How a mason squandered his fortune in 37 months

Henry Kamau with his family outside their Kamuyu ridge homestead. A raffle ticket propelled him to the status of a “millionaire” overnight.

By Joseph Karimi

Kenya: Kenyans’ need for money is very high and they would not pass an opportunity to make a quick buck. This was the same case in the 1960s when raffle draws were popular in the country.

But as a wise man once said, that easy come, easy go. A Nyeri mason proved this adage true when he bought a Sh5 raffle ticket in 1960 that propelled him to the status of a “millionaire” overnight. However, few years later,  a spectacular riches to rags story would unfold and leave Henry Kamau a miserable man.

Kamau’s fortune is now limited to a house on a 7.3-acre-plot, and 600 coffee trees. The rest of it vanished, thanks to an over indulgent lifestyle that inlcuded gifts to his friends.

Before his fortunes changed, Kamau, 41, had for decades earned his living cutting building stones down at the Githwariga Quarries along Chania River.

 When I visited him in March 1970, the “millionaire” who had by then drifted into a life of misery narrated his gains and losses . “I was employed as a mason by a Nyeri contractor to cut building stones down at Githwariga Quarries. In October 1960, I bought a Sh5 raffle ticket from a rotary that operated in Southern Rhodesia which won me Sh50,000 topped up with a Chevrolet limousine valued at Sh 30,000.” 

This fortune was banked in his newly opened account at the Standard Bank of South Africa, Nyeri Branch. Mind you, only a few African wage earners, chiefs and high ranking African politicians were privileged to open bank accounts because banks offered exclusive services to the European settlers and administrators.

He said that his first withdrawal was Sh1,000 which he spent to buy new clothes and other personal requirements “giving myself a new image of a man of riches.”

 “People I associated with from then showed me a lot of respect,” he said adding that, “life went into full gear!” 

Kamau’s new status made him became a household name as Kenya’s independence dawned.

The people of Othaya elevated the humble Kamau, son of Ngundo to the club of the affluent, nicknaming him “Kamau wa Rotary.”

Initially, he had very good proposals on how to invest the fortune. He bought himself a 7.3 acre piece of land on Kamuyu ridge overlooking Othaya town. He also built a mud-house with iron sheeting roof, quite a progressive investment back then. Those days, an acre of good fertile land went for Sh 300.

“I had planned to build a stone house soon after. I bought three grade cattle and put them on the farm.”  Kamau said that with such a huge amount of wealth, he felt the need to marry, which he did.

Living Large

His earliest exploit was when Kamau bought the 7.3 acres. The land was partly covered with wattle trees and he had to clear them to create room for his house and coffee plot.

He hired hundreds of workers who would demand up to Sh100 to pull out a tree stump. “This was  quite a lot for such easy work but I still paid them since I wanted the work done fast.  They took away quite a fortune,” he said.

Kamau was without doubt living large.  He even bought a second hand car and employed a chauffeur.

There are times Kamau quarreled with his chauffeur who thus quit his job, leaving him to drive himself even though he had not obtained a driving licence. “I had not obtained a driving license but all the same I drove myself, only to confront traffic policemen on the road. I was caught several times, charged in court and heavily fined.”

Kamau became familiar with the local Magistrate Mr E J Carthews who fined him a minimum of Sh1,000. One time, he warned Kamau and told him to spare the tools of his mason trade as he would require them in the near future.

His style of entertainment was superb. He became a binge drinker, oftenly entertaining his friends with his remaining fortune. And so his wealth started diminishing.

“It was beer and friends who I associated with that spoilt and deceived me. I swiftly ended up messing all my good plans on how to invest my fortune.”

 Disaster however befell Kamau when his wife left him. “She was away for three months and during that period, I was snatched by my economic detractors into pubs, where I entertained them lavishly. When I entered Kiambiriria pub, my drinking comrades would shoot up for a standing ovation and take off their hats in respect after and I would acknowledge their gesture by buying them plenty of beer,” said Kamau.

One of Kamau’s close drinking partners told me he was quite generous. “I know much about Kamau since he was my friend,” said Mr James Wachira.

Wachira claimed that Kamau would many times walk in a bar, slap the revellers and later compensate them with four crates of beer.

“I only drank Pilsner or other bottled beer, never Karugu or Busaa (native beer),” Kamau swore.

Kamau who was educated up to Standard two way back in 1942, declared: “I saw the end of my fortune. There was not a single cent left in my bank account.”

He regretted an incident when a friend cheated him out of more than Sh19,000 purportedly to purchase a house in Nyeri town under the early Site and Service Schemes. “My friend told me not to tell anyone about the plan since the new government would come into power and deprive us of our houses. I withdrew my deposit and that was that….”

Since he had already bought a second hand car, he offered up the Sh30,000 Chevrolet limousine to top up the purchase amount. “The transport company who turned up claimed its consumption was too high and that it was uneconomical for them to maintain it. I feared it would become a problem to me in the future and let it go for only Sh19,000,” he said.

On December 12, 1963, this “millionaire” like other notables attended the night events at Uhuru Gardens in  Nairobi, joining other patriots to witness the change of guard as the British Union Jack was lowered at mid-night and simultaneously replaced by the flag of independent Kenya.

When he returned to Nyeri, his bank account was in the red after 37 months of luxurious lifestyle.