MP's colourful, yet unremarkable past

One of the most remarkable people to come out of the old Meru County is Bernard Mate, represented the vast area known as Central Province in colonial times.

It comprised what is today Meru, Tharaka Nithi, Embu, Kirinyaga, Nyeri, Murang’a, Kiambu and Laikipia counties.

Mate represented the area in the Legislative Council after beating formidable opponents such as Eliud Mathu and Jeremiah Nyagah in 1957 when Africans were first allowed to participate in elective politics.

But Mate is in danger of disappearing from public memory.

He was a man of great contradictions and besides being blessed with a fine mind and receiving a missionary education that took him to the pinnacles of learning, he died uncelebrated, and  in virtual penury in 1994.

A graduate of Makerere and Edinburgh in Scotland, where he rubbed shoulders with the greats of Africa’s struggle against colonialism, he was the first person in greater Meru to earn a university degree.

He should also have been the natural people’s choice as MP for Meru South constituency in the first General Election after independence except that in the view of the majority in that area, he chose the wrong company.

The 1963 elections were contested by the two main political parties of the time, the Kenya African National Union and Kenya African Democratic Union.

While most people in Meru favoured the Kanu of Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga, Mate chose to campaign under the banner of Kadu associated with Ronald Ngala and Daniel arap Moi.

It came as no surprise when he was trounced by a “mere” teacher, Simon Kamunde.

But true to form, his campaign was not without colour and controversy.

While Kenyatta’s national rallying call was Uhuru na kazi, Mate’s in Meru was Uhuru na ntharano, meaning independence and grabbing.

As fate would have it, he got into Parliament through a by-election after Kamunde died in a road accident in 1966.

In 1969, he was beaten by an unlikely adversary, a former councillor known as Elias “Rwigi” Marete whom he beat in the 1974 elections. In 1979, he lost for the last time. An unconfirmed rumour in Meru holds that Mate has the dubious distinction as the only MP to ever to be incontinent on the floor of the House, and when asked by an shocked Speaker Humphrey Slade to explain his actions, he answered that he thought he was in Meru where people were at that time forced to relieve themselves in their houses for fear of Shifta bandits.

According to his admirers, his action was the inspired political statement of a genius — to his detractors, however, the man was so drunk he probably was unaware of his surroundings. It was not the sort of thing that a press that the State kept on a pretty short leash would report.

However, one day I was going through the records at the Standard Group’s library when I came across a colour piece on the man who was in the habit of breaking into a drunken chant of Chogoria, Chogoria right in the middle of an important debate.

Chogoria was his rural home.

I was once favoured with the chant when I found him in his cups, dozing alone at a table in a joint known as Kirinyaga Bar and Restaurant in the River Road area. It was frequented by people from Meru.

“Habari mheshimiwa,” I politely said. “Chogoria, Chogoria,” he responded and promptly dozed off again.

I have even older memories who defined the early politics of my constituency.

As a primary school pupil in the 1960s, I was going to school early one morning when I found a car with the “MP” sticker parked under a tree at Igoji market.

In deep slumber in the driver’s seat was our MP, probably sleeping off the excesses of the night before. After leaving Parliament he went back to teaching but it was clear to all that his colourful days lay in the past.