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JFK: US president who didn't visit Africa but was a great friend of Kenya

NATIONAL
By Kamau Ngotho | November 28th 2021

Former US President John F Kennedy. [Courtey]

This week 58 years ago, US President John F Kennedy was shot dead as he rode in an open limousine in the city of Dallas, Texas.

Until President Barack Obama happened, no other US president has ever captured the imagination of Kenyans as did President Kennedy. But unlike Obama, whose father came from Kenya, JFK, as he was fondly known, never stepped on African soil. But his bond with Kenyans was so strong that on his death, hundreds gathered at the All Saints’ Cathedral in Nairobi to mourn him. 

To get a feel of what it was that sunny afternoon of November 22, 1963, when Kennedy was shot dead, I reproduce an account from the memoir of William Attwood who was about to be appointed the first US ambassador to Kenya, which became independent 20 days after Kennedy’s death.

The envoy was lunching with friends in New York when a girl came in and said there was a report on radio that President Kennedy had been shot. He jumped into a cab and dashed to the office of the US ambassador at the UN headquarters. He found the staff glued to television screens.

He recalled: “When the news flash came that the President was dead, everybody put their hands on the face to absorb the shock. A few minutes later we walked across the street to the UN auditorium. Crowds of delegates filled the lobby waiting for us. I will never forget the foreign delegates with eyes full of tears. The Africans, I think, more than other foreign delegates felt they had lost a friend.

“Although he had never been to Kenya, 6,000 people packed the Cathedral in Nairobi for his memorial service. Kennedy had said things before he was even President that Africans remembered. ‘Let us never assist Africa,’ he said in 1959, ‘merely because we are afraid of Russian assistance in Africa. Let us never convince the people of that continent that we are interested in them only as pawns in the Cold War. Nor do we want them to regard us only as a military guardian, a giver of goods or a lender of cash’.”                         

Kennedy airlifts

To date, President Kennedy is celebrated in Kenya because of the project that came to be known as the Kennedy Airlifts. Indeed, majority of Africa’s elite who took over at independence as senior civil servants and captains of industry had received their education in the US courtesy of the programme. The Kenyan link in the massive airlifts was pre-independence hero and Cabinet minister, Tom Mboya.

In his memoir Freedom and After, Mboya describes three meetings he had with Kennedy, the impressions formed, and how the airlifts came about. Their first meeting was in April 1959, one and half years before Kennedy was elected 35th president of the US in November 1960.

Mboya wrote: “I first met Mr Kennedy–he was then-Senator Kennedy–in the West Coast near San Francisco. This was at a conference on international affairs... I think we found a lot of interest in each other almost immediately. I had written a pamphlet titled ‘The Kenyan Question: An African Answer’, which I gave to him. We discussed a lot about the African situation and found that we were in a lot of agreement about the whole area of American foreign policy as it affected the African scene. I was most impressed with him as a person. I sat in the conference with him when he spoke and I was very impressed with his sincerity, and what later became known as his popular appeal to the masses.”

The second meeting and which gave birth to the airlifts happened three months later at Kennedy’s home in Massachusetts.

“When I first met Senator Kennedy I was already trying to seek assistance from various American educational institutions and community groups for African students. I mentioned it to him at our second meeting. He expressed some interest in it. We discussed the programme and the difficulties we had and asked whether the Kennedy Foundation could in any way assist us.

“He pointed out, of course, that the Kennedy Foundation would not normally be involved in a scheme such as this as it was designed for an entirely different purpose dealing with retarded and backward children, but he promised he would get his brother-in-law, Mr Sargent Shriver, who was in charge of the Foundation to look into our problem. In the next few days Shriver approached Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations, and corporate giants Ford Motors, Marshall Field, and Phelps-Stokes. All responded that they had no interest in supporting an airlift. At that juncture the Kennedy Foundation made its decision: It would contribute $100,000 (about Sh11 million at the current exchange rate) as seed money for the project.”

The third encounter came in April 1961 when Kennedy was president. In their private conversation, Mboya asked for American diplomatic pressure to be put on Britain to free Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and others who were in colonial detention. Indeed Kenyatta would be freed four months later. But Mboya’s main mission was to raise money for scholarships. He updated Kennedy on intensified efforts by countries in the Communist bloc to award scholarships to Kenyans and need for Western countries to counter the effort “lest as many Kenyans be contaminated with communist/socialist ideals.”

On his return home, Mboya wrote a lengthy letter to Kennedy detailing how Kenyans in American colleges were performing well and returning home to create the critical mass of educated Africans needed to take up positions of responsibility in the soon-coming independent Kenya. He concluded that the airlifts were the most significant thing in relations with the US and appealed for direct funding from the federal government. It was granted and the number of the beneficiaries tripled.

In a tragic coincidence, like happened to President Kennedy that sunny afternoon in a street in Dallas, Texas, Mboya would be felled by an assassin’s bullet in a Nairobi street in broad daylight, a short distance from the Ambassador Hotel, on July 5, 1969. Both were staunch Catholics and their memorial services were held at the Anglican Church’s All Saints Cathedral. In yet another unfortunate coincidence, Kennedy’s younger brother, Robert, who was a presidential aspirant in the 1968 election, had fallen to assassins’ bullets at Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California, on June 5, exactly 11 months to Mboya’s shooting.

Inspirational force

President Kennedy never completed his term to be fairly judged on his accomplishments or failures. He is remembered more for his inspirational power and magnetic touch. Ambassador Attwood reckoned that when Kennedy walked into a room, he brought with him vibrancy and an almost electric sense of excitement that you could feel even at a distance. On his posting to Nairobi, Attwood’s 11-year-old daughter carried a card sent to her by the President the Christmas before his death and signed, Your friend, John F Kennedy. She had it framed and kept on her bedside table.

Like Kennedy, Obama, who was born eight months into Kennedy’s presidency when his father was a university student in the US, had his speeches full of verbs of motion and change. His campaign pitches in 2008 would be enveloped in the catchy phrase ‘Yes we can’!

President Uhuru Kenyatta, born 10 months into Kennedy’s presidency, would study political science at the Amherst College in Massachusetts, not far from the Kennedy’s family home.

When inspired, Kenyan politicians often borrow a line from Kennedy’s inaugural speech: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

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