How Joseph Murumbi defeated efforts to declare him an Asian

Pio Gama Pinto (left) with Joseph Murumbi (right).

When he returned back from India where he had been for 15 years, Joseph Murumbi, who later became Kenya’s second vice president, faced an identity dilemma.

Murumbi was torn between choosing being a Kenyan or Indian national. His father Peter Zuzarte was a Goan while his mother was Maasai.

When he was about seven years old in 1918, his father, a trader in Londiani, took him to India for education.

While there, Murumbi adopted to the Asian culture, including the language. So when came back in the early 1930s, he struggled to convince the colonial government accept him as an African.

For instance, he was almost denied land on account that he was Indian.

“When I applied for the land, the government officials were very suspicious. They thought I might disturb the Maasai. The Provincial Commissioner, Mr Hodge, said ‘look here, you’re not a Maasai, you’re an Asian’,” Murumbi is quoted by Anne Thurston in the biography A Path Not Taken.

As is the case, a child assumed the nationality of the father, but Murumbi was adamant that he did not want to be recognized as an Asian.

Hodge, in vain, tried to dissuade him against renouncing his Indian nationality.

“Then he referred my case to the Attorney-General, and the Attorney General ruled that I had the option either to stick to my Asian nationality and give up any rights as an African, or vice versa,” wrote Thurston.

What influenced Murumbi to stick to the African culture is the experienced he encountered while studying in India. According to his recollection, the Anglo-Indians - half Indian and half European - used to call the Indians ‘Niggers’, a bigotry that often angered Murumbi.

“This memory, with my father’s prompting, made me determined not to think of myself as anything different, but to feel, think and act as an African, and I have never changed in this decision or regretted it,” he said.

After making up his mind, Murumbi went back to Hodge. He went ahead to sign a declaration stating that he had no claim at all to any rights and privileges of the Asian community.

When Kenya gained independence in 1963, Murumbi, an ardent art collector, participated in the drafting of first Constitution. He was the Foreign Affairs minister between 1964 and 1966 when he was appointed VP, a position he held for only nine months before resigning. He died on June 22, 1990, aged 79.