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The Jomo Kenyatta who read water meters, ran a pub and got broke in London

By Standard Reporter | August 21st 2020 at 21:50:00 GMT +0300

Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, as the president was respectfully addressed, meets wananchi. [Archive, Standard]

On an account of his poor grades, missionary teachers at the Thogoto Church of Scotland Mission Station thought Kamau wa Ngengi, who was born in Ng’enda, Gatundu, in the early 1890s, didn't have a future beyond masonry.

He defied them and became the first President of Kenya, a feat his son, Uhuru, would repeat five decades later.

Kenya’s official history keeps citizens ignorant of the real Jomo Kenyatta, a titan who died 42 years ago this date.

 This, by masking the nuances of his life, therefore, denying citizens a chance to sample the strengths and foibles of the statesman in equal measure.

Below, certain things you may know about Kenya's first president.

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In 1914 missionaries wanted him baptised as John Peter Kamau but he defied them and added “stone” to the John hence Johnstone Kamau, Kenyatta’s early name.

Johnstone Kamau escaped to Narok to avoid conscription into the King's African Rifles (colonial army) to fight in World War 1 against the Germans or the Japanese in the swamps of Burma.

In Narok, he landed a clerical job in a ranch.

He would be nicknamed Kinyatta, after kinyatta — the beaded Maasai belt you see him in his early photographs. Kinyatta would later become Kenyatta.

By 1921, Kenyatta was a swashbuckling water-meter reader gallivanting about Nairobi on a motorbike.

He would get himself a wife, Grace Wahu, then a student at the Church Missionary Society girls' school in Kabete whom he wished to wed in "privacy" to avoid paying dowry.

Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and a future president called Uhuru. [Standard Archives]

Not amused, the Thogoto clergy accused him of "committing a sin with a girl whom he is buying as a wife, and as a result of which she is with child," writes Kenyatta’s biographer James Murray-Brown, quoting church documents.

The church was also concerned with Kenyatta’s drinking. But what did it expect of a man who ran Kinyatta Stores at Dangoretti where he sold alcohol to broke Europeans and Asians? Never mind some archaic colonial statute barred Africans from selling, let alone drinking bottled beer.

 For his iniquities, Kenyatta was suspended from receiving the Holy Communion, ex-communicated and strongly advised to live with Wahu, only after getting legally-married.

Murray-Brown writes Kenyatta agreed to a customary wedding but refused to quit the bottle.

The missionaries even refused to recommend him for a job.

Later as a wage collection clerk, Kenyatta earned Sh250 taking home more than European clerks, he would built a hut for Wahu and their firstborn son, Peter Muigai, a former MP for Juja who died in 1979.

Murray-Brown writes, “The hut doubled as a shop, which he called Kinyatta Stores, a "rickety place of fun never before seen in Kikuyuland". It was the port of call for Goans and broke Europeans who patronised it for shots of Nubian gin [chang’aa], music and women.

Until 1926, Kenyatta showed no political inclinations until Joseph Kang'ethe, the then secretary-general of the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) urged him to join KCA because of his command of English. He obliged.

John Cook, the Thika colonial water engineer would now fire the radicalised wage collection clerk water meter reader after Kenyatta became the editor of Muiguithania, (The Reconciler), the association's mouthpiece.

Missionaries in Thogoto thought Kenyatta was destined to a carpenter or a mason but they were reading him wrong. [Standard Archives]

When Harry Thuku, the KCA chairman which was agitating for political rights, was arrested and detained in Kismayu, Kenyatta found himself in Mombasa boarding the Bernadio de St Pierre, a French liner to London where he took up residence at 57 Castletown Road in 1929.

 The aim was to present Kikuyu land grievances to the British Secretary of State.

In London, Kenyatta wrote several letters and articles on colonial injustice, one of them read: "The natives of the colony are showing their determination not to submit to the outrageous tyranny which has been their lot since the British robbers stole their land and discontent will remain until they govern themselves”.

In London, Kenyatta could not afford rent. Handley Hooper, a missionary in England wrote of him, "...It’s tragic. He started fairly well, but his recent behaviour, if known, would discredit him with any British government and damn the association...I advise the association (KCA) to drop him and cut their losses."

McGregor Ross, the director of public works in Kenya in 1905, wrote: "He is ruining his pathetic landlady. When she gives him notice, he bursts into a flood of tears and sits tight as before. He must surely owe her £150 or £180 by now. Too bad." Ross later offered him accommodation.

In 1930 Kenyatta was back to Kenya where he disagreed with the church when he refused to support a ban on female circumcision, reasoning that it could only disappear with universal education.

In 1931 he left for London with teacher Parmenas Mackerie Githendu to present KCA’s views to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the closer union of the East African Federation. London denied him audience but listened to settlers and Senior Chief Koinange.

The British government ordered him back to Kenya, but Kenyatta found his way to Germany in the company of his girlfriend, Connie McGregor, and the Marxist George Padmore after whom a road is named in Nairobi.

He would end up in Moscow where he enrolled at the Revolutionary Institute and Moscow University coming back to Kenya after 15 years in 1946. But, he never professed to be a communist unlike his first Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Raila’s father.

In Europe, a broke Kenyatta sold stamps and even acted in the movie Sanders of the River as a minor character.

He read Anthropology in 1934 at the University College, London, wrote Facing Mount Kenya, moved to Storrington, West Sussex and married Edna Grace Clark in 1942.

Their son Peter Magana, born in 1943, would become a BBC director of programs. Edna died in 1995.


Jomo Kenyatta Death Anniversary
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