The university that was built over the dead body of a racist

Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi and the Dedan Kimathi Dedan Kimathi University of Technology. [File, Standard]

When a white supremacist was approached by a group of African leaders to sell part of his land in the white highlands so that a technical institute could be established, he was livid.

The supremacist, Johnston Rex Ronald Hope, a coffee planter who had named his expansive estate in Nyeri, Gungunyumu, (dry firewood) to depict how tough he was, could not fathom the idea of surrendering even an inch of his slice of white highlands to Africans.

He declared that the proposed institute could only be constructed on his land over ‘his dead body.'

What Johnson did not comprehend was that the winds of change had finally blown in Kenya and swept aside the colonial administration that had lorded it over Africans for seven decades.

This was in the 1960s and Africans had taken back their country and were determined to right some of the wrongs that had been perpetrated by the imperialists by establishing learning institutions that would cater for the needs of the Kenyan child.

Johnston was the “king of the whites" in Nyeri and was the president of the Nyeri Golf club, which had strict rules about who was allowed into the premises.

So strict were the rules that women of whatever colour including whites were not allowed in.

But this fiefdom was dismantled by the president’s own wife who stormed the club accompanied by other white women and embarrassed the Johnston to a point of capitulation.

Johnston, however, refused to compromise on land but leaders from Nyeri pressed on their demand for land and when the settler refused to budge, they went a notch higher.

Jomo approval

They approached President Jomo Kenyatta, who after listening to the request, directed that the land be compulsorily be acquired. 

True to his vow, Johnston died long before the Kimathi Institute of Science and Technology was established in 1972.

Ironically the institute which was named after Dedan Kimathi opted to use the manacled wrists of the freedom fighter as if to symbolise how people were still shackled by ignorance and prejudice.

This is best captured by Michael Waweru, former Kenya Revenue Authority Director-General in his memoirs, Kenya’s Tax Czar. He recalls how Mrs Johnston, the settler’s widow once approached him when he was managing an audit firm in Nyeri.

She had a burning tax issue that needed to be untangled urgently which she believed was beyond the grasp of an African.

When she went to the audit firm and found Waweru in charge she was disillusioned.

"Mrs Johnson had approached me on a tax matter regarding the sale of some hay and I solved it to her satisfaction. However she hated Africans so much that she took her business away from PBM anyway," Waweru said.

At the time, Waweru was the manager of the Nyeri branch of Pannell Bellhouse Mwangi (PBM) one the oldest audit firm established by Africans in 1926 in Nakuru.