Why Kenyatta family remains magnetic amid Mt Kenya rivalry

Former President Uhuru Kenyatta. Backgroud, Kenyatta family Gatundu home. [File, Standard]

The recent clemency petition to Mama Ngina Kenyatta by none other than today’s high-ranking politico and government official from Mt Kenya region, Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, has reinforced myths around the family of Kenya’s first head of state, Jomo Kenyatta.

If you happen to hail from the region and interact with people who are in their 60s, you will hear weird stories about the founding father and his family.

Other than his political contributions that led to Kenya gaining its independence, there are mythical stories told about his leadership and to an extent his family - that have not left out his son, Uhuru Kenyatta, who ended up the country’s fourth president.

Other than the baby boomer generation that lived through his era as president, several authors have captured myths around Mzee Kenyatta beginning with the reverence and adoration he attracted to being treated like a semi-god within the Agikuyu community.

Some regarded him as ‘a black Moses’, a feeling that has spread to his family which could explain why the Mt Kenya region was quick to stand with Uhuru in 2013 allowing him to clinch the presidency.

In Lee Njiru’s President’s Pressman - a Memoir, the longest-serving scribe at the presidency in Kenya’s history shares the myths that his Embu natives had about Mzee Kenyatta. One was that he was not an ordinary man and that his tongue was hairy. The other was that his eyes were smoldered like fire, and were on his forehead.

“The other one was that he could read people’s minds. This belief by Kenyans emanated from Kenyatta’s assertion that he had used magic spells, magnetic and hypnotising power to successfully woo women, the confession contained in his seminal booklet Facing Mt Kenya,” Njiru writes in his memoir.

He said the Agikuyu grew up holding Kenyatta whom many had not seen in great awe. And that “he was a veritable bogeyman until I met him physically.”

When Njiru received orders to report to Nakuru State House to start working as Mzee Kenyatta’s press officer, he trembled. The fear emanated from the frightening stories he had heard about him. Njiru was forced to deploy his wife on a journey to Runyenjes in Embu to ask his mother to pray for him as he appeared before Kenyatta.

Njiru claims Kenyatta was regarded as a deified god, and that he had acquired great charisma through the creation of a cult-like fetish around his personality.

“Like Adolf Hitler, he had deliberately nurtured the status of an infallible superman until Kenyans willingly accepted the outrageous estimation and glorification of himself,” Njiru wrote in his book.

Kikuyu Council of Elders (KCE) chairman Wachira Kiago told The Standard that there exist families in the Agikuyu community with ‘seers and leadership genes’. He says the “Kenyatta family is one of them.”

Kiago delves into the Agikuyu myths of children born holding special seeds known as ‘mbugu’ who thereafter become leaders or seers with their families producing kings (athamaki).

‘’It is not by sheer luck that one family has produced two presidents of the country. It is not by coincidence that it took people to surrender their position for the two to ascend to Parliament. This is why as elders, we believe the Kenyatta family is not just an ordinary family,” Kiago said in a phone interview.

The KCE chairman was juxtaposing Mzee Kenyatta and his son Uhuru’s journey into politics where both had sitting MPs give room for them.

In Jomo’s case, it took Senior Chief Njiiri wa Karanja’s son Kariuki Njiiri to vacate his Legislative Council (Legco) seat for him in 1961. Jomo had just been released from prison and, therefore, had no political office yet he needed one to qualify to attend the Lancaster talks.

On his part, Uhuru had the second President Daniel Moi’s footsoldier Mark Too, popularly known as Bwana Dawa, to surrender his position of nominated MP in 1997. It has been said that the emissary of that deal was Kenya’s current president William Ruto, then a greenhorn in Parliament but a strategic political operative for the then-ruling party, Kanu.

Mama Ngina Kenyatta. [File, Standard]

In Mzee Kenyatta’s Facing Mt Kenya, which was published in London in 1938, he described himself as the grandson of an apprentice to a witch doctor. That he was a great believer in mysticism, black and white, a revelation that could resonate with Elder Kiago’s claims of chosen families.

In magical and medical practices, Mzee Kenyatta explained in his book the 11 types of magic; charm and protective magic used to protect against danger, assuring security against animals and other harmful entities.

He cited the suffering businessman “at once consults his magician, demands the matter be looked into and he be supplied a powerful magical substance to counteract magic against him.”

“If his client is a victim, he is given a magical substance “to entice customers and to turn them away from his competitor,” reads parts of the book

According to the book, hate or despising magic is also used to destroy friendships between individuals or groups.

“If someone hampers a man in gaining affection — not only love — but also wider goodwill, he turns to magic. He at once seeks the power of the Monuunga tree to assist him in gaining desired affection ... he first smashes the existing friendship. After he succeeds in [removing] his rival, he cultivates the desired friendship.”

When Kenyatta died on August 22, 1978, a wave of shock, uncertainty, disbelief and grief engulfed the country with a claim emerging that a dark cloud had appeared in broad daylight.

Former Gatanga MP Nduati Ngugi was a teenager and claims he witnessed darkness for two hours.

 “People huddled in groups of three, four and five speaking in low tones when we received the sad news that day before retreating to their homes. So revered was Mzee Kenyatta that we could not see Kenya without him,” the former MP said.

Although the former MP believes the Kenyatta family was blessed with leadership, he attributes their influence to its gigantic contributions to the economy of the country and Mzee Kenyatta’s ability to amass wealth during the post-colonial era.

“Most of the people were illiterate while Mzee Kenyatta had gone to school. He spoke fluent English. That led people across the country to register their allegiance and loyalty to Kenyatta,” Ngugi said.

Fast-forward to 2017 during Kenya’s electioneering period. Kenyatta’s son, then a sitting president, attracted claims around the Mt Kenya region of possessing mythical powers when he, on January 2, 2017, prayed for rain. He was in Nyeri and soon after the skies opened.

In Kikuyu dialect - Nyeri being largely the community’s zone - the former President prayed after the crowd demanded, appealing to God to send rain, due to the ongoing drought in the country.

 “Ngai witu nitwakuhoya utuhe thayo bururini witu (Our God, we pray, give us peace in our country), give us rain so that our animals can get something to eat, our land be productive, we eat and get strength…” Uhuru said only for the rains to pour after three minutes.

The issue remained a hot topic up to the 2022 General Election when it was washed away by some who bear great dislike for the family and had fallen into the Kenyatta phobia narrative. That narrative swayed the masses against the family, especially because the formidable Kenya Kwanza Alliance had fronted the hustler versus dynasty narrative.

Kungu Muigai, a member of the Kenyatta family, confirmed to The Sunday Standard that the family believes in the traditions of ‘seers’ and that he is actually named after his grandfather who was the family’s seer. 

“It is true that the seers reign in our family. My grandfather whom I’m named after, Kungu Magana, was a great seer whose reputation grew so much that Waiyaki Wa Hinga, the Agikuyu chieftain, summoned him to live with him at Thogoto and that is how our family went to school thanks to missionaries,” said the Kenya Cultural Centre Council chairman.  

He claimed that at one point, his grandfather ‘prayed for rain in the Akamba community’ after which he was held by the community for 12 years. The Akamba gave him two wives, says Kung’u, which is why the Kenyatta clan has people with names from the Akamba community. 

The Kenyattas’ influence was thought to have come to an end after President William Ruto, his Deputy Rigathi Gachagua and their lieutenants presented the family as the oppressors of the Kikuyu community accusing them of disinheriting Mau Mau freedom fighters despite shedding blood in the fight for the country’s independence.

The narrative proved to be a silver bullet to all those who refused to associate with the family in the run-up to the 2022 General Election.

But barely two years later, the talk of the Kenyattas’ influence is back around the Mt Kenya region and the country. It started with Uhuru’s birthday celebrations last year followed by Gachagua’s “Mama forgive us call” following what he himself described as the insults thrown at the former First Lady Mama Ngina Kenyatta, mother to Uhuru, during the campaign period.

On October 26 last year when Uhuru was celebrating his 62th birthday, locals celebrated him in various parts of the Mt Kenya region and asked for an apology for the political excesses meted upon him at the height of electioneering last year.

The celebrations were held in Jubilee headquarters, Gatundu South town market, Nyeri town, Thika Road, Githunguri, Kenol, Githurai, Muranga town and in Molo where locals hailed the former President for his ‘outstanding performance when he was the President for ten years.

On March 25, Gachagua emotionally sought forgiveness from Mama Ngina over the Kenya Kwanza’s political transgressions against her family. Mama Ngina has, however, remained quiet as she has been for the last over 40 years since Jomo died in power.

 “I tender our apologies to Mama Ngina and ask her to forgive us just like her children. It was political bad manners and it shall not happen again. We lacked respect for her and it is regrettable,” Gachagua said in a Kameme tv and radio morning show.

Political pundit Charles Njoroge thinks different though. He told The Sunday Standard that there is nothing special about the Kenyatta family save for the fact that it produced the first president and amassed vast wealth. He believes such fortunes attract automatic adoration and respect in society.