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Prayer for stolen land that landed Paul Ngei in trouble


When Paul Ngei, then Minister of Cooperatives and Marketing launched the Kenatco cabs in Nairobi in Feb 1965. [File, Standard]

How do you prevent a politician from stirring up trouble against the government during a charged political season?  

The colonial government thought it had a perfect answer to muzzle one of Kenya’s greatest orators, Paul Ngei. It feared that if Ngei, who had been jailed in Kapenguria was given a microphone in 1961, he would excite Kenyans who were demanding freedom.

So when Ngei, nicknamed Bwana Mashamba for incessant demands that colonialists return stolen land, accompanied his former cellmates at Kapenguria for a rally in Nyeri, he grabbed the opportunity.

He knew the consequences of contravening the government orders and so crafted a short prayer.

Myles Osborne captures Ngei in his true element in his book, Ethnicity and Empire in Kenya explaining that the politician started by warning the masses he had been banned from addressing by the Minister for Defence.

“Therefore, let’s pray. African God who created this country to be for Africans, the trees, the grass and the cattle for milk of our children, we ask you to see the European God and let him know that the African children want their land. Amen.”

The prayer was greeted with a thunderous applause by the crowd who demanded that Ngei addresses them. Short as the prayer was, the Makerere-trained journalist found himself in trouble with the government.

He was charged with incitement and  fined Sh500. This fine was, however, raised by enthusiastic Africans who stuffed the currency notes in his pockets while carrying him shoulder-high. Ngei, a descendant of the legendary chief Masaku wa Musya, was downright annoying. Despite being an ally of Jomo Kenyatta and Kanu, he at one time defected and formed his own political party and vigorously campaigned for opposition party, Kadu.

Although he was known to hurl epithets at Kenyatta during campaigns, the founding president had a soft spot for him, to the chagrin of some loyalists like, Njenga Karume.

When Karume questioned Kenyatta’s special treatment of Ngei, he wryly replied. “I cannot allow a situation where I don’t know where Ngei is. I sleep comfortably only when I know Ngei has gone to bed. If I lose him as a minister, I will not be in a position to control him. You know what that man is capable of doing!”

That is why in 1975, Kenyatta had the Constitution changed so that he could give his friend a life-line after Ngei was convicted of an election offence and was technically barred from contesting.

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