Why does a red hot coals beget cold impotent ashes? As Kenya celebrates its 60th birthday tomorrow, the tribulations of some of the families whose patriarchs laid the foundation for the country give credence and currency to this question.
Perhaps the clearest illustration is offered by the family of Eliud Wambu Mathu. This is the Riruta goatherd who defied his parents by going to school against their wishes in 1919, after befriending Johnstone Kamau Ngengi (Jomo Kenyatta), unwittingly opening up his world.
Mathu earned a place at Alliance High School where he also taught as the first African teacher, moved out to start his own school in Waithaka but later ditched the profession to join politics. He later made history as the first African representative in the Legislative Council (House of LEGCO) in 1944, where he served for 13 years.
He had also founded Kenya African Students Associations which later morphed into Kenya Africa Union and later Kenya African National Union (Kanu).
The pioneer teacher also distinguished himself as a polished politician and a keen investor.
However, his 69-year-old daughter, Victoria Ngina, cannot understand why her father’s vast business empire, which he once guided from his headquarters at Development House, has vapourised like dewdrops in a desert.
Perched on a poolside lounge at the 117-year-old Parklands Sports Club, Ngina intensely peers through her glasses in search of answers to the riddle of the Eliud Mathu’s family tribulations.
“Can you believe it! None of Mathu’s 10 children got university education. It is sad that the children of a man who was the second Kenyan (after Mbiyu Koinange) to obtain a university degree could not advance their education,” Ngina observes.
But how could this be for a man who in 1972 owned a 3,000-acre ranch in Gilgil, was residing in Kianugu farm, a 40-acre piece of land in Gikambura ,which he had acquired before Kenya got independence in 1963? How could a man who also owned Mimosa Farm, a 500-acre coffee plantation which is today Runda Estate, leave his children rotting in want?
This is the same man who, while serving as the first comptroller of State House minding Kenyatta’s diary, had teamed up with two Greek brothers – Andrew Zagoritis and Elia Zagoritis – to establish Mae Properties derived from abbreviating the first names of the three partners.
The formation of the company was strategic because Nairobi had just won a bid in 1972 to establish United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) headquarters, the first third-world country to accommodate a UN body.
Owing to Mimosa Estate’s proximity to Gigiri, Mathu saw an opportunity to establish a high-end residential estate to accommodate the UN staff. This is how Runda came into being. Today, in honour of the founders, the palatial estate has named roads after Eliud Mathu, Andrew Zagoritis and Elia Zagoritis.
Ngina’s world was shattered on April 16, 1972. She had skipped church to watch over her mother, Sophia Nyokabi, who was not feeling well. When her mother requested warm milk, Ngina hurried away but by the time she returned to her sickbed, the 52-year-old matriarch was sprawled on the floor.
Mathu was in his 3,000-acre Gilgil ranch at the time supervising the culling of his beef cattle. By the time a Good Samaritan helped the unconscious Nyokabi on to a vehicle to Nairobi Hospital, it was too late. She was pronounced dead on arrival.
“This hit my father hard. He was so devastated that for about three weeks, he was hospitalised. When he later recovered somehow and returned to his duties at State House, Kenyatta and some other elders prevailed upon him to remarry. But life was never the same again.”
When Mathu married Lilian Wambui in the course of that year, he shifted from his home to a new house in Runda. Ngina and her siblings were now left in Gikambura.
“Every time we wanted to see our father, we had to book an appointment. He was such a stickler to that rule that even his children had to see him only at the appointed time.”
The differences between the two family are such that when asked about her stepbrothers and sisters, Ngina explains they have never interacted.
With her father inaccessible, Ngina explains that none of her brothers and sisters could go to university and college.
“I had to hide my identity to secure a job. It was demeaning for Mathu’s daughter to go looking for jobs without university education,” she says.
Although she later acquired university education and a post-graduate degree, her brother and sisters were not as lucky.
Mathu’s only surviving son Nyoike is partially paralysed after a motor vehicle accident in his youth. He was able to live a normal life after medical intervention and years of managing the condition with medical treatments. His condition started to deteriorate when he retired and could no longer afford the medical treatments that he required, as a result of which he is now completely paralysed on one side and confined at home, requiring a full time nurse to take care of him.
Eliud Mathu’s other sons – Kimani, Ngugi and Kamau – died between 2000 and 2019.
They died, according to Ngina, because of “years of neglect resulting to misery, various ailments which could not be treated properly due to poverty, i.e. financial resources.”
Even after working in foreign countries, sometimes disguising her identity from unsympathetic bosses who hated Mathu with a passion, Ngina says she was ultimately forced to sell her house in Lavington and settle in Machakos because she could not have the means to sustain herself after retirement.
She and her siblings are now fighting battles for a share of father’s business empire.
The strains in Mathu’s two families were more demonstrated during his burial on June 4, 1993.
His family life, in his eulogy which dedicated pages of his professional and academic exploits, was summarised in three short paragraphs where none of children were named.
Court documents filed later in pursuit of his estate show that Mathu died an unhappy man. He had at one time filed divorce proceedings against Wambui and there were claims that he had been confined against his will, at the time some of his properties were sold without his consent.
A will he had allegedly prepared sharing out his vast empire between the two families was disputed.
For the last 30 years the battle for Mathu’s billions has raged in courts, the real worth of the estate has not been established but a peek into one of his investment vehicles offers some useful insights.
On August 17, 1971, Mathu teamed up with Jomo Kenyatta’s eldest son Peter Kenyatta, former freedom fighter Kungu Karumba and James Muhu Kangari to set up Nairobi Ranching Company.
Some of the companies that were affiliated to Nairobi Ranching Company were Kenya Building and Construction Limited, Kungu Karumba Transport, Limited Sullivan Transport Limited, W.E Tilley Limited, Waithaka Slaughterhouse, Kenya Uniforms Limited, NAS Airport Services Limited, Gatharani Transport Limited and Elimu Limited.
Others were Tourist Africa Company Limited, Trio Properties Limited, Sweet Soil Kenya Limited, Kenya Building and Civil Engineering Contractors Limited, Gulf Engineering E.A Limited, Mae Properties Limited, Kianugu Farm and Nyoma Limited.
Ironically, the families of Mathu’s other partners, such as Kung’u, are also embroiled in a 49-year-old dispute over his property. Karumba disappeared in mysterious circumstances in 1974.
Peter Muigai Kenyatta’s family has also been battling in various courts over his wealth. He died on October 28, 1979, a year after Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s death, and would be followed shortly after by one of his wives Esther Njoki Muigai, who was murdered on October 16, 1980.
The families of Mathu’s peers, Mbiyu Koinange, Njenga Karume and Fred Kubai, too have been afflicted by the curse of inheritance where they have spent millions of shillings in courts as they engage in long battles.