mirage decades after he was killed outside a chemist in Nairobi on July 5, 1969. For many visitors to Homa Bay, a tour of Mboya’s mausoleum is considered an important highlight.

The multi-million shilling mausoleum, built two years after Mboya’s death, is tucked in a lower corner of the compound. It’s bullet-like roof structure is designed to signify the kind of death Mboya suffered - he was felled by an assassins’ bullet. The catacomb, built through the support of Mboya’s family and friends lies in about half-acre, surrounded by a perimeter wall. One has to pass through three gates to access the tomb where Mboya was buried.

Two road signposts from the Mbita causeway guide visitors to Mboya’s crypt that lies in a well-manicured compound dotted with flowers and trees. When The Standard visited the silvery bullet-shaped mausoleum, one of Mboya’ family members, Tom Odhiambo Owuor, receive the crew and showed it around. Owuor works as a curator with National Museums of Kenya.

Luo traditions

Closer to the burial chamber’s second gate, where Mboya’s first house, popularly known as simba, as per Luo culture, stood before it was demolished, now grows well-tended grass and flowers. His brother Alphonse Okuku, who also inherited the former minister’s widow as per Luo tradition, built a new house for Mboya’s family after his death.

Owuor said Mboya bought land in Lambwe but died before occupying it. Mboya’s polygamous family, including step-mothers, live in their lands adjacent to his mausoleum. Mboya’s father had five wives. Four are still alive. Owuor noted that thousands of people visit Kamasengere village in Rusinga Island every year to see Mboya’s burial place.

Before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, hundreds of visitors thronged the mausoleum daily to see where one of Kenya’s finest trade unionists was laid to rest and learn the country’s history. However, Owuor says, only between 10 and 15 people now tour the site in a day due to Covid-19.

“Prior to the pandemic, we used to receive hundreds of visitors including students from primary and secondary schools, as well as universities and colleges from as far as Eldoret and Nairobi. The numbers have since reduced,” Owuor said.

The crypt that has a sitting space of about 100 people under the cool tree shades, also attracts dignitaries, ministers, MPs, governors and corporate leaders. It is also attracting international tourists. Mboya was only 39 when he was killed.

Deputy President William Ruto, former Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka, Devolution CS Eugene Wamalwa, Migori Governor Okoth Obado, Kisumu’s Anyang Nyong’o, and Cornel Rasanga of Siaya are among those who have visited the place where Mboya was interred.

Inside former trade unionist Tom Mboya’s mausoleum at Kamasengre Village, Rusinga Island in Homa Bay County. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

“We have also been privileged to host a number of other diplomats including Germany’s ambassador and Uganda vice-president,” Owuor said.

The remains of American national William Scheinman lies besides Mboya’s as per his request. Scheinman, who was born in New York in 1927 in a rich Jewish family, died in the US in 1999, where he was cremated and his ashes ferried to Rusinga for interment, next to Mboya’s grave.

Scheinman is regarded as having been instrumental in the famous education airlift project that saw Mboya and other East and Central Africa students get scholarships in American universities. Owuor said Scheinman was a close friend of Mboya’s and shielded him and other Kenyans from racial discrimination during the airlifts when “racism barred Africans and Americans from living together in hostels.” “He arranged with well-wishers to host Mboya and other Kenyans,” Owuor said.

Scheinman also helped Mboya’s sister, Dr Pamela Mboya, go to college in the US where she did her undergraduate, Masters and doctorate studies.

Scheinman was banned from Kenya after Mboya’s death because he claimed the country’s leadership was responsible for his death. He only returned to Kenya after Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s death. Also buried at the family graveyard is Mboya’s brother, Alphonse Okuku, who later served as Mbita MP. He died in 1992. Several other family members are buried in the cemetery next to Mboya’s grave.

At Tom Mboya’s museum, the family has preserved his collections containing rich history.

“Many of his collections are still outside there because this building is not big enough to accommodate them. We want to put up a bigger building,” Owuor said.

The collections include photos when Mboya was made an honorary citizen of Kansas City. They also include those when he was made a Kamba community member and a Kuria warrior. There are also the boats that were used during the slave trade. However, of key interest to most visitors has been the briefcase Mboya was carrying when he was shot and his signature fly-whisk.

A photo of a chain ferry used to carry Mboya’s remains from the mainland to the island, his filled-up visitors’ books, newspaper collections, his wedding in 1962 in Nairobi and a Bible awarded to him by the Israel community are also in the gallery.

A staunch Catholic, Mboya’s wedding at St Peter’s Clever in Nairobi was said to have been funded by the Israel community. Nyatiti, a Luo traditional music instrument, is also stored in the gallery. Mboya was a music enthusiast.

Owuor said the coffin-shaped door to the gallery showed how Mboya was buried, at a time when coffins had been introduced in the country to replace cow skins and mats people used to bury their loved ones.

“The bullet-shaped tomb signifies the kind of death Mboya suffered. The coffin-shaped door to the gallery shows that unlike in the past when our people were buried in cow skins and mats, Mboya died when coffins had been introduced,” Owuor said. 

The mausoleum was gazetted as a national monument in 2001 but is still maintained by Mboya’s family, according to Owuor.