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Tom Mboya, the forgotten visionary in the Barack Obama story

By Nzau Musau | Jul 26th 2015 | 4 min read
Tom Mboya

In early 1960s, three students, beneficiaries of the US airlift programme, wrote a poignant thank-you letter published in the East Africa Standard.

The letter was directed at Thomas Joseph Mboya, Julius Gikonyo Kiano, Kariuki Njiiri, William Scheinman, George Houser and a few other individuals involved in assisting young Kenyan students secure scholarships in American institutions of higher learning through the African-American Scholarship Fund (AASF).

Dorcas Boit, Mungai Mbaya and Harrison Bwire Muyia wrote to the editor:

“History alone shall record the success of this project, which serves as a model not only to our country, but to all the people of the African continent.

“We who have been so lucky to get this chance look forward with a determination to pursue and fulfill our intellectual obligations; and happy will be the day when our country and our people can enjoy the achievement of this whole exercise.”

History is now recording the ultimate success of the airlift programme as Barack Hussein Obama, a son of one of the beneficiaries of the airlifts, visits the country as the President of the United States of America.

The brainchild of the airlifts, Tom Mboya, remains in the background of discussions about the historic visit. Yet, few appreciate the ingenuity; adventurism and backlash that came with operating the programme which saw hundreds of Kenyans attend US universities. In Airlifts to America; How Barrack Obama Sr, John F Kennedy, Tom Mboya and 800 East African Students Changed Their World and Ours, Tom Shachtman describes how unpopular American universities were at the time.

In the book, Olara Otunu, a former undersecretary of the UN, is quoted saying “all roads led to the UK, and if you received a degree in the US you had to be re-certified in Kenya. What was good and serious was the UK, what was frivolous, fluffy, was the US.”

Critical role

But Mboya, who had no academic degree of his own, thought differently about the US and embarked on the programme against British interests. He had himself attended short courses in Soviet Union and Oxford and was passionate about education and its role in post-independence period.

At 26 years of age in August 1956, Mboya had been on a speaking tour of the US at the invitation of George Houser of the American Committee on Africa to promote his publication, The Kenyan Question; An African Answer.

Shachtman writes that at every US college venue, Mboya would privately talk with the college president about scholarship for East Africans. It is also during this trip that he made acquaintances with Harry Belafonte, Scheinman, Frank Montero and Peter Weiss, who later played critical roles in the airlift programme.

After convincing US donors and foundation to fund the scholarships, Mboya, Kiano and Njiiri would personally review the applications and interview the applicants. Although Obama Snr missed out on the 1959 airlift after applying to more than 30 US colleges, he somehow, with the assistance of other American friends, made it to Hawaii University, the only college that admitted him.

“Some, like Barack Obama Sr, who was headed for Hawaii, did not board the charter plane but were assisted in other ways once at American colleges,” the book says.

The idea of sending young Africans from a British colony to American universities was opposed within and outside government.

Shachtman says Carey Francis, the headmaster of Obama Senior’s former high school, Maseno, had a low opinion of the American universities and once wrote:

“The frenzied thirst for and confidence in overseas education was a major difficulty for Kenya. To many, the nature of the course (of study) was immaterial so long as it was a course. I feared in a few years many would return disillusioned and embittered, unfitted for any useful work, with a fourth-rate degree from fifth-rate universities.”

Anti-government movement

Mboya also faced another problem related to the airlifts - jealousy owing to his connections and popularity in the West. The talk in town, propagated in part by Kwame Nkrumah from Ghana, was that Mboya was leading an anti-Kenyatta movement.

Grumbles from applicants who did not make it added to the criticism of the programme which Mboya and his team pursued mindlessly.

And the students themselves set on to the task at hand — learning — as well as other extracurricular activities. In the book, Philip Ochieng talks of two surprises that struck him on arrival; seeing a white person labouring in the snow and white women falling head over heels for black men.

“White girls readily chummed up to us suggestively. Soon we would partake of the forbidden fruit. Romantic appointments took place quite thickly between Caucasian and African.”

It is through these extracurricular interactions that Obama, the 44th President of the US, who is currently visiting Kenya, was born.

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