A few minutes past midday on the Tuesday of August 22, 1978, the national radio, in those days known as the Voice of Kenya (VoK), abruptly interrupted normal programming.
The national anthem was played followed by a terse announcement that said: “It is officially announced from State House, Nairobi that His Excellency the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Mzee Jomo Kenyatta has passed away. All flags are ordered to be at half-mast until further notice.”
I was a young boy in Class 5. We were on holiday and I had just come home for lunch when I switched on the family’s wooden transistor Sanyo radio. Then the shocking announcement came. I rushed outside to tell my mother who was washing clothes.
“What? Are you sure of what you are talking about?” She asked, looking at me as if I had suddenly gone nuts. “Let’s go inside I hear it for myself.”
A few minutes later, my father arrived. As I opened the gate for him, I asked whether he’d heard what had happened: “No. What is it?” “Mzee Kenyatta has died!” He abandoned his bicycle at the gate, held my hand and led me to the house to hear the news for himself.
My parents were not the only ones to receive the news with disbelief. For many Kenyans, the first impulse on hearing the news was to go into denial. It was interesting because Jomo was already at the advanced age of 81; but somehow Kenyans believed Mzee wouldn’t go any time soon.
One reason why Mzee Kenyatta’s death took everyone by surprise is because he was active in the public space, and his activities were broadcast on national radio and television to the very last day.
The Sunday before he died, he had welcomed back home the national team returning from the All-African Games in Algiers and the Commonwealth Games in Montreal, Canada. He was photographed receiving the Kenyan flag he had handed to Team Kenya as it left the country.
On Monday, Mzee hosted for lunch at State House, Mombasa, all Kenyan envoys abroad who were home for their annual briefing. Years later, I would interview then Foreign Affairs minister Dr Munyua Waiyaki who was with Mzee at the Coast. He recalled Mzee being in a jovial mood and exchanging banter all round.
Dr Waiyaki remembered Mzee jokingly referring to Foreign Affairs Assistant Minister Kassim Mwamzandi seated next to him as ‘Wamuthandi’, which is the Kikuyu language corruption of Mwamzandi. Mzee then turned to Kenyan Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Dan Kayanda, who he regaled with stories of how he (Mzee) lived in Moscow as a young man in the 1940s.
Dr Waiyaki recalled there was plenty of goat meat on the table and Mzee would randomly pick on a particular envoy and challenge him to come forward and demonstrate his skills at cutting and serving the meat. So relaxed was the old man that he took time to educate the envoys on the curative aspects of the various herbs placed on the table, and encouraged them to add the herbs to their soup.
After lunch, Mzee changed from his official suit and tie into a casual trouser and flowing shirt, and invited his guests to accompany him on a tour of the South Coast around Msambweni area. He told them: “As our ambassadors abroad, I want to take you around to interact with ordinary citizens, see what they are doing to improve their lot, and think what partnerships and opportunities you can secure for them where you are.”
Dr Waiyaki remembered a particular stop-over at Msambweni Primary School where Mzee addressed a crowd and made his signature clarion call of harambee! It was the most thunderous and hearty ‘harambee!’ Dr Waiyaki ever heard Mzee shout in his life. As it would turn out, it was to be Mzee’s last ‘harambee!’.
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Back at State House, Mzee bid farewell to the envoys who were booked on an evening flight to Nairobi.
Next, Mzee had a brief session with Minister for State in the Office of the President Mbiyu Koinange who wanted permission to travel overnight to Nairobi. Koinange hardly left Mzee’s side. They were always together, riding in the same vehicle, meeting delegations together, and standing next to one another in every group picture taken at State House. But this one night, the minister asked for permission to fly to Nairobi to attend to a personal matter and return first thing in the morning. Permission was granted. It turned out that on the very rare occasion when Koinange was away, Mzee, who had been his lifetime friend, died.
At State House, Mzee ate supper with his family. As if by premonition, that night the family chose to spend the night at State House and not at the nearby private home where they would usually retire.
Mzee retired to his bedroom a few minutes past 9pm after watching news with his young family. With him were his wife, Mama Ngina, son Peter Muigai and children Uhuru, Nyokabi and Muhoho aged, 17, 15 and 13, respectively.
Old age comes with occasional health challenges. For that reason, as Mzee advanced in age, the State had taken precautions to have two trained nurses in the next bedroom in case of an emergency.
On this particular night, the nurses were woken up by Mzee’s unusual loud snoring. They checked on him and discovered he had difficulties breathing. They tried to put him in different sleeping positions but the laboured breathing only got worse. They telephoned the two physicians attached to the President who rushed in with an oxygen cylinder. They administered oxygen to Mzee, who by now had slipped into a coma, and frantically struggled to resuscitate him.
Meanwhile, members of his family were woken up and they all hang around his bedroom praying for the best. The President’s chief physician, Dr Eric Mngola, too, had arrived and joined in the emergency efforts to save Mzee’s life. It was a dash against time. Provincial Commissioner Eliud Mahihu even rushed for another oxygen cylinder.
At about 3.30am, the lead physician felt Mzee’s pulse. He asked his colleague to do the same and the two exchanged sad glances. Mzee was no more.
The lead doctor took a heavy breath, looked at Mama Ngina and Mahihu in the eye and said: “I am very sorry to let you know Mzee is no more.”
Mahihu would recall the great difficulty he had in calming Mama Ngina, who screamed uncontrollably. The other problem was the two resident nurses who insisted Mzee was not dead. Their argument was that in the past, Mzee had been in a similar state but would revive a few hours later.
But this time, Dr Mngola, who was also the country’s Director of Medical Services, overruled the nurses and declared Mzee had passed away.
Mahihu would break the news to the three people in government who mattered most – the Head of the Civil Service and Secretary to Cabinet Geoffrey Kareithi, Director of Intelligence James Kanyotu, and Vice President Daniel arap Moi. But before doing so, he demanded that each of the three doctors give him a hand-written confirmation that Mzee was indeed dead.
The Provincial Commissioner was ordered to expedite immediate transportation of the body to State House, Nairobi, while making sure the matter remained a State secret until the official statement was released from Nairobi. In an attempt not to alarm residents, the regional head of intelligence was ordered to buy three coffins – one for a child – and deliver them to State House. Of course only one coffin was needed.
More drama came when the Presidential Press Unit delivered the official announcement to be broadcast as breaking news on the national broadcaster. Officers on duty at the State radio and television flatly declined to make the announcement until they received written instructions from the Head of the Civil Service.
Everybody was still in denial!