Pioneer Shimba Hills resident shares his life’s journey

Former nominated MP in the '70s John Mulli Mutambu. [PHOTO: JOE OMBUOR]
Deep in the humid, forested jungle of Shimba Hills where malaria causing mosquitoes and tsetse flies fraught with deadly livestock diseases abound to this day, lives the perfect quintessence of Kenya’s forgotten leaders of a past era. Some are a pale shadow of the personalities they once were.

It is here where this pioneer settler, who once defended the founding President Jomo Kenyatta against a former British Prime Minister, chose for his home. The former nominated MP in the 1970s, still clings on his single-party democracy creed.
For John Mulli Mutambu, 82, and his wife of 58 years, Naomi Njeri, life in latter years has been wretched and disconsolate, cushioned only by the children they managed to bring up and educate.

“We lost our first born child, Captain Lazarus Mutambu Mulli who was the co-pilot of KQ Flight 431 that crashed into the sea in Abidjan, Ivory Coast in January 2000. That clash literally went down with his mother and I,” he says, tears showing at the corners of his eyes.

“I became inactive in its wake with kidney complications that seven years ago forced me to close down my business as a land estate agent. His mother’s rheumatic arthritic pains worsened, slowing down her productive life. She was a vibrant farmer who produced everything from eggs to milk and crops as I concentrated on politics and societal development of Shimba Hills and Kwale in general. We have buried him only metres away from our doorstep from where we are in constant view of his grave.”

He pauses, his eyes trained in the direction of the grave where he religiously takes all visitors to the home. “I will take you to see the grave,” he intones.

Drastically changed
He continues:  “Our living five children are two boys and three girls. All are leading responsible lives. It is courtesy of them that we are still plodding on into our horizon. Our lawyer daughter and her husband, also a lawyer avail a vehicle to our disposal from time to time, more so for their mother who recently underwent a major surgery to replace a hip bone and cannot travel by boda boda like me. She has to make frequent visits to hospital for check up.”

Mulli is a thorough man, a carry over from his days in the army where he worked as a civilian clerk in the Command Ordinance Depot at Kahawa barracks in the early 1950s. He was ready with old photographs to prove to me that life had drastically changed for him over the years.

“Look at me here,” says Mulli pointing to a neatly kept photograph taken in London in 1974 when he represented Kenya at that year’s Commonwealth Parliamentarians Association.

A newspaper cutting he still retains has a story on his strong defence of the single party parliamentary system in Kenya and how he described President Kenyatta’s health as robust to a doubting British Prime Minister sir Harold Wilson who curiously inquired into it. Mulli maintains that the single party system was good for stability.

Back to the photograph, he says: “I was smart in designer suits. I have now come down to wearing mitumba shoes and clothes as you can see. I bought these shoes at Mwembe Tayari. MPs of my generation are languishing because we had no fat pension to fall back on even as we earned a mere Sh2,000 a month. Hyped talk about looking into our welfare has been nothing but hot air.”

He adjusts his now trade-mark hat and clears his throat:  “We went to Parliament to serve and not to make money as seems to be the case today when MPs go for the millions with nothing to show for their time in the august House. It is a pity!”
I hung on his lips for more. The air is cool and refined. The sounds of many different birds, blend musically in the afternoon air.

Burning desire
He says: “Those howling are wolves that roam freely here. It is not uncommon to hear the roaring of lions, trumpeting of elephants or funny laughs from hyenas. We are used to it all, even the hissing of snakes no longer scares us. Our only problem is the damage they cause to our crops and livestock. I had 1,500 mango trees but only three remain today. Of the 250 coconut trees that I initially planted, only 19 still stand, the rest brought down by elephants.”

“We play hide and seek with animals here. For 56 years, our lives have revolved around these animals and the tormenting malaria pawning mosquitos that seem to compete with tsetse flies for dominance. All my children except the late pilot were born here. I arrived in 1958 after resigning from British American Tobacco where I earned a monthly salary of Sh400 as a production supervisor,” he adds.

He continues: “That is enough to tell you that I was not driven to Shimba Hills by desperation as were many pioneer settlers who braved the vectors and fierce animals to eke out a living from the fertile soils for which this part of Kwale County is known.”

Mulli says his journey to Shimba Hills from Kiima Kimwe Hill overlooking Machakos town where he was born was prompted by a burning desire to venture into farming unimpeded by perennial draughts back home.

More than half a century later, Mulli has no regrets as he ogles on his achievements. He is the man behind the sizeable population of migratory ethnic Kambas who today call Shimba hills and surrounding areas home. ‘They stretch all the way to Lunga Lunga border,” he says proudly.

“I was their role model. Through me, they realised that prosperity was possible in distant lands if one was focused.”
But how did he outdo other pioneer settlers?

Mulli grins: “I had the advantage of exposure after I was forced to leave school early for lack of school fees. My late father seemingly blessed me. He died just as I was completing Class Eight at the Government African School in Machakos where former permanent Secretary Harry Mule and pathologist Dr Jason Kaviti were among my classmates.”

“I was barely 19 when I landed my first job as a pay clerk with the Masaku African District Council (ADC) in 1951. A year later, I joined the Kenya Army as a civilian clerk at the Kahawa barracks ordinance depot and left in 1953 to work as an African Assistant to the inspector of weights and measures in Central Province that in those days included Embu, Meru and Ukambani. I quit in October 1955 to join the British American Tobacco (BAT) as a supervision inspector at their industrial area factory, Among my workmates was Tom Mboya’s younger brother Alphonse Okuku Ndiege and Mutuku Ngei, a younger brother to Paul Ngei. A future cabinet Minister, the late Andrew Omanga was our assistant Personnel Manager.

“My enlightened background put me on a higher pedestal for leadership the moment I was allocated 24 acres of land and started farming in Shimba Hills in 1959. By 1960, I was elected secretary to the Shimba Hills farmers Co-Operative Society Limited. The position qualified me to attend a cooperators course at the Jean’s school in Nairobi (now the Kenya school of government) in 1961.

Development efforts
“I would have contested a parliamentary seat in the 1963 independence elections but for the fact that the two constituencies of Kwale East and Kwale North were populated mainly by the Digo and the Duruma who naturally were expected to vote for their own Kassim Bakari Mwamzandi and Robert Stanley Matano respectively. I went for civic elections and easily won the Shimba Hills ward as councilor. I was subsequently elected Vice Chairman of Kwale County Council, a post I held for the first thee years. All along, I was the chairman of the terms of service committee, a post I used to employ many people from the local communities.”

“It was during my time as deputy Chairman of the council that I helped build many schools stretching from Shimba Hills to the Lunga Lunga border. I started Mukobe Village polytechnic and put up Shimba Hills, Mivumoni and Lukore Secondary Schools. A total of 17 primary schools owe their existence to my effort.

“My development efforts caught the attention of President Kenyatta who while on a visit to Makobe in my ward in December 1969, ordered the Provincial Commissioner Mr Isaiah Mathenge to ‘‘take the young man to State House.’’

Title deeds
I was on top of the clouds when the president announced that I had been nominated a member of parliament from Kwale alongside Mohamed Jahazi from Mombasa and Rev Thomas Johnson Kuto Kalume from Kilifi.

Mulli used his clout as MP to ensure the settlers of Shimba Hills, most of whom had come from Ukambani and other parts of the country acquired title deeds for their security, a gesture for which he is recognised as the settlement’s father figure to this day.

He recounts: “I pestered Mbiyu Koinange, then powerful Minister in the office of the President with the issue of title deeds until he sent then lands Minister Jackson Angaine to ‘sort out that young man’s problem’. Angaine dispatched surveyors and adjudication was done, making Shimba Hills settlement scheme the first area to be surveyed in the entire Coast Province. We received our first batch of title deeds in 1976/77. Mr Paul Ngei issued subsequent title deeds in 1980.”

Mulli says he was in the fourth group to be settled at Shimba Hills after the first group that comprised mainly of Taitas in 1952. Most of them ran away, leaving only four to persevere the harsh conditions.

Mulli was among the dependable settlers dispatched by the Colonial authorities to shop for more settlers in 1959.

“We brought about 90 people from Kapsabet and Nandi Hills but many ran away in the wake of severe malaria and East Coast fever that cleared their animals. Only three families were still in the settlement three years later, among them that of Pastor arap Soi whose children are still here."

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John Mulli Matambu Naomi Njeri Joe Ombuor Captain Lazarus Mutambu Mulli