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When Nairobi workers rioted to demand Sh100 salary

Police dispersing University of Nairobi students during a riot in March 1968. [File, Standard]

Nairobi was on fire. And like evil fangs of a deadly snake, the twin steel rails took the fire first to Nakuru and ultimately Kisumu. And for a week, the entire country was in chaos characterised by bonfires, batons cracking of workers’ bones, and arrests.

The trigger had started as a rumour that 32 square miles were going to be carved out of Kiambu to create havens for 12,000 European settlers. But the actual flame that lit up the fire was the arrest of two trade unionists – Fred Kubai and Malkiat Singh – as they tried to enter their offices at Kiburi House in Nairobi.

Soon the city, which by May 1950 had about 100,000 residents, plunged into chaos as carpenters, masons, metal workers, clerks as well as taxi drivers, and low cadre government and municipal employees joined the strike. These long-suffering workers now had a perfect opportunity to force the government to raise the minimum monthly wage to Sh100.

Some of the strongest drivers of this strike were Second World War veterans who had returned to the country only to find themselves jobless. The government even refused to grant them licences to run stalls in the city.

These veterans, who still wore their combat uniforms, retreated to shacks in Shauri Moyo and Majengo where, as Patrick Donovan described in The Observer, “more than 50,000 live in a vile one-storey shanty slum, there are thousands who wheel and flee like little birds at the smallest police gesture.”

These veterans set up what is today called Burma Market, so named as a reminder of one of the theatres of war in India and started trading in second-hand clothes. They were unhappy that some of the unpopular policies that had been introduced by the government would ultimately drive Africans out of the city. The elevation of Nairobi into a city, they feared, would mean higher rent for their stalls and ramshackle houses.

Although the strike had unified Africans more than any political party, there were sharp divisions among the leaders even as allegations of some trade unionists being bribed swirled around the city.

A pioneer member of the Legislative College, Eliud Mathu, was booed out of Kaloleni when he tried to persuade workers to call off the strike. Some of the trade unionists were treated with hostility after they slashed the demand for minimum wage from Sh100 to Sh60. The strike later fizzled out but the government now knew better.

As it turned out, the strike and the draconian methods used to contain the picketing was a dress rehearsal of the real war when the colonial government declared war on its subjects two years later when it declared a state of emergency and arrested the majority of Africans it considered too radical.