The Island was awash with tears, overflowing with mourners as a great son, a national hero had passed on. My dad!
It was a peculiar sendoff in many ways at least from my then young girls’ point of view. My late father, a firm believer in culture and tradition, had always made sure that we visited our Island home that we knew and interacted with our grandparents and our close and not so close relatives.
However nothing had prepared me for the traditions of a burial and as I took a walk around my grandfather’s vast homestead, I could not but help notice some of the mourners’ antics which left me speechless! There was this very tall middle aged man, who seemed like a giant. He was colorfully adorned from head to his Akala sandles.
The man’s voice was hoarse from too much wailing. He held a very long spear in his right hand and an equally decorated huge shield. As he run helter skelter from the main gate, he would throw up the spear and gain more speed to catch it! It was amazing and I wondered at such a dangerous antic, what if the spear struck someone, or even himself.
Years later, I was told that people like that man were expert spear throwers and even at night, he kept on repeating this daring feat. As I said, the man was hoarse with grief, however as I listened to his chant, I realise that he was not chanting about my father yet to be buried, but about a friend of his who had died several years before! I could not help but smile on the side. The women were just as resourceful, a sprint from the gate and as she ran, the plastic plate, cup and spoon around her waist made their own music. Needless to say that their sprint always ended near the outdoor kitchen, yes hunger pangs was an order of the day, part of the mourning fete. I remember a day, it was around ten o’clock in the morning, when a group of mourners, mainly male, decked out in branches, twigs and the face paints of which I had now become accustomed.
Before them, they drove a heard of finest bulls, that had garlands around their horns, they looked rancorous. They were being herded towards our house.
The family had just finished a late morning tea and we quickly moved to the bedroom. A door separating us from the sitting room. I was dumb folded when I saw a black bull enter the sitting room, followed by another and they bellowed and swung their horns, a few men behind them, urging them on. I was just thankful that the room was bare save for a sofa set and coffee table. I was told that this was among the many traditions of honoring a fallen hero.
In as much as my dad embraced his cultural heritage, he was also a staunch Catholic. In his younger days he and my uncle Peter Nyakiamo were headed for the priesthood, however fate had other plans for the two of them! Dad ensured that we had a Christian upbringing. Often he would drive us to church every Sunday whenever he was not abroad on government duties.
My father was a keen photographer and took several family photos especially during the weekends when he loved to invite friends and relatives to our home. I did not know the brilliant man, the politician and Pan Africanist who shared the stage with great world leaders and was acclaimed nationally and internationally. I know the man who was my friend, my mentor, the caring dad who took it upon himself to drive his children to their friend’s parties and later pick them up. The dad who visited me at my boarding school and took me and my friends for picnics. Daddy wrote me several letters full of warmth, love and advice. It would be impossible to put to pen all the wonderful things daddy did for us. Tom Mboya loved his children and family unconditionally. That is the man I celebrate today as I have done all these year!
At Tom Mboya’s home in Rusinga, his mausoleum stands out but what strikes you is the tomb stone belonging to William Scheinman.
Born in a rich Jewish family in New York in 1927, Scheinman later befriended Mboya and his family and helped him with the airlifts of students from East and Central Africa.
“He was in our lives for very many years, helping the family and taking me to college in the US where I did my undergraduate, Masters and doctorate studies,” says Dr Pamela Mboya-Kidero.
He was banned from Kenya after Mboya’s death because he claimed the country’s leadership was responsible and only returned after President Jomo Kenyatta’s death in 1978.
Scheinman spent time with the Mboyas and prayed to be buried next to their father’s grave in Rusinga Island on Lake Victoria.
When he died, the Mboya family attended his funeral in New York, before his body was cremated and the ashes were flown back to Kenya for burial by his son in Rusinga.
“All the Jewish burial rights were conducted there before he was buried next to our father at the mausoleum according to his wishes,” Susan says.
It is such an unlikely pairing, that a son from a very rich family in New York now lies next to that of a boy who grew up in a labourer’s house at a sisal estate in Kilimabogo.
“He was in our lives to the very end and that is why we gave him Mboya’s letters to take to Stanford University’s Hoover Library for preservation,” Susan says.
He wanted Mboya’s children to study in the US but two went to the United Kingdom because they wanted to study Common law.
Susan recounts how Scheinman used to take her out for meals while she was studying in the USA and fly her to London during holidays to see her sister and brother.
“During break, we would fly to London where my sister was and stay in very fancy hotels where we ordered anything we wanted. He really spoiled us a lot,” Susan says, adding they felt their father’s presence through his friends and family.
Mboya’s children are grateful that they were taught good values by uncles and aunties. Susan, who works with young girls says it is easier for children to grow up now because society has role models.
She plans to make her father’s mausoleum a scholar’s monument, where students can learn about independence heroes.
“People go there but there is not enough to see. I want them to have half a day or full day there with a place where they can have lectures and learn the culture.
Tom Mboya’s family was young when he was felled by an assassin’s bullet.
His eldest child was nine-years-old, and does not remember much apart from the fact that they were relocated from their home in Lavington to Odero Jowi’s house in Spring Valley to keep them away from the trauma.
“We stayed there for some time, because they were very good family friends and their kids were our age-mates,” Dr Susan Mboya-Kidero says.
Susan only came to realise what had happened when she read an abandoned newspaper bearing anniversary stories. “I kept hearing the word assassination, but I didn’t really know what it meant. I had been told my father was assassinated. I heard it a lot, but I did not really know what it was,” she says.
She later realised that the country honours their father, although the current generation does not because they do not understand his place in history.
Susan says her father was not tribal, a factor she attributes to his upbringing in Rusinga, Ukambani, Mangu and Nairobi.
“It is not that he was not proud of his heritage, he was a Luo and had no apologies for that. He went beyond tribe and was there for the country and wanted the people to succeed but was smart enough to see that they could not succeed on their own,” she says.
There were many things in Mboya’s house that had historical importance that the children never knew, and used to break them but their mother tried her best to preserve valuable items.
“There was a large monographed China dining set that he brought and only used when entertaining special guests that the boys and girls also used to break all the time,” Susan says.
He had a large library at his home and all the children have replicated that in their homes. Mboya also had a set of silver cutlery which his wife made the children polish once a month. Susan recounts how she discovered they were a treasure: “We hated the forks, knives, plates and other utensils that were kept in a very old wooden box because of the chores but one day I saw a plank at the bottom of the box written, ‘on the occasion of your wedding from the Kabaka of Uganda’ and that struck me.”
The family forgave Mboya’s killers and are focusing on making the world a better place. “I am interested in preserving his legacy and doing what I can for the next generation like my Zawadi Africa project through which I have assisted many young girls to study abroad,” she says.
When the five Mboya children were growing up under the strict guidance of their mother
Pamela Mboya who had no qualms spanking or pinching them for truancy, they used to
see hundreds of boxes neatly packed in their garage.
In the boxes were hundreds of files, whose significance they did not know but dared
not mess around with them lest they taste the wrath of their mother.
“We, like other children used to destroy many things that dad had collected from his
travels around the world because we did not know their value until we became adults
but the letters were safely stored in the boxes,” says Dr Susan Mboya-Kidero.
It was only later that they learned their father had written and received thousands of letters from friends who were mostly based in the US. The letters addressed issues touching on governance in Africa, human and workers rights and raising funds for scholarship opportunities in the US. Mboya was a man who did not let any opportunity pass and he did exactly that, during his worldwide travels, creating contacts that he later used to raise funds and take hundreds of Kenyan students to study in America.
The man from Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria detested tribalism and would have been
pained to witness negative ethnicity and tribal killings that rock the country every
Mboya argued that the colonial powers and missionaries used tribalism as a tool for
divide and rule.
“When a leader feels weak on the national platform, he begins to calculate that the only support he may have will come from his tribe,” argued Mboya. His weapon against negative tribalism was education and the trade union movement. That was why he came up with the idea of the airlifts through which he raised money for students from Kenya and East and Central Africa to get scholarships in the US. That was the subject covered in many of the over 2,000 letters he wrote to the likes of William Scheinman, a longtime friend and a young philanthropist from a rich family in California.
The American, who was three years older than Mboya died in 1999, but that was after
collecting all the letters and safely depositing them at the Hoover Library, Stanford
The Hoover Institution Library and Archives website announced the opening of the papers
that “highlight the collection of rich correspondence between Scheinman and Mboya, which
contains hundreds of letters, beginning in 1957 and ending only with Mboya’s untimely
death from an assassin’s bullet in 1969.
In 1957 and 1958, Scheinman paid out of his own pocket for 50 students to fly from Kenya to the US but in 1959 they founded the African American Students Foundation based in New York which raised money to charter flights for students from the region.
The first charter flew 81 students, including Pamela Odede who
came back two years later with a degree in sociology, and got married to Mboya in January 1962.
Although many complains later emerged over the airlifts which made many politicians jittery and
suspicious of Mboya, some leaders in the region complained that it was only serving Kenyans.
Since all students in the first flight came from Kenya, the foundation broadened its representation of African leaders, bringing Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda and Joshua Nkomo on the Board as directors and sending 295 and 322 students in 1961 and 62 in the enlarged programmes.
The enormity of those airlifts was only realised years later after Mboya had died when most beneficiaries like the late Prof Wangari Maathai, a nobel laureate, emerged to champion noble causes for the society. Although Mboya meant well in ensuring Kenyan students got good education in the US, suspicion mounted as he was accused by politicians who would later become Jomo Kenyatta allies, of being too close to the Americans.
“There was apparent antagonism against me and it was said that during the London talks the Press had given me a lot of prominence and when we went to Kiambu, youth organised by some leaders accused me of being too close to the United States because of my connection to the students airlift,” wrote Mboya. Even in the trade union movement, his allies started rebelling against him among them his Deputy Arthur Ochwada who set up the Kenya Trade Unions Congress, then his former allies Dennis Akumu and Ochola Mak’Anyengo who also accused him of aligning with the west against the non-aligned position of African leaders.
“He was worried about his security as anyone else in those days and sometimes wore bullet proof vests and some friends had wanted his security increased but he felt that what he had was adequate. But he could have rattled some fellows,” says Susan. During his official and unofficial business trips, Mboya met Harry Belafonte who helped him champion the airlifts campaign. “They corresponded a lot and there was a lot of exchange of ideas. You could almost see how policy was formed through exchange of ideas and Belafonte used to come to our house and sing to us when we were growing up,” says Susan.
Mboya wrote to the likes of Martin Luther King, asking questions and giving his opinion and debating issues. Susan is planning to publish a book about the letters so that Kenyans can also access them in libraries and bookshops. With about 2005 letters that were donated to the Hoover Library at Stanford University, she intends to put together a volume that will also be used by historians and students interested in studying Mboya’s opinions and thoughts.
The Hoover library has preserved them and made them available to scholars all over the world and anybody can get them online. The library unveiled correspondence between the Kenyan independence leader and the American philanthropist who was responsible for helping educate hundreds of Kenyans including Barack Obama Sr, whose son became US President. Coincidentally Obama Sr was the last person Mboya met on his way to a chemist along Tom Mboya road before he was killed. “He was in a very jovial mood,” Obama is reported to have told the trial judge.