Math guru, magician and man of steel


By Amos Kareithi

Edward Carey Francis left a glowing career at Cambridge to teach in a junior secondary school in Kenya. He wowed many with his numerical skills, but his temper and poor opinion of Africans were also legendary

Why would a budding scholar throw away his prestigious position in one of the world’s leading universities to become a high school teacher thousands of miles away from his home?

Many theories have been advanced to explain the motivation behind one of Britain’s most promising mathematician’s migration to Kenya, a country that was later consumed by unprecedented violence. There have even been suggestions that the decision was as a result of spurned love and not love for humankind.

The myriad theories aside, Edward Carey Francis’ move came at a time when he had the world in the palm of his hand.  Ironically, Carey Francis’ moulding of young Kenyans to serve her majesty’s government unwitting sharpened the minds that would later overturn British rule in Kenya. The echoes of his actions are still felt, half a century after his demise on July 27, 1966, at the age of 69.

Obedient servants

The great mathematician, who was educated at William Elis School and Cambridge University, was a strict Franciscan missionary who dedicated his life to serving God and his country.

He also believed the British were justified in colonising other races and frowned upon anybody who questioned Britain’s moral authority to rule Kenya.

His world view is summed up in a book, The Kenyatta Cabinets: Drama, Intrigue, Triumph thus: “His work was to mould obedient servants of the colonial system, not to create elites.”

He held most of the pioneering students of Alliance High School in disdain: “In work, they do very well, but in other ways that I care most, they do so badly. They seem to me to become insufferably conceited, unctuously pious and slack in everything except books and examinations.”

Although he made his students believe they were meant to serve the British Empire and distrust politicians, unwittingly, he was instrumental in shaping the political destiny of this country.

The schools he helped to start, Alliance and Maseno, proved to be the bedrock of the first crop of politicians who would later midwife the transition from colonialism to self-rule.

Some of his former students charted Kenya’s destiny and continue to dominate the public and corporate world.

Carey Francis used his influence to ensure the African boys, who were placed under his care, knew their place in society. Those who questioned the order of things found no sympathy from the towering mathematician.

Perhaps this explains why during his stint at Maseno School, he was nicknamed Achuma, which in Luo means a man of steel.

Omnipresent character

At the time, Maseno was a junior secondary school whose students had to move to other schools to advance to Form Three and Four.

Although this school appeared to be a major demotion for a man who had bagged the prestigious Rayleigh Prize at the age of 26, Carey Francis taught with dedication

It was also unexpected for a man who had entered the First World War in 1914 when he was only 17, and fought his way to the position of a lieutenant, before he bagged the coveted Trinity College scholarship in Cambridge.

One of his former students at Alliance, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, in his newest book, In the House of the Interpreter, offers some interesting anecdotes. He tells of an omnipresent character who dominated the lives of all those who were even remotely associated to Alliance.

During Ngugi’s time at Alliance, students went to class barefoot and only wore their shoes on Saturdays, according to the dictates of school head Carey Francis. Students could only be allowed to wear shoes daily on medical grounds.

Ngugi recounts an incident when the headmaster, nicknamed Kihiuria or Hiuria owing to his nature to fume, charge and turn like an irate rhinoceros, terrified teachers’ wives whose hemlines were too short to meet his approval.

The author recalls: “One Sunday, during morning parade before chapel, I saw for myself the fury that fuelled the tales of Carey Francis. Mr and Mrs Kingsworth passed before him. Mrs Kingsworth wore a dress with a hemline that revealed a bit of leg.

“Suddenly, Carey Francis started breathing heavily through the nose, fuming, tongue thrust in cheek, rolling from side to side inside his closed mouth.”

Strict rules

After this display of displeasure, which was accompanied by stamping, everybody, including teachers, ran to the chapel, where the school boss delivered a scathing sermon.

When he first moved to Alliance from Maseno, Carey Francis sparked a crisis when he imposed strict rules for teachers and students. The first casualty was the school uniform.

Previously, the uniform consisted of knee-length khakis shorts and shirts and a maroon fez. Carey Francis promptly did away with the hats. African teachers were also required to wear shorts.

There was uproar when students were informed that they would be required to grow vegetables in their allotted gardens, and the produce would be contributed to the war effort. The irate students responded by removing this notice from the board, and no amount of interrogation would reveal the culprit.

The headmaster responded by caning and expelling all the students, and they were only readmitted after they admitted, in writing, that they had been wrong and said ‘thank you’ for the punishment.

Based on this crisis, Carey Francis reorganised the school discipline system to include prefects, who monitored their schoolmates’ social lives.

Teachers were not spared. Those who questioned his authority, especially the Africans, were fired.

Carey Francis believed that Africans should not get university education, so he was incensed when Mbiyu Koinange returned to Kenya from the US with a Master’s degree. Koinange inspired students at Alliance, who realised that it was possible for an African to excel academically.

The mathematics guru was equally scandalised when Njoroge Mungai returned to Kenya from Stanford University in 1959, having studied Medicine.

And when Eliud Mathu, one of the pioneers of the school, admission number 20, completed a Teaching course in Makerere in 1926, he was employed as the first African master at Alliance. He furthered his education and even attained a Master’s degree through correspondence besides attaining postgraduate diplomas.

Unimpressed, Carey Francis refused to increase Mathu’s salary when he returned to Alliance in 1940. Mathu resigned in protest and went to start his own school in Waithaka.

Another trailblazer, James Gichuru, the second African to teach at Alliance, was also forced to resign after he fell out with Carey Francis.

Through the influence of Carey Francis and other colonists who were opposed to such developments, the pioneer Kenyan doctor could not be absorbed by the Government and had to open his own clinic in Thika.

But away from the academic and religious circles, the man was revered by the outside world as a magician.

Ngugi says Carey Francis made ripples in Kikuyu when one day, while walking through a village, he encountered a boy who had a coin. He asked for the coin and made it ‘disappear’ then appear from the ear of another boy.



“One day, I saw the full display of his magic. Time and again, he made cards and golf balls disappear into thin air and then reappear, seemingly from nowhere. Most startlingly were the rabbits and doves he pulled from his hat,” Ngugi remembers.

However, Carey Francis was quick to dispel the notion that he was a wizard, explaining that he was playing magic, not participating in it.

That Carey Francis was loyal to his motherland and queen was never in doubt, as was aptly demonstrated when he convened an emergency assembly at Alliance on July 26, 1956.

“Carey Francis called the special assembly during which he called Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser a scoundrel for nationalising the Suez Canal, which he argued had been constructed by Britain,” Ngugi says.

He had also called another emergency assembly on the day Winston Churchill resigned from the Conservative Party.

The writer can be reached on [email protected]